As the demand for a better-educated workforce increases, so does the cost of a diploma. Should we re-examine the American system of public post-secondary education, so that tuition could be free?
For the motion: Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor at the U. of Wisconsin-Madison, and Founding Director at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab
Outspoken UW professor Sara Goldrick-Rab says she’s leavingUW-Madison professor Sara Goldrick-Rab is shown with her treat-loving cat, name Pell (as in the college financial aid grant), at her home in Stoughton.
By Karen Herzog of the Journal Sentinel Jan. 21, 2016
UW-Madison’s best-known tweeter, Sara Goldrick-Rab
Madison — It’s a blessing and a curse that the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s best-known tweeter has a battery pack on her smartphone so it never dies.
Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab is always “on” — engaging students, colleagues and the world around her on her smartphone, laptop and iPad. Sometimes, she’s on all three devices at once.
Just 39 years old, she’s at the top of her game professionally. All told, the professor of educational policy studies and sociology has attracted roughly $10 million in federal research dollars. She has influenced higher education policy testifying before Congress, and this week is in Washington discussing her research on a key presidential campaign issue: college access and affordability. On Wednesday, she was at the White House for a meeting about tuition-free community college, which she has long advocated.
It’s no coincidence that her reputation has grown exponentially. @saragoldrickrab has nearly 12,000 Twitter followers across the country. She follows about 9,200 people and has tweeted more than 97,600 times.
I'm told this is a year to be "careful," think "politically," & be "cautious." Nah. That's a time-waster. This is the year to call it out.
— Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) January 5, 2016
Graduate students have come to UW-Madison specifically to study with her, and research partnerships have formed through Twitter connections. She recently was ranked by an Education Week blogger as the 13th most influential university-based scholar in America for her influence on educational policy and public discourse.
But her rapid-fire, outspoken style on Twitter also has launched battles. Five years ago, former Chancellor Biddy Martin temporarily blocked Goldrick-Rab from her Twitter feed after the professor challenged her relentlessly on social media. Last summer, Goldrick-Rab came under fire after saying, “No doubt about it — (Gov. Scott) Walker and many Wisconsin legislators are fascists.” She also searched for incoming freshmen on Twitter and encouraged them to take their money elsewhere because she believed state budget cuts and changes in tenure protections would harm the quality of their education at UW-Madison.
The College Republicans described her behavior as “disgusting and repulsive” and called on the university to address her “ongoing, out-of-line actions.” The controversy spread like the wind on social media. Some tweeters demanded she be fired. Others made derogatory remarks about her Jewish background and even her hair.
She was shocked when the executive committee of the faculty’s governing group issued a withering statement that said she had damaged academic freedom and the university with “inaccurate statements and misrepresentations.” Chancellor Rebecca Blank said she strongly disagreed with Goldrick-Rab’s actions but defended her right to free speech: “Even highly distasteful and controversial opinions are protected by the First Amendment.”
Inequality is perpetuated by the silence of the meek, scared, and ever so-political. I challenge leaders in #highered to be bold & do right.
Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) January 5, 2016
During a recent interview in her Education Building office overlooking Bascom Hill, Goldrick-Rab said she is past the drama that broadsided her last summer. But she still feels the sting of the university’s “covert disapproval” and the physical threats she said she and her research staff received from haters. She also doesn’t enjoy Twitter as much because she feels pressured to self-edit more.
Goldrick-Rab said months ago she would leave UW-Madison if tenure protections were weakened by the UW System Board of Regents. Now, she says she’s considering an outside job offer because she doesn’t trust what pending tenure changes could mean for someone politically unpopular, like her.
“To figure out how much tenure matters, you have to ask yourself about the person who you like that the people in power don’t, and ask yourself how protected they are. Or can somebody get to them?” she said.
Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) January 16, 2016
“I don’t want to be in a place where the unpopular people can’t have a voice. … I don’t want to be in an environment where I’m told that to do my job, I am to ‘sift and winnow,’ but I am told in very covert, quiet, yet clear ways that I am to be quiet. I can’t do that. It’s untenable.”
She considers herself a scholar activist, someone who seeks to translate the findings of rigorous research into action. Goldrick-Rab, who the university reports earns a salary of $96,372, is founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, an applied research laboratory in the Education Building that aims to improve equitable outcomes in postsecondary education.
Anthony Hernandez first connected with Goldrick-Rab on Twitter in 2014. He said he came to UW-Madison last year because he admired her passion for making the world a better place.
Hernandez earned undergraduate and master’s degrees at Harvard and enrolled in UW-Madison’s doctoral Educational Policy Studies program after watching Goldrick-Rab advocate for justice and spearhead an effort through Twitter to raise college tuition money for the siblings of Michael Brown after he was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo.
Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) August 15, 2014
“The way she was acting was not about pontificating or producing abstract research, but she was actively engaged in the effort to bring about real-world solutions that would make a positive difference in the lives of people on the periphery of society,” Hernandez recalled.
Haves and have-nots
Goldrick-Rab grew up in a “middle, middle class family” inside the Beltway in northern Virginia with a younger sister, an attorney father and a mother in academia.
She attended schools for the talented and gifted from the time she was in third grade. She was influenced by close family members who were deeply involved in social issues, including psychiatric crisis work and helping at-risk and disadvantaged youth.
She has always been aware of the haves and have-nots.
“The things I noticed as a kid — the homes and neighborhoods we live in, our differing levels of wealth and education — these things play out over our lives,” she said. “I’m concerned about the extent to which people who have less are increasingly locked out, and kept in economically fragile circumstances. I am intent on doing something about that.”
Goldrick-Rab finished her bachelor’s degree in sociology, debt-free. She said she typically worked 40 hours a week during college as a cocktail waitress and restaurant hostess. She also received tuition benefits at George Washington University because her mother was an assistant professor in early childhood development.
