In a series of tweets posted in late January, Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry called out Wake Forest University’s administration for what she claimed was an unfair attack on her as a result of speaking her mind during a recent Martin Luther King Day speech. However, the history between Dr. Harris-Perry and the Wake Forest administration is indeed a drawn-out series of battles which spans far further than a few tweets.
For context, Dr. Harris-Perry has an enduring relationship with Wake Forest University, starting in the fall semester of 1990. Melissa Harris-Perry enrolled at Wake Forest University as an undergraduate student at only 16 years old. In 1994, Dr. Harris-Perry graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.A. in English. Twenty years later, in the spring of 2014, she accepted an offer to return to her alma mater as a chaired professor.
On July 1st, 2014, Professor Harris-Perry officially returned to Wake Forest to begin her career as a presidential chair. At this time, the Anna Julia Cooper (AJC) center arrived to campus with a planning grant from the university, and was later established as a full center under the office of the Provost in July 2015. Additionally, the Pro Humanitate Institute (PHI) was founded by a group of faculty and staff under the leadership of the Provost. Once established, PHI began its search for a faculty director, eventually deciding to name professor Harris-Perry executive director in January 2015. At this time, PHI was located at the Benson Center, a popular hub at the center of campus.
Centers and institutes are reviewed regularly, with institutes falling on a three-year cycle of review. Wake Forest hired an outside consultant in the fall of 2016 to facilitate PHI’s three-year review. Following this review, Professor Harris-Perry was named faculty director of PHI in September 2017, and Marianne Magjuka was named executive director. In January of 2018, Professor Harris-Perry ended all leadership roles at PHI, but remained director of both the Wake the Vote program and the AJC Center.
In June of 2018, the executive director of PHI chose not to extend the lease agreement at 2599 Reynolda Road, more popularly known as the Davis House. With this space becoming available, the Eudaimonia Institute came to an agreement with Wake Forest’s property manager to occupy the Davis house. After PHI and AJC departed from the Davis House to return to Benson, and the AJC Center relocated to a different off-campus location, the EI officially moved into Davis House in July 2018.
In a tweet from January 24th, 2019, Professor Harris-Perry claimed that despite teaching three classes, Wake Forest had “failed to even provide [her] with a faculty office”.
The background of discord surrounding office space, however, is more complex. According to Dr. Harris-Perry, Provost Rogan Kersh offered the AJC center two offices in Worrell Professional Center, Wake Forest’s law and health sciences building, in July of 2018 – contradicting her tweet that claimed the university did not provide her an office. Despite the offer, Dr. Harris-Perry opted for the AJC center to remain in its off-campus location in order to “accommodate the center’s ongoing programmatic needs” which, according to Dr. Harris Perry, “cannot be met in two small private offices.”
She informed the provost of her decision not to accept the office space. Shortly after, Dr. Harris-Perry requested a faculty office in or near the Politics Department in Kirby Hall, a building more centrally located on campus, and where most Politics professors work. According to Dr. Harris-Perry, neither Dean of the College Michele Gillespie nor Provost Kersh responded to the request immediately. Wake Forest Review has learned that during the fall semester, Dr. Harris-Perry and administrators agreed that she could move into the office occupied by Dr. David Coates, who died in August 2018, after his family had an opportunity to collect his belongings. Dr. Harris-Perry apparently suggested a mid-semester office move would be challenging, so they all agreed she could move at the start of the spring semester. She moved into Kirby Hall in February of 2019.
The saga does not end with the question of office space. In September of 2018, Professor Harris-Perry launched the Wake the Vote “Midterms Matter” program using a combination of the existing budget for the AJC center and grant funds from three outside entities. However, on October 26th, the Wake the Vote cohort received a cryptic email. Harris-Perry wrote to her students:
“I am writing to let you know I have no choice but to cancel our long anticipated cohort trip to Georgia this weekend. Further, I am suspending all future Wake the Vote activities for this semester. I genuinely cannot remember making a decision that caused me more difficult[y] relative to teaching. I simply do not have the personal resources to continue to underwrite this program after years of institutional neglect and aggression.”
Provost Kersh and president Nathan Hatch were copied on the email as well. Three reasons were given for the cancellation; the first being a lack of financial resources.
