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[whitespace] Cobie Harris Going the Distance: Records show that political science professor Cobie Harris charged San Jose State University for the cost of a trip to Africa's Ivory Coast the week he married his third wife, along with numerous long distance phone calls made to the same location from his campus phone.


Three Strikes

Controversial SJSU political science professor Cobie Harris has endured firestorms before, but this time he's had some extraordinary explaining to do--and not just to the university, but to three women, all of whom were married to him at the same time

By Dara Colwell

'IN THE AFRICAN AMERICAN community, character is measured not in terms of possessions but in terms of what one has overcome," wrote Cobie Kwasi Harris, political science professor at San Jose State University, in an article syndicated by Pacific News Service in 1997.

Harris, who specializes in comparative politics and frequently expounded upon his views--ranging from Marxist theories of racism to the black vote--would have much to overcome that year himself. First, there was his stormy stand on the university's faculty selection process, which Harris, then interim chair of the African American Studies Department, claimed, "reinforced patterns of institutionalized racism." Harris quit the selection committee, but not before one committee member, likening Harris' stance to a temper tantrum, remarked the professor had bolted "in feigned protestation."

Next, there was the reverse discrimination lawsuit filed by assistant professor Cynthia Mahabir, who alleged Harris had poisoned her chances for tenure because she wasn't "black enough." Mahabir, a sociologist of East Indian descent, claimed that Harris had voiced this belief to her at a faculty meeting, saying the African American department should not grant tenure to "an Indian," even though she had been teaching for 10 years. The university handed Mahabir a check for $340,000 to drop her suit. She resigned anyway, contending that the entire business had left the university with "a terrible stain of discrimination."

While such political skirmishes might cost a less outspoken professor his job or professional standing, Harris managed to continue on his career path. And unbeknownst to his university colleagues, Cobie was carrying a huge personal burden of his own that year, a burden that even his friends and family didn't know about.

Just this past September, Harris' wife of 15 years, Carla Inniss, filed for divorce on the grounds of "prior existing marriage." According to Inniss' court documents, Harris was, in fact, married to two other women during his marriage to Inniss. And further documentation obtained by Metro shows that Harris used thousands of dollars in San Jose State University funds for "professional development" to woo, marry and keep in phone contact with his third wife, who lived on Africa's Ivory Coast.

"Cobie Harris is a trigamist," says Thomas Roland, former attorney for Harris' third wife, over his cell phone. "That much I will say."

Wedding Bells

COBIE HARRIS married his first wife, Wolansa Shiferaw, in 1975. The couple separated in 1980, but did not go though legal divorce proceedings at the time. Shiferaw eventually moved to Oakland and Harris married again in 1984, this time to Carla Inniss, with whom he started a family. The couple had twins in Los Angeles, where Harris was earning a Ph.D. in political science from UCLA, and settled in the Bay Area where their youngest daughter was born. In 1990, Harris moved his family into their Richmond home, where nothing would ruffle the facade of this seemingly typical family life until 1997.

Records obtained by Metro show that early this year, Harris traveled to Abidjan, the Ivory Coast's southern, palm-tree-lined capital, where on January 16, 1997, he married Cecelia Mou Charles, a United Nation diplomat from Kenya stationed there. The couple was married in the city's Cocody suburb in, according to the marriage certificate, a brief civil ceremony that took place at 5 in the afternoon. The new bride knew that her husband would soon have to return to his job in the United States. What she didn't know, however, was that the groom had two wives back in the United States--Shiferaw, estranged and living in Oakland, and Inniss, the mother of his three children, managing the family home in Richmond.

Four days later, Harris returned to California and began a new semester at San Jose State University.

As the purpose of his visit to Abidjan during the week of his wedding Harris wrote "to delivery [sic] a series of Lectures on African-American Political Activity" on his travel request form--which snagged him $2,000 in university-approved funding. A two-year record of his campus telephone bills lends insight into his relationship with Cecelia, who is currently stationed in South Africa and refused to be interviewed for this story.

The documents show that Harris dialed internationally, on average, five times per month, making his bills soar above those of his colleagues. Harris' monthly office phone bill ranged from $147.92--calls made in the last two weeks of January 1997--to $682.73 (in October 1997), with one 208-minute call to the Ivory Coast costing the university $425.56. In 1997 alone, the department chair made roughly $2,400 worth of international phone calls.

Throughout 1997, Harris was married to all three women and living with Carla Inniss, while courting his newest African wife, Cecelia Charles, from overseas.

According to court documents, in mid-1997, Charles decided to look for a home in the Bay Area. In January 1998, she bought a duplex in Berkeley, according to Alameda County Superior Court documents, where she took the upstairs apartment and Harris collected rent from the tenant living below. Just one month earlier, Harris' divorce from his first wife, Wolansa Shiferaw, became finalized.