She took out two $10,000 student loans as a graduate and postdoctoral student at Penn to support a “restaurant habit,” explaining that she approached learning to network with influential people over fine wine and food as “almost a research activity.”
“We all know cultural capital makes a difference,” she said. “It’s about being able to hang with rich people and talk ‘the game’ … I believe it was worth every penny because I can schmooze with the best of them.”
Goldrick-Rab feels she has grown up at UW-Madison since her arrival 11 years ago as a newly minted assistant professor.
John Wiley was chancellor at the time, and Goldrick-Rab made a point to meet him.
He recalls his first impression of her: “She was going to be a real spark plug, which she has proved to be.”
“She’s outspoken and very committed to her issues, of which there are many. Even when you disagree, you have to respect her,” Wiley said. “She fights for the underdog fearlessly.”
‘Money matters a lot’
This week, Goldrick-Rab headed to the White House to participate in a meeting with other education policy researchers working to improve graduation rates and make community college free — a policy goal adopted by President Barack Obama. She also met with the undersecretary of education.
Me & @tressiemcphd here to make college free #WhiteHouse #GetItDone pic.twitter.com/ypNRo9GbQY
— Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) January 20, 2016
In December, she delivered to the White House her team’s “Hungry to Learn” research, which examined food and housing insecurity among college students. The New York Times last month published an op-ed piece she co-wrote on the subject, and Wednesday it published a second piece she wrote on college affordability.
Goldrick-Rab has co-authored two books. Her latest book, “Paying the Price: College Costs and the Betrayal of the American Dream,” is to be published in September by the University of Chicago. It describes research from 2008 to 2014 tracking 3,000 undergraduates from low-income families as they pursued college degrees.
“My research says that money matters a lot to undergraduates — affordability is a much bigger deal than policy people currently think,” she explained. “The amount of money in financial aid is insufficient, the delivery system is too complex, too few people are helped, and the current situation is driving students to drop out of college. The approach is not cost effective.”
It can’t be solved with tweaks, Goldrick-Rab said.
“We need accountability for pricing, improved political support for how we finance higher ed, and a much more substantial discount that also helps address living costs,” she said. “I support experimentation with universal public higher education including via state and local promise programs.”
As a mother of two young children, ages 6 and 9, Goldrick-Rab sometimes struggles to be in the moment and set aside her all-consuming work.
But she works at that, too.
When her kids started playing soccer, she took up knitting.
She finds knitting relaxing. And perhaps most importantly, it keeps her hands busy and away from her smartphone.
Sara Goldrick-Rab Will Leave Wisconsin for Temple
March 8, 2016
Sara Goldrick-Rab announced online Monday night that she is leaving the University of Wisconsin at Madison for Temple University. Goldrick-Rab is a prominent researcher on low-income students and public policy and she has been among the more outspoken critics of the removal of tenure protections from statute in Wisconsin. While the University of Wisconsin System has been moving to put tenure policies into system policy, Goldrick-Rab has argued that those policies are not true tenure.
“[I]t is no longer possible for critical scholars working in public higher education to flourish without tenure protections,” she wrote online. “There are daily attacks on the ideas of scholars who challenge current practices and policies employed by university administrators, state legislators, and even governors. McCarthyism is alive and well — especially here in Wisconsin.”
She added: “Terrified sheep make lousy teachers, lousy scholars, and lousy colleagues. And today at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, thanks to #FakeTenure, I’m surrounded by terrified sheep. To be honest, commitments to the growing number of people whom I am responsible for (including my two children, but also my students and staff), put me at risk of becoming one of them.”
Goldrick-Rab also wrote that, at Temple, she would have real tenure protections and a faculty union. In addition, she said she was pleased to be going to a university with a strong commitment to serving diverse, low-income students.
Who Crossed the Line?
First Republicans, and then faculty leaders, have questioned tweets of Wisconsin’s Sara Goldrick-Rab, particularly in seemingly discouraging admitted students from enrolling. Her supporters call her courageous and say her defense of academic freedom has made her a target.
July 17, 2015
It started off like a fairly typical campus political spat: liberal professor criticizes conservative politician; conservative campus group criticizes liberal professor, who in turn criticizes the conservative group. Much of the criticism on both sides is through social media. And, as has been the case in several recent campus controversies, the professor is a sociologist and one who has never been accused of holding back on her views.
But unlike several of the recent cases, which involved scholars just starting their academic careers, the sociologist at the center of this discussion is Sara Goldrick-Rab of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. She is a big name in sociology and education research circles, and her ideas have been influential in the development of state and federal legislation on higher education policy.
She has many fans, who admire her research and advocacy on behalf of low-income students. Many also cheered her on as she opposed Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget cuts and removal of tenure protections from state law — moves in which he succeeded. She also has thousands of loyal Twitter followers.
When Goldrick-Rab was criticized in the last 48 hours, she fought back and found herself on the receiving end of ugly online comments and calls for her dismissal. While she attracted instant support online, she also was strongly criticized for Twitter comments that some faculty leaders (not just the campus Republicans) found unprofessional.
What She Said
First there was a tweet that said Governor Walker had similarities to Hitler:
My grandfather, a psychologist, just walked me through similarities between Walker and Hitler. There are so many- it’s terrifying.
— Sara Goldrick-Rab (@saragoldrickrab) July 1, 2015
That was followed by one in which she said: “No doubt about it — Walker and many Wisconsin Legislators are fascists. Period. They proved it today. #SHAME”
Beyond those tweets, critics also jumped on her tweets about new high school graduates who posted a photo to Twitter of themselves in their caps and gowns, with the W hand gesture of Madison fans and the hashtag “#FutureBadgers.” She tweeted at them, sharing an article about changes in shared governance in the state. The students were not impressed, tweeting back at her “no one cares Sara” and “who are you lol.” Goldrick-Rab replied, “We don’t want students 2 waste their $. It’s info that’s all.”
