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The University of Virginia last week reversed its negative tenure decision concerning Paul Harris, an assistant professor of human services who studies identity development in Black male student athletes and underrepresented students' college readiness. Harris, who is Black, appealed the tenure denial earlier this year, citing procedural errors. His supporters alleged possible racial bias on the part of the all-white tenure committee that evaluated him. The new, positive recommendation, backed by Harris’s dean and provost, was sent on to the university’s Board of Visitors for formal approval.

Harris said Friday that he is “so grateful for every person who took time in the middle of a pandemic and their own personal challenges to support me in my tenure appeal,” and that he and his family are working to heal from the events of the past seven months, since the initial denial. “I'm hopeful that the light shed on my case will help decrease the likelihood that others will go through what I did unnecessarily,” he added.

Brian Coy, UVA spokesperson, confirmed the reversal concerning Harris. Coy shared a memo from Dean Bob Pianta to the faculty at the Curry School of Education and Human Development, about what the unit had learned from last year's promotion and tenure process -- including Harris’s case. Pianta wrote, “One realization for me was the importance of our reviews reflecting a broad view of scholarly impact, particularly in emerging fields. I also gained a deeper understanding of the impact of community-engaged scholarship, particularly when involved with questions of relevance to marginalized groups, and the important role that community-engaged scholarship plays in describing, identifying, and elevating assets of such groups.”

Questions about the "representativeness" of Harris's research and data emerged only late in his tenure process, a critique with which scholars doing work on marginalized populations say they are all too familiar.

Hinting at possible lasting change in how Curry evaluates scholars for tenure, Pianta wrote, “For scholarship having an equity focus, in which many of our faculty engage, these perspectives seem even more valuable. As a consequence, I have begun to consider the effects of the changing shape of the publication landscape and the extent to which traditional indicators, such as impact factors and citation counts, may be more or less relevant for some fields than others.”

Provost Liz Magill said in a separate statement that she was “happy to support Dean Pianta’s decision to review Professor Paul Harris’ appeal and grant him tenure based on the additional information he provided.” Harris “is an excellent educator and UVA is fortunate to have him,” she said.

Engineer Tolu Odumosu, a fellow Black assistant professor at UVA who is appealing his own tenure denial within UVA’s School of Engineering and Applied Science on similar grounds, said that his case is still under review by a Faculty Senate grievance committee (Harris’s case was sent back to the Curry School’s promotion and tenure committee). He said he was “sincerely delighted” to hear of Harris’s success.

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