According to court documents, Harris and Cecelia made time to visit one another--he would travel to Africa and she would fly to the United States. Harris' Richmond wife, Carla Inniss, even accompanied her husband on one of those journeys with money Cecelia had provided, believing it was solely for Harris and his children, according to Cecelia's divorce papers.

The games continued until somehow, when Cecelia began living nearby in Berkeley, she discovered Harris had another wife--and another life--and decided to file for divorce.

"Now that I realize that Mr. Harris is a polygamist," Charles wrote in a petition dated March 1999,"I wish to obtain a court order giving me exclusive control of the property so that he will not have any reason--feigned or real--to come upon (it.)" The stated reason for Charles' divorce was "voidable marriage, based on fraud," according to court documents.

Court documents show that Harris used three different middle names and also sometimes went by the name Kwasi Kokoroko,

Harris has not returned Metro's phone calls to his office. The university reports he is currently on sabbatical in Tanzania and is unavailable for comment.

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Marriages of Inconvenience: Having more than one legal spouse at a time is against the law, but it's not a prioirty for law enforcement.

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Good Standing

SAN JOSE STATE University did not initiate an investigation into Cobie Harris' use of university funds until September 1999, nearly two years after the trip and phone calls to the Ivory Coast. The following year, in June 2000, Harris reimbursed the university "an appropriate amount" for international calls, as well as paying "an appropriate allocation of costs for professional and personal activities" to the Ivory Coast, according to a statement from the University's Office of Public Affairs.

Dean Sylvia Rodriguez Andrew, who was responsible for signing off on Harris' travel requests throughout this time period, declined to comment about the delay in investigating the expenses and the payback arrangement. According to public information officer Sylvia Hutchinson, Harris, who is a tenured professor, remains a "faculty member in good standing."

Hutchinson's statement, however, doesn't wash with everyone. "It's doubtful full restitution was made," says a senior faculty member in the African American department who wishes to remain anonymous. "I'm shocked and appalled at the hypocrisy. This shows a lack of oversight by several administrators going all the way up to the top."

According to the university's own statement of professional responsibility, all faculty members must "hold themselves and their colleagues to high ethical standards and address ethical abuses when they become known." Harris' activities, which potentially fall under the unlawful use of state resources, according to the California Government Code, Section 8314, could feasibly make him liable for fines. According to the Government Code, that penalty, which is assessed in a civil action, cannot exceed $1,000 for each day of the violation, plus three times the value of the unlawful use of funds. But the university has taken no legal action regarding Harris' personal behavior.

In a Metro article that ran in October 1997--a pivotal year, it seems, for Harris--the professor was interviewed by a staff reporter about the media's coverage of African American reparations for slavery. "It's not getting much national press," Harris said in the article. "But it's the big talk in intellectual circles." The words that followed are laced--three and a half years later, in retrospect--with a heavy double meaning, even one Harris might find himself tripping over. "An apology is symbolic," Harris told the reporter as he peered across his desk. "It's a step in the right direction, but by itself, it's not adequate."

Silent Victims

AS MIDDLE WIFE Carla Inniss, a striking woman dressed all in black, sits in her elementary school classroom in Berkeley, engaged in a parent-teacher conference, her youngest daughter waits restlessly in the hallway. The hallway is covered in children's drawings, penciled pictures of round faces, with awkward, childish writing below. Inniss' youngest, a spirited and chatty 10-year-old who resembles her father, paces the hallway, anticipating when her mother will take her home.

Inniss, who filed for divorce this past fall after 15 years of marriage, refuses to speak of her husband or his other wives. "This is inappropriate--think of the embarrassment this has caused my children," she says. First wife Shiferaw, too, refuses to speak. Messages left on her answering machine went unreturned. A few days later, Shiferaw unplugged the machine altogether.

Dr. William Fitzgerald, of the Silicon Valley Relationship and Sex Center, says the type of behavior displayed in this case is consistent with that of a "sequestered polygamist."

"The literature on this says that this [kind of ] man is somewhat arrogant and has a sense of entitlement, a distinctly narcissistic trait," he says. "It's an act of selfishness to 'do what I want to do to get what I want' and there's a compensatory delusion that he needs to be secretive so he can't be found out. It's intriguing."

Linda Janowitz, Ph.D., a family therapist who has been practicing for 25 years, says the effect on wives in polygamy cases can be severe. She believes discovering the existence of another wife or family would spark a great deal of shame. "In an affair, there's a sense of betrayal--but that's one lie. Here, you are living a lie. Absolutely everything," she says, "is a lie."

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From the March 1-7, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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