A student then replied, “It’s not a waste if you’re going to Madison,” and Goldrick-Rab answered: “University is changing as we speak. Maybe look at info?”
Another response from Goldrick-Rab: “Oh good. I thought you want a degree of value. Too bad.” She also said many faculty members would soon be leaving Madison due to the changes there.
College Republicans Call for Action
The College Republicans at Madison issued a press release on Facebook Wednesday drawing attention to these comments on Twitter and calling on the university “to address the ongoing, out-of-line actions” by Goldrick-Rab. The letter said that she had “proceeded to cross all boundaries of professionalism and respect” by starting conversations with future students and sharing information to discourage them from enrolling. The College Republicans called Goldrick-Rab’s statements on Twitter “disgusting and repulsive.”
When the College Republicans’ press release started to spread on social media, many started posting statements calling on the university to fire her. Some comments called for her home address to be published so people could send her snail mail as well. Many comments posted contact information for administrators at Madison.
Goldrick-Rab posted some of the hate emails she received, some of which noted her Jewish background.
Backlash to the Backlash
Many academics responded to the calls to fire Goldrick-Rab by calling on the University of Wisconsin to defend her academic freedom. A common theme was that it was especially disconcerting to see a campaign against a tenured University of Wisconsin professor so soon after the new state law pushed by Governor Walker removed tenure protections from state law. (Tenure remains policy of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents.)
Here are some of the comments supporters of Goldrick-Rab made on Twitter, some of which were in direct response to calls for people to go after her:
Goldrick-Rab was on vacation Thursday, intending to spend time kayaking with her children. But she answered a few questions via email with Inside Higher Ed.
On the question of her tweets to prospective students, she said: “I have donated a great deal of my time to education via Twitter, interacting with tens of thousands of students over many years. Sharing information is a good thing — it isn’t lobbying. My institution has engaged in efforts to shut down open discussion of this tenure policy and didn’t inform families paying tuition to the school about what was happening. I teach higher ed policy to undergrads. I shared info with prospective undergrads and the majority thanked me for it. But these few saw an effort to make a political point.”
She did not respond to two questions asking her to elaborate on the Hitler-Walker comparison, but she did email the College Fix, a conservative website that wrote critically of Goldrick-Rab, to answer a similar question. She wrote: “If you reread the tweet, you will see that I stated that an expert in the field — a psychoanalyst with decades of experience — compared the ‘psychological characteristics’ of the two individuals, and that I was struck by his analysis. There do appear to be commonalities. I’m confident you are capable of seeing the difference between such an assessment and equating the whole of two different people.”
In her email with Inside Higher Ed, Goldrick-Rab summed up the criticisms by calling them “cherry-picking aimed at furthering a specific political cause and it’s aimed at me as a public scholar at the most ‘liberal’ institution in candidate Walker’s state.”
The University’s Response
Much of the criticism of Goldrick-Rab has come from the conservative online world. But some criticism, particularly about Goldrick-Rab’s statements to the prospective students and her numerous tweets about how the best faculty will all leave Madison, came from the administration and faculty leaders at the university.
Rebecca M. Blank, the chancellor at Madison (who previously worked in senior positions in the Obama administration’s Commerce Department), said: “I feel compelled to respond to those who may question whether the University of Wisconsin-Madison is still a great place to learn and to teach. The answer is a resounding yes — and I know that because I hear it daily from students, faculty members and staff as well as alumni, donors and friends. Any institution has its critics, and especially in social media, it’s important to remember that the loudest voice usually isn’t the most accurate. The Badger community is strong and continues to stand for excellence in education, in research and in community outreach.”
And late Thursday the steering committee of the Faculty Senate at Madison issued this statement: “As faculty members of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, we support free speech and diversity of opinion, as has been our tradition. Such freedom requires responsible behavior and in this respect we are deeply dismayed with the actions Professor Sara Goldrick-Rab has taken toward students and faculty on Twitter in recent weeks to discourage them from coming here. While claiming to stand for academic freedom, she has in fact damaged that principle and our institution with inaccurate statements and misrepresentations. We stand with our fellow faculty, staff and students who have devoted themselves to maintaining and building on our university’s extraordinary and distinguished record of teaching, research and service to the people of Wisconsin and beyond.”
Against the motion: Richard Vedder, Director of the Center for College Affordability and ProductivityRichard K. Vedder studies higher education financing, labor economics, immigration, government fiscal policy and income inequality. A distinguished professor of economics at Ohio University, he is the author of several books, including Going Broke by Degree, and The Wal-Mart Revolution: How Big Box Stores Benefit Consumers, Workers, and the Economy (with Wendell Cox). Dr. Vedder earned his Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Illinois.
By Richard Vedder
October 28, 2015
Testifying before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee recently, I was asked by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) if, with respect to higher education, I would favor eliminating the U.S. Department of Education.
She was aghast when I said “yes.”
Before I go into the damage our national educational ministry has done to higher education, it is worth reviewing its creation in 1979.
The Democrats then controlled all of the federal government, with large congressional majorities. The party had promised to create the Department in its 1976 platform. President Jimmy Carter advocated it, as did the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Educational Association (NEA).
Yet the bill barely passed. The House committee considering it advanced it to the floor on a 20-19 vote—with seven Democrats voting no. The liberal press such as the New York Times and the Washington Post opposed it editorially.
In particular, the criticism leveled by the Times in its May 22, 1979 editorial “Centralizing Education Is No Reform” was sharp and prescient:
The idea [of the Department of Education] remains as unwise as when it was first broached in a Carter campaign promise to the National Education Association…. It has always been American policy…to deliberately avoid centralizing education in a way that requires direction and financing by a national ministry…. We believe that diversity of direction has served American education well and that it will continue to do better without a central bureaucracy, even a benign one.
