Dennis Mahoney's essay about Kevin Thornton

Doing Justice to Andrew Harris – and Kevin Thornton


Behind every headline is a history that bears further investigation. That’s also true for the Burlington Free Press’s headline of April 19, 2014: “Long forgotten, UVM’s 1st black graduate gets his due.”


            As Tim Johnson reported last spring, the University of Vermont administration has pledged to recognize Andrew Harris (UVM Class of 1838), its first African-American graduate. But in the meantime, Kevin Thornton, the Senior Lecturer at UVM whose research established Harris as a standout figure in our university’s and state’s history, has been shown the door.


In statements to the student newspaper and Vermont Public Radio, the administration claimed budget woes, adding that Lecturer positions such as that held by Thornton are “not expected to be permanent.” For the record: Kevin Thornton first joined UVM in 1998 and had taught full-time since 2006.


It’s not that UVM no longer needs Kevin Thornton. Based on his record of superior teaching, his colleagues in History and in the College of Arts and Sciences were unanimous in promoting him to Senior Lecturer in 2012; he also had been nominated for the prestigious Kroepsch-Maurice Award for Excellence in Teaching. With his dismissal, the university has lost its sole historian of the U.S. Civil War, one of the most critical times in American History and the focus of exhibits this fall at the Fleming Museum.


Does this mean that UVM can’t afford to teach about the Civil War?  That seems unlikely, as Kevin Thornton's entire salary for teaching seven heavily-enrolled courses a year was less than the raises UVM recently has given to incoming top administrators, compared with their predecessors.


Meanwhile, the audit of university finances commissioned by United Academics, UVM’s faculty union, raises questions about why the administration claims a budget gap at all. Over the past decade, that audit finds, the university’s unrestricted net assets—that is, its savings account, independent of restricted endowment funds—have grown close to $137 million.


After more than a decade of delay by its own admission, the university is finally poised to celebrate Andrew Harris as a pioneering champion of African-American equality—a pioneer who, as Thornton’s research also reveals, endured the hostility of classmates and administrators as he worked to obtain his degree.


 As we understand it, Kevin Thornton has received a (belated) invitation to the ceremony that will be taking place between 3 and 4 pm on Thursday, October 16, 2014 alongside the recently installed commemorative plaque on the 3rd floor of the Waterman Building. But this justice deferred for Andrew Harris will continue to be justice denied if the historian who made sure Harris would be remembered at UVM is no longer teaching on campus.


            The reinstatement of Kevin Thornton as Senior Lecturer would be an excellent way for UVM to demonstrate its commitment to the values of Integrity and Justice that it proclaims in its statement on “Our Common Ground” (


In the meantime, we at United Academics invite you to attend the lecture that Kevin Thornton will be giving on “Andrew Harris and UVM: 1835-2014” at 4pm on Wednesday, October 29, 2014 in the Memorial Lounge of UVM’s Waterman Building (Waterman 338).


Dennis Mahoney is a Professor of German