UVA professor, supporters question role of race in decision to deny tenure

Assistant professor Paul Harris walks in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
Assistant professor Paul Harris walks in front of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.(NBC29)
Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 3:21 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - An education professor is challenging the University of Virginia’s decision to deny him tenure. Former students, faculty colleagues, and academics across the country are questioning if race played a role in Paul Harris’ rejected appointment.

Harris is an assistant professor of school counseling at the Curry School of Education and Human Development. He returned to his alma mater, UVA, in 2011.

“To come back and be for the students here what my faculty and mentors were for me as a student,” Harris said.

Harris started on the tenure track in 2014. His research focuses on college and career readiness for Black males and Black male athletes.

“It’s about researching, creating studies and collaborating with others to collect data related to that interest in particular, and then publishing about it, presenting about it at national conferences,” Harris said.

Harris thought he was doing everything right over five years to receive tenure at UVA, and says he had great reviews. Then, the Curry School’s dean delivered the decision to deny tenure.

“It was shocking. I was blindsided. It was hard,” Harris said.

Harris says an all-white review committee reached the conclusion.

“Race has always been a factor of my lived experience, so it’s not even for me a question of if it’s a factor, it’s how,” Harris said.

A letter explaining the decision questions the “quality” and “limited reach” of the journals publishing Harris’s research. It describes the peer-reviewed “Journal of African American Males in Education” as appearing to be “self-published”. Harris claims the committee also deeply under-counted citations of his work.

“Patently false claims, very misleading information, what I thought were egregious errors as it related to evaluating my case in context of my field and the impact I’ve had within that field,” Harris said.

The university says it cannot release specific information about any tenure case, because it’s a personnel matter. UVA also rejected NBC29′s request to release specific demographics by race of faculty members who apply for, are granted, or denied tenure, saying that information could identify a faculty member.

A UVA spokesperson writes in a statement: “Promoting and expanding the diversity of our faculty, students and staff is a central element of the university’s plan to strengthen how we educate students, conduct research and care for patients now and into the future. The university is committed to a fair, impartial and objective review to assess each tenure applicant’s contribution to research, teaching, and service at the university. Given that the tenure process is a personnel matter I am unable to speak to the specifics of any particular case.”

UVA’s Diversity Dashboard shows just 3.67% of faculty are African American. That hasn’t really changed in the past decade. It’s below the national average of 6%.

“This is a system-wide problem. UVA is not unique,” Montclair State University Associate Professor Patricia Matthew said.

Matthew shares Harris’ experience of denied tenure., and has written a research book about it: “Written-Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure”.

“They’re facing a couple of biases going in,” Matthew said of African Americans seeking tenure. “They really are getting through on hard work, intelligence, careful planning, resilience, and an ability to make do with a little bit, so that bar is a lot higher to begin with.”

Matthew says universities have an opportunity with tenure to prove their obligations to equity and inclusion.

“Black faculty have an essential role to play in those visions, and it’s up to institutional leaders to do the right thing,” Matthew said.

Support is pouring in behind Harris’s appeal to the Faculty Senate Grievance Committee. Thousands of Harris’ former students, faculty colleagues, and community members are signing on to a letter demanding “Tenure for Paul”. The Center for Race and Public Education in the South tweeted its support in challenge of its own university.

“This was wrong. This was very wrong, and I think we’re going to show some courage and do what’s right,” Harris said.

Harris is hopeful his decade back home on UVA Grounds won’t end with the memory of marginalization.

“It’s also why we’ve come back, to be a part of the change we know the university can be a leader in, quite honestly, across the country,” Harris said.

Harris expects to learn the committee’s decision in the next few weeks. Ultimately, University of Virginia President Jim Ryan will have the final review of Harris’ tenure.

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