The preeminent Democratic public intellectual, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was also against it.
Largely because of the NEA’s political clout, however, the widespread bipartisan skepticism about the wisdom of creating a cabinet-level education department was overcome.
Would the U.S. be better off today if the department had not been created? A review of the pre- and post-Department developments in higher education shows why I favor eliminating the Department—at least regarding authority over universities.
The 30 years between 1950 and 1980 were the Golden Age of American higher education. The proportion of adult Americans with college degrees nearly tripled, going from 6 to 17 percent. Enrollments quintupled, going from 2.3 to 12.1 million.
By the end of the period, the number of doctorates awarded in engineering had quintupled and over 40 percent of Nobel Prizes were going to individuals associated with American universities.
This was the era in which higher education went from serving the elite and mostly well-to-do to serving many individuals from modest economic circumstance. State government support for higher education rose dramatically—spending per student rose roughly 70 percent after inflation.
During this period, however, the federal role was quite modest. The GI Bill had increased higher education participation, but the loan programs authorized under the 1965 Higher Education Act were comparatively small until the very end of the period when loan eligibility was extended to large numbers of comparatively affluent Americans. In 1978, the year before the Department’s creation, only one million student loans were made totaling under $2 billion—less than 5 percent the current level of lending even allowing for inflation.
College costs remained remarkably stable. Tuition fees typically rose only about one percent a year, adjusting for inflation. At the same time, high economic growth (real GDP was rising nearly four percent annually) led to incomes rising even faster, so in most years the tuition to income ratio fell. In other words, college was becoming a smaller financial burden for families.
Compare the Golden Age to the post-Department of Education era (1980 to 2015). While college attainment has continued to grow, in percentage terms the growth has slowed. But that is not all. Let me briefly enumerate seven other unfortunate trends.
First, of course, education costs have soared. Tuition fees rose more than three percent a year in inflation-adjusted terms, far faster than people’s incomes. As new research from the New York Federal Reserve Bank demonstrates, rising federal student financial aid programs are the primary factor in this phenomenon.
If tuition fees had risen as fast after 1978 as in the four decades before, they would be about one-half the level they are today, and the student debt crisis would not have occurred. Presidential candidates would not be talking about “free” tuition.
Second, if anything, college has become more elitist and less accessible to low income students. The proportion of recent graduates who are from the bottom quartile of the income distribution has declined since 1970 or 1980. The qualitative gap between the rich highly selective private schools and state universities has widened—fewer state schools make it near the top in the US News rankings, for example.
Third, there has been a shocking decline in academic standards. Grade inflation is rampant. The seminal study Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa shows that very little improvement in critical reasoning skills occurs in college. Adult literacy is falling amongst college graduates. Large proportions of college graduates do not even know in which half-century the Civil War occurred. Ideological conformity is increasingly valued over free expression and empirical inquiry.
The Department of Education does nothing to reverse those trends. It doesn’t even acknowledge them.
Fourth, accreditation of colleges, overseen by the Department of Education, is expensive and ineffective. Few schools are ever sanctioned, much less closed for shoddy performance. The system discourages innovation and new entries—it is anticompetitive. Conflicts of interest are rampant. The binary evaluation system (you either are accredited, or you are not) provides no useful information to consumers.
Fifth, the federal aid programs and “college for all” propaganda promoted by the Department have led to a large proportion (probably over 40 percent) of recent graduates being underemployed, working in jobs traditionally done by high school graduates. Arum and Roksa observe in their follow-up book Aspiring Adults Adrift that two years after graduation nearly one-fourth of graduates are still living with their parents. More college graduates work in low paying retail trade jobs than are Americans serving in our Armed Forces.
Sixth, the Department is guilty of regulatory excesses and bureaucratic blunders. For example, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) imposes a “preponderance of evidence” standard on colleges in sexual assault cases that violates American ideals regarding due process and fair treatment of accused. Twenty-eight members of the law faculty at Harvard, among others, have bitterly complained about that, but the OCR continues its crusade.
Also, the form required of applicants for federal student aid (FAFSA) is Byzantine in its complexity—the 2006 Spellings Commission criticized it severely—but nothing important has been done about it.
Seventh, the one arguably useful function of the Department is to provide information to consumers and taxpayers about college performance. Yet Department bureaucrats have done very little to give useful information on student learning, post-graduate success, consumer satisfaction, et cetera.
Years after promising it, the Department has finally developed a College Scorecard, which is potentially valuable, but marred because it excludes a number of politically incorrect colleges such as Hillsdale—ones that refuse to participate in federal aid programs or collect data on racial characteristics of students.
Summing up, the Department of Education has had, so far as I can see, no positive impact on higher education and has either caused or ignored numerous negative effects. Thus it is a tragedy that the skeptics about creating it did not prevail back in 1979.
Moderated by: Melissa Harris-Perry, Maya Angelou Presidential Chair and Director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University, and author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America
Thank You, Melissa Harris-Perry
The most diverse, intellectually bracing show on network news was treated as expendable, and its host would not have it. She and her show will be sorely missed.
By Dave Zirin
his weekend, a show that mattered to its audience as few programs on the vanilla ice-milk buffet that passes for news do, The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC, was canceled, and it’s a tragic as well as angering turn of events. “Ties were severed,” as an MSNBC executive put it, after Melissa, who I am proud to count as a colleague, sent an email to her staff explaining why she would not be hosting her show this past weekend after several weeks of having the program pre-empted for election coverage. The “scorching” email, now public, is being cherry-picked in articles, particularly the part where Melissa wrote, “I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head.”
