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Harvard denies Cornel West tenure

Prominent philosopher, academic threatening to leave university

Angela Rowlings
Harvard denies Cornel West tenure
Cornel West PHOTO: Gage Skidmore

Harvard University professor Dr. Cornel R. West, a preeminent Black philosopher, author and activist, said that he must consider a second departure from the school — nearly five years after his return — due to the university not offering him tenure.

“When you’re disrespected, you have to explore other possibilities,” West said. “You never, ever adjust to injustice or adapt yourself to disrespect. No, no, no.”

West, 67, who left his tenured University Chair post in 2002 following a public clash with former Harvard president Lawrence H. “Larry” Summers, returned in 2017 as a Professor of Practice of Public Philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School and in the Department of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

“There’s no way I could stay after his vicious attacks on me,” said West of the spat with Summers. In the interim, he held posts at Princeton University and at Union Theological Seminary.

At issue now, said West, is the respect, stability and continuity a tenured position confers.

“It’s also a matter of going through the front door instead of going through the back door,” he said.

Prof. David Carrasco, Neil L. Rudenstine Professor of the Study of Latin America with a joint appointment with the Department of Anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, served on the review committee made up of members of the Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. He said the committee recommended West’s reappointment to his current position and also that he be considered for tenure.

“As a lecturer, he’s absolutely one of the most brilliant presenters of not only philosophical thought, but also of African American history,” said Carrasco, a Mexican American scholar. “In my view, he is completely deserving of tenure at Harvard. I mean, he had tenure at Harvard, he was a university professor before, and I think he’s absolutely the kind of professor that Harvard should be happy to tenure.”

West has also received an outpouring of support from students at the Ivy League institution. A group of more than 60 graduate students signed a letter Monday urging the university to grant West tenure. Other students contacted by the Banner said West has greatly enhanced their academic experience at Harvard.

“Dr. West is a dynamic, sensitive, and insightful lecturer and professor. I have left every single class with something to think about, and he has been a great support to many of my friends and me in our professional and personal endeavors,” emailed James Ramsey, who attended Harvard as an undergraduate student and is completing his final year of a joint program between the Law School and the Divinity School. “Losing him would have a major impact on many, many students here.”

Harvard University declined comment for this story. According to reporting in the Boston Globe last week, university spokesperson Jonathan Swain said the faculty committee was only in charge of reviewing West’s reappointment and does not have authority to conduct a review for tenure. West was recently appointed to the Victor S. Thomas Professorship of Public Philosophy, an endowed chair position, at the Harvard Divinity School.

“How can it be a prestigious professorship if you don’t have tenure? It’s like putting lipstick on a pig,” said West. “Too often, that’s how Black people are treated. They try to give you all the superficial stuff but don’t want to give you the substantial stuff, which is genuine respect. That’s the history of Black people in America right there.”

Harvard has a difficult history retaining Black and brown faculty. The institution did not offer a tenured position to any Black professor until Martin Kilson received the distinction in 1969. Derrick Albert Bell Jr. was the first Black professor to be tenured at Harvard Law School in 1971. He gave up his professorship in the 1990s to protest the lack of women of color on the faculty at the law school.

“So Harvard doesn’t think @CornelWest deserves tenure. I’m feeling flattered to be in such great company. Sending you love, brother,” wrote former Harvard professor Lorgia García Peña on Twitter Feb. 18. The Latinx studies scholar was denied tenure at the university in 2019.

“We do see it as a pattern,” said Chinelo Okonkwo, president of the Black Law Students Association, of Peña. “Her scholarship was excellent. The students at the school made a cross-organizational effort to establish an ethnic studies program. The university decision not to grant Professor Peña tenure was a direct blow to those efforts and shows that the university undervalued and is consistently undermining the scholarship of Black professors and professors of color.”

Okonkwo asked, “What kind of university does Harvard want to be moving forward? Is it one that actually values academic freedom, and does it actually truly value diversity and inclusion in the way that it says it does?”

Cornel West, Harvard Unviersity
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