Melissa Harris-Perry Tweets About Conflict With WFU

Editor’s note: This article has been updated from its original version.

Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor in the Politics and International Affairs department, continued her criticism of Wake Forest on Twitter this week, noting the drastic increase in tuition of higher education institutions as salaries largely remain constant and how this can impact local communities, such as Winston-Salem. 

Her criticisms began last week when Harris-Perry posted tweets on Jan. 24 about a conflict between her and Wake Forest’s administration. She called out Wake Forest on academic freedom, saying that the university, in an email she received from Provost Rogan Kersh, was looking to close down her research center following a speech in which Harris-Perry questioned the school’s past and current labor practices.

“Academic freedom is truly dead @WakeForest. Two days after a public MLK address where I called into question the university’s labor practices Provost @rtkersh sends an email “inviting” me to eliminate @AJCCenter as a university entity & offering a “goodwill” payoff. #notforsale,” Harris-Perry tweeted.

In her address last Monday at the 39th Annual MLK Noon Hour Commemoration at Union Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, Harris-Perry called out the university for having benefited from slavery. She also said that nobody is questioning the university about its labor practices, especially those of the food-service workers. According to Harris-Perry, the workers are fired every summer and then rehired at the start of the fall semester.

Katie Neal, the assistant vice president of Wake Forest News and Communications, disputed Harris-Perry’s claim in remarks made to the Winston-Salem Journal, saying that food-service employees are hired on either 10- or 12-month terms.

The Anna Julia Cooper Center is a research center that focuses on scholarship about gender, race, and politics. It moved to Wake Forest with Harris-Perry in 2014 after she was its founding director at Tulane University, where the center opened in 2012. At time of publication on Jan. 31, the website for the Anna Julia Cooper Center could not be accessed, as it was listed as a “private site,” despite having been previously accessible.

Harris-Perry’s tweets on Jan. 24 continued, all ending with the hashtag #notforsale. She went on to say in her tweets that she was not given a faculty office this year despite having taught three classes last semester. Harris-Perry also tweeted that she is a “difficult employee” and that she will not be “leaving or staying silent.”

Harris-Perry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A statement given by Wake Forest said, “Her recent comments about the University are misleading and disappointing.”

Provost Rogan Kersh declined to make a further comment. 

On the website for the Politics and International Affairs department, neither office location nor campus phone is listed for Harris-Perry. The chair of the department, Peter Siavelis, said that Harris-Perry is currently being provided with an office that is ready for her to move in to and will be in Kirby along with the other politics professors.

Siavelis also confirmed that Harris-Perry taught three classes last semester — Race, Class, and Social Justice; America’s First Ladies; and Wake the Vote: Midterms Matter — and is team teaching a class —Black Women Activism — this semester with Jessica Stewart. Stewart is a postdoctoral fellow in the Politics and International Affairs department, according to her website, and will become an assistant professor at Emory University in the fall, according to her Twitter account.

This is not the first time that Harris-Perry has been in conflict with members of the university’s administration.

At the end of last semester, Harris-Perry and Siavelis were in conflict over her medical leave and student evaluations in an email exchange obtained by the Old Gold & Black.

Siavelis had emailed her students requesting that they attend a session so that they could fill out course evaluations, as Harris-Perry had recently gone on medical leave. Harris-Perry responded by telling students to disregard Siavelis, who she said was “dimly seeking to be helpful” and has no right to interfere with her courses.

In the same email thread, Siavelis responded telling students to follow his directions, which had the endorsement of the Dean of the College. Harris-Perry replied that she was suspending her medical leave in order to be available to students. In addition to her students from her fall semester classes, other members of the university’s administration, such as Kersh and two faculty members from the Politics and International Affairs department, were copied on the email exchange. 

Siavelis declined to comment on the emails, saying that “the emails speak for themselves.” 

This week’s tweets by Harris-Perry, posted on Jan. 28, focused on the policies and practices of higher education institutions.

Her posts this week begin by saying that while tuition prices have drastically increased, the salaries of professors have remained stagnant, and the salaries of college presidents have increased. Harris-Perry included graphs from sources such as the National Center for Education Statistics and the U.S. Department of Education. In her posts, Harris-Perry said that these patterns are true at Wake Forest, where tuition is costly and President Nathan O. Hatch was one of the highest-paid college presidents in 2015.

In her tweets, Harris-Perry said that communities have a vested interest in holding colleges and universities accountable. She tweeted that Wake Forest and its affiliate hospital are the biggest employer in Winston-Salem and that the “pervasive” 10-month contract for food service employees on campus creates a “working class” akin to that of the “government shutdown.”

She continued her tweets, adding that universities have an obligation to engage in issues of inequality. Harris-Perry also shared sources for more information on this topic, like the Education Trust, ending these tweets with the hashtag #EducationVoices.

Harris-Perry, an alumnus of the university, is nationally known for her political commentary talk show, Melissa Harris-Perry, that ran on MSNBC from 2012 to 2016. She also previously served as the director of the Pro Humanitate Institute. Harris-Perry also leads the Wake the Vote and Reporting Across the Divide programs.