I want to encourage people to read it in its entirety, because that one section does not do justice to what she is trying to communicate. The part that stands out to me is when she writes,
MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive. While MSNBC may believe that I am worthless, I know better. I know who I am. I know why MHP Show is unique and valuable. I will not sell short myself or this show. I am not hungry for empty airtime. I care only about substantive, meaningful, and autonomous work. When we can do that, I will return—not a moment earlier. I am deeply sorry for the ways that this decision makes life harder for all of you. You mean more to me than you can imagine.
Instead of responding to these concerns, network executives chose to simply kill the show, citing the email as “destructive to our relationship.” A nameless exec, speaking to The Washington Post, called her a “challenging and unpredictable personality.” It is certainly true that Melissa fought for her vision of what she wanted the show to be, but it is difficult to imagine that a white, male host would be attacked so personally and called “challenging and unpredictable” for exhibiting similar behavior. It also speaks volumes that such adjectives—“challenging,” “unpredictable”—would be seen as insults in the modern news media world, instead of high praise.
I suppose “challenging and unpredictable” mean decisions like the one she made for what we now know was her final show: a show based around the treatment of homeless people in San Francisco during Super Bowl week and the impact of Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, instead of ever more election analysis with campaign spinmeisters. MHP was the only show to discuss what the possible ramifications could be for Beyoncé if she performed the incendiary song later that day at Super Bowl halftime. It, of course, has caused a firestorm that has yet to die down. Melissa saw it coming. That, in a nutshell, was what made the show so distinctive. Because it discussed issues that other shows would not touch, with guests other shows would never dream of booking, it was able to see and often predict what they simply could not. (For what it’s worth, I was on that last show, a fact that I’ll wear going forward as a badge of honor.)
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It would be difficult for me to fully express how upset I am. I’m upset because the staff on the show are some of the kindest people I’ve had the privilege to meet in an industry where the word “kind” is not often bandied about. I’m upset because I’ve met so many of these media anchors, and for a lot of them, the smile dissipates once the camera is turned off. Melissa was so warm off the air…to my mom, to my partner, to the very people other hosts breeze by.
I’m upset because the viewers of the show—the #nerdland community—felt like it was truly their space on network television. I can’t tell you how many times people have approached me or have come to events where I was speaking because they saw themselves—and by extension, me—as part of the #nerdland family. They were overwhelmingly black women; women who felt ownership of a show on which they and their concerns weren’t rendered invisible.
But most of all, I’m upset because of the voices that will not be heard. A Media Matters graph about diversity on weekend news shows reported that guests on Fox were 87 percent white; CBS’s Face the Nation were 88 percent white, This Week on ABC were 77 percent white, NBC’s Meet the Press were 78 percent white, and on MHP, 45 percent white. It was also the only show even close to a 50-50 split on gender. But MHP also wasn’t diversity for diversity’s sake. This was a show that introduced us to community leaders, academics, small-town politicians, and musicians who otherwise never would have seen the light of day.
And, speaking very selfishly, I was given a platform by Melissa to speak about sports and society in a way that centered on race, class, gender, sexuality, and big business. It was the only place where I was allowed—on Super Bowl Sunday no less—to write out a scripted commentary I could deliver on camera that called for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign. Being a guest on MHP was always “challenging,” always “unpredictable,” and I use those adjectives as the highest praise.
Melissa will be fine. She heads the Anna Julia Cooper Center and holds the Maya Angelou Chair at Wake Forest, where she lives with her beautiful family. She’ll be back on television when she wants to be, if she wants to be. I’m worried about the rest of us and a media landscape that is now less diverse, less interesting, and less accessible to masses of people in this country. But I want to thank Melissa Harris-Perry and everyone at MHP for showing us that another kind of network television news show was possible. I want to thank her for standing up, not for herself but for the show. I want to thank her for pushing the boundaries, even when those boundaries became walls. I’m excited to see what she does next, and also excited for the people inspired by her work, to step up and show us what they got. The #nerdland community will exist beyond MHP and will continue to inspire those trying to find their voice as well as anger all the right people.
March 2, 2016 at 3:10 pm
I have been watching MSNBC for a very long time and have watched my reasons for tuning in slowly disappear. With Melissa Harris-Perry gone there’s not much left for me to watch. Maybe Lawrence O’Donnell but that’s about it. What a shame. MHP, you will be greatly missed.
Robert Ryley says:
March 1, 2016 at 6:00 pm
For once I must say I agree with Dave Zirin. Good article basically “nails it” when it comes to the shoddy low-rent way MSNBC treated Melissa. But, I think we all know MHP is a fighter and she will land somewhere and keep up the good fight. As to MSNBC, this has turned into the MainStreamNationalBullS###Collective. With Todd, reruns of Halpern and loudmouth bloviator Chris Matthews insulting our intelligence at ever turn it is basically a useless network until 8pm. And even then, Chris Hayes is not as edgy as he used to be and quite often Rachel plays kiss-up to the likes of Republican Nicole Wallace. It’s a shame, MHP, Sharpton, Schultz, Olberman, Joy Reed, Alex Wagner, and more, all sidelined, fired, or general visibility cut back for mainstream corporate dribble.
Bill Michtom says:
March 1, 2016 at 12:23 am
These are the same people who fired Phil Donahue for speaking out against W’s approaching criminal war in . Iraq . “In 2002, Donahue returned to the airwaves, but was fired by MSNBC on the eve of the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq because he was allowing antiwar voices on the air.” http://www.democracynow.org/2014/11/11/legendary_talk_show_host_phil_donahue Yes, this is now tied up with racism, too, but the politics are basically the same: nothing left of mainstream Dems … the CBC PAC, for instance,
Coleen Garrity says:
March 1, 2016 at 12:07 am
I left cable behind a while back, and I missed Melissa most of all. I am sorry for her mistreatment there, but they have been abrupt with many of their talented folks. I am just hopeful she will wind up on a web channel or on hulu or somewhere ‘web accessible’. But, wherever you may wind up: Go, Melissa! Love your work, love your spirit! Thank You.
