Students rally for reinstatement of African American studies professor

Travis Harris' former students met Thursday to discuss plans for their professor's reinstatement. Photo by Katharine DeRosa

Katharine DeRosa, Contributing Writer

A group of 10 students sat in former assistant professor Travis Harris’ old classroom on Thursday during their former class meeting time to discuss their plans to push for his reinstatement.

Harris’ former students said they felt neglected by VCU and the chair of the African American studies department, Shawn Utsey, because they refused to make a statement on why Harris was removed.

Harris was removed from teaching African American studies classes AFAM 111 and 211 on Oct. 29. VCU spokesperson Mike Porter said in an email he could not comment on Harris’ removal because it was a personnel matter.

In an email, Harris said his removal was a result of three verbal complaints, and none were made in writing.

One of the complaints Harris cited was the live streaming of lectures that included his students’ faces. He said two other complaints were from changing the syllabus by adding a grading rubric, and teaching topics that a student said were uncomfortable.

He expressed disappointment and frustration with being removed from the classroom.

“I worked years to get to this point, and it was taken away in a moment,” Harris said. “Why? Why should I be treated this way?”

Harris said VCU has a problem retaining black faculty members, and “after three complaints, they are going to get rid of another one.”

After Harris’ former students refused to continue the class with a substitute professor, they were given three options in an email sent by Utsey:

  • To accept their current grade in the course as a final grade
  • To complete the final assignment based on the information discussed in class thus far with the option to have Harris or a neutral party review the work
  • To withdraw

Dani Short, a junior international studies major and Africana studies minor, said she was unhappy with the lack of information given on Harris’ removal.

“It’s feeling intentionally very vague,” Short said. “So we are trying to get a little bit more transparency in the situation.”

The students said they haven’t had contact with Harris, and Short said there were things that Harris could and could not share with them.

The students said they admired Harris’ dedication to the classroom and told a story about how he taught via Skype a few weeks ago while his wife was in the delivery room.

“It really highlights how much he cares about us,” said Sierra Webb, a senior sociology and gender studies double major.

According to the students, Harris was energetic starting the first day of class.

Webb said he wore all black and told his students, “this is going to be the blackest class you ever take.”

In Harris’ email, he detailed the way his life has changed since his removal from the classroom.

“As a result of this situation, my entire life has been turned upside down,” Harris said. “My appetite is off and at any moment, I can burst into tears.”

When Utsey delivered the news of Harris’ removal to the class a few weeks ago, the students said he was surprised by their passion for Harris and his teaching, and that he tried to solicit negative feedback from Harris’ other class when he broke the news to them.

According to a Twitter post made by Korie Roane, a senior psychology major, Harris was wrongfully removed and “has done nothing illegal or that warrants filing.”

The post continues to say that his classes for spring semester have been canceled. Harris is not listed as teaching any classes in the spring, according to eServices’ course lookup tool.

Roane has been active on Twitter regarding the situation. She created a thread of tweets detailing her opinions on Harris’ removal.

“We all need to stand in solidarity so this isn’t just another displaced black man,” Roane said in a tweet.

The students referenced coerced agency, a topic that Harris taught in class. In sociology, agency refers to a person’s ability to act on their own will. Webb said coerced agency is the idea that black people must “choose” between multiple situations that will hurt black communities, but the choice is not truly theirs to make.

“You exist under a system of oppression, dispersion and coercion that is long ingrained in our society,” said Becca Dyson, a senior sociology major and Africana studies minor.

The group members said they feel the options Ustey gave them were coerced and not what they wanted.

“It wasn’t about one less class, it was about getting our professor back,” Roane said.

The group’s goal is to contact the university for a formal statement, Short said, and to “gain transparency” as to the policies governing Harris’ removal.

If a statement is not provided by the university, the group said they would prepare to enact civil disobedience, possibly in the form of a sit-in.

Harris’ webpage can still be found at afam.vcu.edu and describes him as “one of the leading scholars in Hip Hop Studies.” The webpage also discusses his work to “overthrow white supremacy” and to “ensure that those ‘from the bottom’ are not forgotten.”

3 Comments

  1. I had the honor of having Professor Harris as a TA last semester at William and Mary. He is truly an incredible scholar and person who has the power to revolutionize the academy. All power to his current students and let us know what we can do at William & Mary to help fight this.

    • I also had the honor of having Professor Harris as a TA last semester and as a guest in another one of my classes at William & Mary. He was a passionate, engaging, kind, understanding person and teacher of mine, and I know that he was all of that and more for his students at VCU. Professor Harris has worked unbelievably hard for the position that he earned as a college professor teaching what he is most passionate about. And every bit of his passion inspired me more than anyone before to continue to learn about hip-hop, music as a whole, societal injustices, and how to actively work for equality of all people in every aspect of life. I stand with Professor Harris’s students at VCU, his students from William & Mary, and all of his family and friends who know him to be the extraordinary person he is. And if the people in power at VCU stand by their decision and allow ignorance and injustice to rule them, then they are the ones truly missing out. Professor Harris deserves better than that. And I know that he will continue to teach and enlighten and inspire people no matter what because he has a gift and a passion that cannot be extinguished.

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