To this end, Dr. Harris-Perry wrote: “The immediate, short term reason I canceled our trip to Georgia is financial. The trip will cost about $3500-$4000. The Anna Julia Cooper Center, which is the current fiscal home of Wake the Vote, DOES HAVE sufficient resources to cover the expenses of this trip. We have this money because I personally wrote grants or gave lectures to secure the money necessary to conduct the Wake the Vote program in 2018.”
“Even though the money is in the AJC Center accounts there is no way for me to access it so that I can pay for the rental vehicle, hotels, and food costs associated with our trip. I have been trying for more than a week to release these funds but I have run into one administrative roadblock after another. Each block has been erected by some policy, individual or software at the university. I cannot say if these roadblocks were accidental or purposefully erected. I can only say they are there.”
“Each time I have appealed to individuals in the administration who might have a solution to accessing these funds I have been told to put the expenses of the entire trip on a personal credit card and then seek reimbursement later. I consider this an appalling response from a wealthy university to any private individual. I am not taking a family vacation; I am overseeing a class of students.”
The second reason given in the email was a lack of institutional support from the university. Harris-Perry noted on this topic that “Wake the Vote has never received much financial or institutional support from Wake Forest University.” During her tenure as director of PHI and AJC, the professor asserted that she “never took (and still do not take) a salary for the role of director even though there is a budget line item for that position. Instead, I reinvested that salary into the programming budget of PHI. In addition, I personally contributed substantial amounts in the form of speaking/ lecture fees to the programming budgets of PHI and the Anna Julia Cooper Center while directing these programs. I was not paid to run Wake the Vote- in fact I contributed money to help make it possible.”
Harris-Perry went on to detail her investments in the program, discussing how she was “contributing more in lecture fees and deferred income” than she took home in salary, even after losing her MSNBC job amidst her public dispute with the network. She went on to say that her commitment to the program was proven by the fact that she “took a media job that [she] truly despised for the sole purpose of ensuring our team had access to the conventions in 2016”, as Wake the Vote did not receive an allocation of University funding. Additionally, she specifies that Wake the Vote did, in fact, have the funds necessary, but the issue was the university blocking access. “[N]o one was willing to make it possible for me to access a few thousand dollars of Wake the Vote’s own money to take Wake the Vote students on a trip to work campaigns and have access to candidates in a historic election just two states away”.
The university told the Wake Forest Review that Harris-Perry’s characterization about her salary and institutional support for Wake the Vote were “misleading and disappointing.” The trip in question took place one week after originally planned, with funds made available through the procedures for such programs.
The final reason stated for termination of the Wake the Vote program was a lack of institutional support in terms of travel and office space. “While I cannot say if the administration is behaving maliciously in its unwillingness to find a solution for our travel; I can be confident about its lack of institutional support,” Harris-Perry explains. “Clearly you noticed our Wake the Vote space this year is far off campus and in a space that I personally provide for our efforts. This means I personally pay to maintain it… no space for our needs was provided on or near campus despite all of the extraordinary work the 2016 cohort did in the Davis House.”
The Wake the Vote program was run as an academic course, and students who were accepted to the program were promised three academic credits as a result of participating in the program. Professor Harris-Perry completed the academic portion of the program, and all students did receive final grades and the credit they were promised.
In January of 2019, Professor Harris-Perry delivered the Martin Luther King Day lecture and wrongly stated that at Wake Forest, food-service workers are fired every summer, and then rehired when the students come back in August. A Wake Forest spokesperson immediately disputed Harris-Perry’s claim, telling the Winston-Salem Journal that evening: “Our dining-service provider hires many employees on either a 12-month or 10-month term based on student demand for on-campus food options during the academic year. It is not accurate to say our dining service staff are fired and re-hired each year.”
Less than 48 hours later, Dr. Harris-Perry received an email response from Provost Kersh as part of an ongoing exchange about the future of the AJC center. According to her, the Provost offered to give university staff time to establish this unaffiliated center, and offered a large financial gift to the AJC center if it is established separately. Upon receiving this email, Dr. Harris-Perry took to Twitter to reveal her sentiments publicly. During the tweet spree, Dr. Harris-Perry called out Wake Forest administration for what she claimed was the unfair attack on her for speaking her mind during a recent Martin Luther King Day speech:
Following the tweets was a flurry of media coverage, including articles picked up in the Daily Wire, Campus Reform, and the Winston-Salem Journal. A university spokesperson responded to all media inquiries, in the same manner, repeatedly saying: “Her recent comments about the university are misleading and disappointing.”
Currently, Professor Harris-Perry is still employed by the university.