Anita Jordan says:
February 29, 2016 at 11:02 pm
I will miss her show so much. She had a variety of guests and opinions not often seen on TV. She went in-depth into topics on her show, rather than just re-hashing the same info that most other MSNBC do. Her show was unique and will be missed by me for sure. I hope she’ll turn up again on TV.
Joann Smith says:
February 29, 2016 at 9:15 pm
I loved Melissa because she actually talked about important issues. I am so tired of the MSM election coverage. What is so frightening is that the really important issues like climate change (our no. 1 problem) are being over shadowed by the nonsense of Donald Trump. I’ve stopped listening to almost all media even NPR and PBS. They are just a waste of time and are all part of the same military-industrial-media complex to keep the American public as ignorant as possible about the corporate take over of our lives and our nation.
David Anderson says:
February 29, 2016 at 8:41 pm
All the things MHP did are overshadowed by her apologetics for Obama. She is endorsing a neoliberal president while addressing problems on her show that are caused by neoliberalism! That’s not intellectual, that’s confused. And she had a policy of not responding to criticism, not a respectable policy for a celebrity academic.
Anita Jordan says:
February 29, 2016 at 11:06 pm
I’d like to know what “apologetics” means. I think you meant apologies. I particularly just love your remark that Obama (the “neoliberal”) caused the problems Harris-Perry was addressing. Believe me when I say you are quite confused as to who caused the problems. Obama isn’t the cause, but it has been typical for 7 years to blame everything on President Obama. It started before he was even inaugurated. If she spoke of the good things he accomplished, more power to her.
Phil Stokes says:
February 29, 2016 at 7:19 pm
A sad time. Maybe Melissa could do an insider report on the rampant bias that lives within MSNBC. I’d sure love to hear the dirt on Chris Mathews and Rachel.
Mark Pollock says:
February 29, 2016 at 11:38 pm
Francis Louis Szot says:
March 1, 2016 at 8:45 pm
Me too. THAT would be interesting . . . I think. Not “dirt”, but some insider news to reveal personalities a bit deeper? Nothing mean, but incisive? Good luck to Melissa, and I hope she gets a show again on an even better platform, if she wants it.
Eric Staples says:
February 29, 2016 at 6:14 pm
Melissa Harris-Perry added a touch of class to the swill that is cable news. I hope she will find another outlet a bit more conducive to her intelligence!
Anne Garcia Garland says:
February 29, 2016 at 2:40 pm
I thought that MSNBC must be failing badly when I realized that so much of its air time went to prison “reality” shows and like ilk. Guess they just can’t afford to have intelligent news commentary. I anticipate the disappearance of the remaining journalists before long.
Joseph Kleid says:
February 29, 2016 at 1:51 pm
Let’s face it, besides brilliant -she was great to look at!!
Mary Colby says:
February 29, 2016 at 1:48 pm
They dismiss a brilliant, outspoken woman, and hire the despicable media guy that lied so much even Rafael Cruz fired him? MSNBC is off my watch list. It’s no surprise that most people over 40 support HRC: they get their news from TV. Clearly MSNBC has read the demographic tea leaves and knows the rest of us don’t trust corporate media to even give us the right time of day. Hope to be able to follow MHP somewhere else soon.
Mark Pollock says:
February 29, 2016 at 1:53 pm
For MSNBC to retain Rick Tyler, the disgraced Cruz spokesperson (please excuse the redundancy), says all one needs to know about what has become of that network. Shameless.
Christopher Deangelis says:
February 29, 2016 at 1:46 pm
It has been so rare to see a news show that actually spent time diving into non-electoral, participatory politics and brought forth voices of citizens who were not professional pundits. Yes, MHP had those folks on too, but so often they were more thoughtful and nuanced–I was constantly reminded of Jon Stewart’s critique of Crossfire and how MHP was often the most productive response to it. Diversity matters. So did the longer 2 hour format that MHP and Up w/ Chris Hayes operated within. It boggles my mind that Melissa’s person and editorial acumen would be pulled from her own show because it is campaign season…this was when we needed her thinking most. Sadly Melissa wasn’t the first journalist treated shamefully by the network while they tried to broaden dialogue: Phil Donahue, Keith Olbermann, Rula Jebreal, …
Bertram Lowi says:
February 29, 2016 at 1:28 pm
While I mostly agree with the other commenters about MHP’s contribution to public discourse, I offer as constructive criticism my gradual turnoff to her program as her m.o. became increasingly strident and preachy – even the tenor of her voice seemed to become more shrill. It doesn’t surprise me that a lot of MHP fans – even avid ones – tired of coming home from one Sunday sermon and tuning in to another.
Kent Bott says:
March 6, 2016 at 9:56 am
You nailed it … she tripped over her own ego.
Charles Pack says:
February 29, 2016 at 1:08 pm
She had the most intelligent and fairest talk show on TV.
Stephen M Lewis says:
February 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm
Never mind whatever hogwash is written in MSNBC’s formal mission statement; the operational mission statement is clearly that of small-minded weak-kneed corporate cogs. Their parent network (if an infantile organization can be termed “parent”) has long been blind to the distinction between centerist/bluedog Dems and genuine progressives, and the changes at MSNBC show that its Suits intend to extend that witless blindness to what was formerly my 24-hour go-to network. Leaders and corporate cultures who cannot deal with “challenging” employees are what kills good organizations. Some eventually improve, as was the case with NASA (sort of), and some do not (GM, Chrysler). I suspect that MHP’s challenge to MSNBC was her mix of high intelligence, articulate analysis, and…oh yeah…gender.
