Former Luther Professor Kelly Sharp resigns from Furman University after allegedly falsifying Chicana identity

The allegations against Sharp were first brought in a post on the website Medium.

Photo courtesy of Photo Bureau

The allegations against Sharp were first brought in a post on the website Medium.

Former Luther professor Kelly Kean Sharp resigned abruptly from her assistant professorship at Furman University on October 27, 2020. Prior to her resignation, a post from an anonymous source surfaced on Medium, that outed Sharp for allegedly falsifying her ethnic identity as Chicana.

Luther College President Jenifer Ward sent a campus-wide message out later that day, informing the Luther community of the allegations. The email noted that Sharp left Luther in good standing, voluntarily, to take a job at Furman University. Executive Director of Strategic Marketing and Communications Laura Barlament explained that Luther does not share details regarding personal records of their employees and cannot address allegations that were made in the original post.

“It’s hard not knowing whether the things that are the center of controversy are true or not,” Barlament said. “I have no way of verifying these claims. It is difficult because Kelly has not spoken to the allegations, and whether they are true or not.”

Sharp was an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Luther from 2018-2020. Her position at Luther was funded by a Mellon Faculty Diversity Fellowship from the Associated Colleges of the Midwest. The grant provides tenure track positions to those “whose backgrounds and life experiences will enhance diversity on the ACM campuses.”

Luther College Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs Kevin Kraus shared that Sharp’s ethnic identity did not play a role in the hiring process. He articulated that regardless of her ethnic identity, the ACM indicated that Sharp’s area of teaching alone fit the criteria for the grant.

“She was teaching on an area that was very interesting to people on campus, plantation food culture in the Antebellum South,” Kraus said. “We did not have that [area of study] before she began here. We have talked to the folks at ACM, and just the fact that she was teaching African-American history would have been enough to win her the grant … They lead you to think that [her ethnic identity] was not a factor.”

Sharp served as the faculty advisor for the Latines Unides student organization on campus. She was heavily involved in Latinx focused events on campus, and acted as the moderator on the panel that shared LatinX Experiences at Luther in a forum that took place on Thursday February 27, 2020.

Kraus, along with the Vice President for Equity, Inclusion and Student Success Lisa Scott and the Vice President for Mission and Communication Brad Chamberlain, met with members of Student Senate and Latines Unides on Thursday, October 29 to offer a supportive space and help foster healing. Salomé Valdivieso (‘23), an active member of both Student Senate and Latines Unides, contextualized this controversy.

“She was in costume and we didn’t know it,” Valdivieso said. “This is very shocking, but it’s not surprising. We are in a political and social environment right now where people are used to taking advantage of vulnerable communities and disadvantaged groups. Knowing that she may have lied about an identity, which is your identity, which is a disadvantaged identity, I wonder why she would do it.”

The allegations against her are still in their early stages, as her resignation happened only two weeks ago. The information in the post has yet to be corroborated by Sharp or anyone related to her. At one point, Sharp’s personal twitter account included the hashtag #Chicana in the bio. Professor of Africana Studies and English, Novian Whitsitt, articulated the significance of someone falsifying an ethnic identity.

“People of color or historically marginalized groups have established identities that allow them to resist systems of oppression,” Whitsitt said. “If a person from a majority culture is falsely identifying as a person of color, that really undermines the authenticity of the resistance by this historically marginalized group. This occurrence is highly problematic, especially if the person is indeed benefiting personally from this false identity.”

The Luther community has expressed feelings of pain, disappointment, and betrayal over the possibility of these allegations being true. The only person who can be held responsible or offer an explanation of the allegations is Sharp herself. Given that identity can be fluid, it is crucial that information be confirmed by Sharp, or a close relative, before any alleged information is accepted as truth. What is known is that at some point, Sharp began to identify as Chicana. The exact timeline of her adoption of this identity and her reasoning behind doing so is unknown.

The President of Latines Unides, Evelyn Montoya (‘23) expressed the importance of having conversations about identity and being intentional about diversity.

“If you want to know where a person comes from, sit down with them and have a conversation, instead of assuming that because they look this way they are this,” Montoya said. “This also serves as a wake up call for Luther to include more diversity in its faculty and staff so that students can build relationships rather than question someone’s identity, and whether they can trust them.”

The other complexity of this controversy is that Sharp’s claimed Chicana identity is not visible, as she is white presenting. That said, it is exclusively Sharp’s word and birth records that can validate her Mexican-American ethnicity. All of this considered, Whitsitt voiced that Sharp is a person, first and foremost, and that we must try to understand the complexities of this situation.

“I believe that I can hold both of those positions at the same time,” Whitsitt said. “Recognizing the abstract sense in which this is ethically unacceptable, while also understanding the human dimension to this situation, and being willing to be sympathetic to the complex forces that were at work in her deciding that this was necessary to do.”

Many at Luther respected and admired Sharp, which leaves those who were close to her grappling with the impacts of these allegations. While many found this news disturbing and disappointing, there is another side to the story, and that is one that only Sharp can share.

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