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Curry School professor raises concerns over ‘inconsistent’ tenure evaluation process

Asst. Prof. Paul Harris said there were a litany of errors in his denial of tenure, including no people of color on the Curry School Promotion and Tenure Committee

Prof. Harris says no people of color were involved in the Curry Promotion and Tenure Committee, and to his knowledge, no people of color were involved on the Internal Review Committee.
Prof. Harris says no people of color were involved in the Curry Promotion and Tenure Committee, and to his knowledge, no people of color were involved on the Internal Review Committee.

Assistant Curry School professor Paul Harris had received positive annual reviews since he stepped into a tenure-track position at the University in 2014. By all impressions, he was well on his way to being tenured this year. 

So it came as a shock when he received a negative tenure recommendation from the chair of the promotion and tenure committee. 

In place of tenure, he was offered a promotion to associate professor — a non-tenure track position. 

Harris started his professorial career at the University in 2011, in a non-tenure track capacity, before being converted to a tenure track position in 2014. Although he acknowledged that both non-tenure and tenure track positions are important and respectable, he and his family wanted to lay down their roots in Charlottesville and at the University — where both Harris and his wife earned their degrees. 

“Tenure was always the goal for me,” Harris told The Cavalier Daily. 

When he stepped into the tenure-track position in 2014, Harris received overwhelmingly positive annual reviews with some constructive critique and suggestions — which he followed. 

“Anytime in any job in any role that one is in when you have this formative assessment on a yearly basis, and that formative assessment is positive, anyone who then gets the summative assessment that says the antithesis of what those formative assessments have said, would be shocked, surprised and frustrated,” Harris said. “That was my experience as well.”

That alone, Harris said, is enough to cause concern. However, what he sees as various missteps in the tenure review process contributed even further to what Harris and his supporters find to be an egregious decision on behalf of the University. 

Incorrect information regarding his work “tainted the entire process,” Harris said. 

His case has been shared widely on national news after his wife, a creative nonfiction writer, mentioned his case in an essay in Catapult Magazine titled “Whiteness Can’t Save Us.”

Despite the national attention, Harris said he isn’t scared to speak up. 

“I am aware of the kind of retaliation that could come about from my choosing to speak out and have still chosen to do so,” Harris said. “Because I believe it's the right thing to do, and I believe that I am not just here by myself.”

Missteps in the tenure review process 

Harris’ denial of tenure letter alleges that his original research had only been cited 27 times, citing his Google Scholar page. In reality, Harris had been cited 148 times, based on the same Google Scholar page, at the time. 

The letter also stated that some of Harris’ work appeared to be self-published, referring to an article he had published in the Journal of African American Males — a peer-reviewed journal with a 23 percent acceptance rate. 

Moreover, his denial letter left out considerations of his published work in journals with impact factor — which is used to measure the importance or rank of a journal by calculating the times its articles are cited. Harris said the letter left out several journals in which he was published that did have impact factor. 

Throughout the entire process, Harris asserts that “promotion and tenure policy would very much unpredictably and inconsistently applied across the board.”

Even further, no people of color were involved in the Curry Promotion and Tenure Committee, and to his knowledge, no people of color were involved on the Internal Review Committee. 

In his appeal summary, Harris, who is Black, points out that this circumstance is one in a historic pattern in academia — stating that research “suggests that faculty members of color going up for tenure are judged by higher — or even shifting — standards compared to their white colleagues.” 

At the University, 108 faculty members are Black — comprising just 3.7 percent of the University’s 2,920-person faculty. People of color, more broadly, make up 26 percent of tenure-track or tenured professors. 

University spokesperson Brian Coy declined to comment on Harris’ case, saying that “the tenure process is a personnel matter.”

“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,” Coy said in an email to The Cavalier Daily. 

The appeal 

When Harris appealed the negative recommendation, he didn’t hear back from University Provost Liz Magill for nearly two months. 

He realized the University was in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic, so Harris didn’t follow up on his appeal, which he filed March 9, until April 7. It wasn’t until May 8 that he received an official letter from Magill that his appeal had been denied — that there was not sufficient evidence of procedural errors or bias found in his tenure review.

That, Harris said, worries him. 

“I'm thinking gosh, what would it take?” Harris said. “How blatant and obvious and explicit and and just over the top would it need to be for somebody to say that there is sufficient evidence?”

Since his appeal rejection, Harris’ case has been taken up by the Faculty Grievance Committee, which has yet to reach its verdict. His case also spurred an open letter to Magill, asking for a reversal of the tenure denial — which garnered 4,092 signatures before it was sent to Magill, Curry School Dean Robert Pianta and University President Jim Ryan. 

Harris has received no communication from the University regarding his case, but the Curry School recently announced the formation of an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion — the internal faculty announcement for which didn’t mention Harris. 

“Over the past several months, in considering upcoming priorities for the school, I have reflected on our inclusion and equity work within the School,” Pianta wrote in the email obtained by The Cavalier Daily. “I think it’s fair to say that although we have strong and effective work taking place in some areas, the current status is uneven and in too many ways  — e.g., hiring — not making enough progress.”

Still, Harris said he believed in Ryan’s vision for the University and hopes it will come to fruition. He sees his case as a real example of a space in which racial equity must be addressed. 

“Systems are difficult to change,” Harris said. 

In the open letter penned by Harris’s former students, fellow University community members and other supporters, the authors praised Harris and expressed their dissatisfaction with the tenure process procedure.

“We can attest not only to Dr. Harris’s incredible presence and wisdom that make his scholarship and classes life-changing on personal and professional levels, but also to the incredible value that his personhood and identity as a Black man lend to his role as an educator,” the letter states.

The letter has garnered over 83 pages of signatures in support.

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