David Bremenstuhl says:
February 29, 2016 at 1:05 pm
The silencing of the voice of Melissa Harris-Perry is a tragedy beyond my words to express !!! Millions have lost a voice of incisive and intuitive intellect who brought issues of substance to light that others ignored and refused to touch !!! Melissa Harris-Perry is a voice of both intellectual honesty and moral conscience in a world of media sorely missing both !!! I have even greater respect and admiration for Melissa Harris-Perry as one of the lone voices of both intellectual and moral authority !!!! Hers is a voice that commands the attention of mind and heart….and Soul !!! Melissa Harris-Perry is one of the very few who has what Gandhi called “satyagraha”; Soul Force !!!
David Anderson says:
February 29, 2016 at 8:44 pm
Easy, buddy, this is not a Chicken Little moment!!!!!!!
Henry Flores says:
February 29, 2016 at 12:51 pm
MHP was the only creative progressive voice on TV and the internet. She spoke to issues that corporate America did not want to talk about and in ways that made them feel uncomfortable. This is really upsetting to me and my family. I’m wasting my time watching MSNBC! Thanks MHP hope you come back in some sort of reincarnation.
Barbara Kussow says:
February 29, 2016 at 12:45 pm
I will miss MHP. She was sassy and intelligent. She provided an intelligent discussion of black issues and culture hard to come by elsewhere. (BTW, I am white.) She was also a good sub for Rachel.
Mark Pollock says:
February 29, 2016 at 12:32 pm
It must be emphasized that the Morning Ho’s were caught red-mic’d collaborating with Trump, kissing up to him, planning their interview and promising to go soft on him–WITH NO REPERCUSSIONS. No suspension. No public slap on the wrist. Not a word from the suits. And Ms. Harris-Perry is terminated for being an independent, genuine journalist with real courage. Despicable.
Ron Bernhardt says:
February 29, 2016 at 12:31 pm
Sad to see MSNBC filtering out show hosts who dare to speak out and allow discussion that doesn’t promote the corporate agenda. I miss Ed Schultz as well, but he obviously rattled too many chains and was too truthful. And they get Chuck Todd and Brian Williams. Any surprise that Exxon, GE and other blatant profiteers don’t want voices who address issues that explain where our country’s rigged system has failed us. The way they have tried to discredit Bernie and pander to Hillary’s every whim is discomforting as well. I’m watching less and less of them and they were the last station I could stomach since I lost CURRENT on my Direct TV package.
Steven Auerbach says:
February 29, 2016 at 12:11 pm
Instead of Rachel and Chris leaving, how about Joe and Mika leaving, and MHP cones back! The would be an MSNBC that was actually a progressive alternative to Fox. Oh wait….
Mark Pollock says:
February 29, 2016 at 11:50 am
As always, Dave, you nailed it. A terrible, terrible loss for her viewers, for MSNBC, for television, for electronic journalism. Ms. Harris-Perry is not only uncommonly intelligent in a field where that asset is a rare commodity. She is genuine (unlike some of her former colleagues). Most importantly, she is possessed of the virtue that makes all other virtues possible–courage. Ms. Harris-Perry has GUTS! I will miss her. I wish her continued success in all of her ventures. And MSNBC continues its descent. How very, very sad. Thank you, Dave. Keep em’ coming. You’re great!
Steven Dorst says:
February 29, 2016 at 11:45 am
Thanks to MHP for standing up for editorial independence. I with that Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow would follow her lead.
Mark Pollock says:
February 29, 2016 at 12:12 pm
And Chris Matthews is Hillary’s PR spokesperson. And the loathsome, obsequious, vapid “Morning Joe” prostitutes are owned by Trump (despite their crocodile, no doubt ordered-by-the-boss, derision of the demagogue’s delayed repudiation of the Ku Klux Klan). I’m surprised they don’t wear “Make America Hate Again”, I mean “Great Again” caps.
Matt Vespa | Mar 07, 2016
While the American Conservative Union’s Political Action Conference was in full swing, Melissa Harris-Perry decided to say goodbye to MSNBC over a dispute regarding editorial control. At end of February, it was reported that Perry had walked off her show since she felt that MSNBC executive had both shut her out of the 2016 campaign coverage and wrested creative control over her weekend show. She blasted an email to her staff about her grievances, which was then posted on Medium; The New York Times soon picked it up, which led to network executives doubting whether her show would come back on air altogether.
Soon afterwards, the liberal network decided to cut ties with Perry, whose contract was set to expire in October. Oh, and this whole kerfuffle was over a segment about Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance. CNN’s Dylan Byers reported that even Perry’s exit negotiations were a shambles, where the host balked at a non-disparagement clause:
They wanted me to sign a non-disparagement clause, and we had a deep disagreement over what constituted the non-disparagement clause,” Harris-Perry told CNNMoney on Tuesday [March 1].
“They wanted me not to speak about MSNBC. I said no.”
James Perry, Harris-Perry’s husband and the one who led the negotiations with MSNBC, said that MSNBC’s non-disparagement clause would have restricted his wife to speaking about MSNBC only when it was “positive or in her academic work.”
“I’ll never get another penny from MSNBC,” Harris-Perry said.
The channel announced on Sunday that it was “parting ways” with Harris-Perry. That came two days after she published an email to friends saying that she had been “silenced” because the network had pre-empted her show for two consecutive weekends.
Yvette Miley, the senior vice president of talent and diversity, told CNN that Harris-Perry’s show, like others on MSNBC, was only pre-empted in order to focus on the contentious 2016 presidential primary contest and said there were no plans to cancel it or strip Harris-Perry of editorial control.
“MSNBC is the place for politics, and as we’re covering 2016 part of that coverage meant that we were going to look for opportunities during the course of 2016 to really focus on the race for the White House,” Miley said. “There were pre-emptions that impacted shows across the network.”
Perry’s show often delved into the issues of race and social justice…not anymore.
On Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, the last episode of the Melissa Harris-Perry show with Harris-Perry as host aired on MSNBC. Just as in many previous episodes of the two-hour weekend show, a diverse array of guests weighed in on a range of topics from sports to electoral politics. The lack of seasoned political pundits was a distinct feature of the show and of this particular episode, which featured segments about the presidential primaries and the eighth GOP presidential debate. Invited guests on the show were activists, academics, community organizers, people from the communities being discussed, emergent and established writers.
Her final show on MSNBC — and her discussion of Beyonce’s “Formation” — perfectly illustrated her unique approach to current events.
On Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016, the last episode of the Melissa Harris-Perry show with Harris-Perry as host aired on MSNBC. Just as in many previous episodes of the two-hour weekend show, a diverse array of guests weighed in on a range of topics from sports to electoral politics. The lack of seasoned political pundits was a distinct feature of the show and of this particular episode, which featured segments about the presidential primaries and the eighth GOP presidential debate. Invited guests on the show were activists, academics, community organizers, people from the communities being discussed, emergent and established writers. On this particular Sunday, guests included Rutgers professor and writer Brittney Cooper, political sportswriter Dave Zirin, journalist Michael Arceneaux, political speechwriter Elise Jordan, civil rights attorney Jane Kim, former NFL linebacker and sports radio host Ben Leber, and four students from Wake the Vote, a student-centered civic engagement program. Notably, these guests represented a spectrum of racial, gender, sexual, class, religious, and political identities.
Over the course of the four-year tenure of the show, Harris-Perry and her team created a mainstream media space in which thought-provoking conversations about current affairs outside of the traditional “talking heads” model thrived. The traditional model primarily relies upon white men as journalists, pundits, and commentators. The Melissa Harris-Perry show provided a platform for her, a black woman and a well-respected political scientist, and other women and racial and ethnic minorities to contribute to substantive conversations about current affairs. It is hard to imagine that any cable news show featured more women of color as guest commentators than Harris-Perry’s did during the show’s run.
The show did not shy away from Harris-Perry’s work as a black feminist scholar and author, but rather capitalized upon her unique insights as a scholar of race, gender, class, and politics. She sought guests because of their abilities to participate in frank discussions about racial, gender, class, and sexual oppression. With guests including professors, activists, and homeless or formerly homeless youth advocates, the show offered accessible, yet incisive political commentary that took seriously the voices, perspectives, and experiences of marginalized people.
The show cultivated a devoted and diverse audience both in terms of viewership and via social media. #Nerdland, as it was affectionately known, became a place for people invested in thoughtful, incisive, and wide-ranging discussions of contemporary politics and culture that incorporated challenging topics such as systemic racism and sexism. It was not uncommon to hear words like “white privilege,” “patriarchy,” “homophobia,” “transphobia,” “poverty,” “Islamophobia,” “undocumented person,” or “misogyny” on the show. Without question, this show took a decidedly progressive approach to social, political, cultural, and economic issues, while maintaining space for rigorous debate from contributors espousing different viewpoints.
#Nerdland also took an expansive view of politics. While electoral politics mattered, Harris-Perry incorporated popular culture, the arts, social justice movements, history, sports, and community organizing as viable topics for the show. In #Nerdland, current events could mean anything from the Supreme Court hearing an affirmative action case to a segment on American Ballet Theater’s first black woman principal dancer, Misty Copeland. Harris-Perry and guests covered contemporary affairs like ISIS and growing anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, while also offering a rare space for honest and necessary public conversations about the racial politics of U.S. feminism. The woman at the helm of #Nerdland was a black feminist, and she approached current affairs and political commentary from the standpoint that racism, poverty, sexism, and homophobia matter, and that these forms of oppression are interconnected. In the black feminist scholar tradition of bringing those on the margins to the center, Harris-Perry and her team crafted a show in which unheard or silenced voices, perspectives, and issues took center stage.
The show also centered the experiences and voices of black women in an unprecedented way on cable news. As one of the few black women on cable news, Harris-Perry carved out a distinct space for meaningful discussions, and sometimes debates, about pressing issues facing black women, women of color, and communities of color more broadly. Whether reading a love letter to Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old African American boy killed by George Zimmerman, or having a powerful discussion about the experiences of single, black mothers with an actual single, black mother, Harris-Perry excelled at establishing a space in which black women were heard and given the opportunity to comment upon their social, political, economic, and cultural realities.
On what became the last #Nerdland featuring Harris-Perry as host, two segments of the show focused on the surprise release of Beyoncé’s new song “Formation” and its video as well as the reactions to it. The video, released the day before Harris-Perry’s Sunday, Feb. 7 show, immediately galvanized a barrage of responses ranging from fanatical elation to stunned disappointment. Images of New Orleans, a drowning cop car, and a graffiti-sprayed “Stop Shooting Us” coupled with Beyoncé singing about hot sauce in her bag, negro noses, and Texas bamas lit the Internet on fire. Love or hate Beyoncé, the release of “Formation” and her highly anticipated featured performance during the Super Bowl was a moment in popular culture. Harris-Perry and her guests talked about the racial, gender, class, and sexual politics of the video, about their enjoyment of the video, and about the backlash. What could have been a frivolous discussion about a pop culture moment was an engaging moment of cultural criticism rooted in black feminism.
Harris-Perry’s very public and contentious departure from MSNBC leaves cable news painfully less racially and gender diverse in terms of both people and perspectives. There are too few shows featuring the range of guests #Nerdland did. One of the many strengths of the Melissa Harris-Perry show was its unwavering dedication to featuring brilliant commentators who did not fit the racially and gender homogenous mold of the cable news political pundit. There is no current cable news show that could as effectively or accessibly address and wrestle with a range of topics such as immigration, violence against trans people, racism in professional sports, twerking, and mass incarceration as #Nerdland could and did. For her inclusion of marginalized and new commentating voices and of often under-discussed social, political, cultural, and economic issues, I and many others are thankful for Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry and #Nerdland. She is and will continue to be missed.
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