Cornel West quits Harvard after failing to win tenure

Leading black intellectual and activist returns to Columbia-affiliated seminary

March 9, 2021
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Cornel West, a leading black intellectual and political activist, has carried through on a threat to leave Harvard University over its failure to grant him tenure.

“Our struggle for truth and justice continues with style and smiles,” Professor West said on Twitter, announcing his decision to return to Union Theological Seminary, a progressive Christian seminary affiliated with Columbia University in New York City.

Once part of a powerhouse of black scholarship at Harvard, Professor West previously resigned from the Ivy League institution in 2002 during a dispute with its then president, Lawrence Summers. He had been threatening for several weeks to repeat the move if he did not win tenure.

He finally announced his planned departure through The Boycott Times, a social activist publication where he serves on the advisory board. There, he said he had returned to Harvard in 2017 to see if it would tolerate him talking frankly of the nation’s failure to confront oppressive capitalism.

“Will Harvard – as the site for elite formation and ruling class formation – will it be willing to be truthful about its own will to truth?” Professor West said, describing his thought process at the time.

While he has acknowledged elsewhere that he also returned to Harvard in a non-tenure position largely out of the need to find a job, he generated a weeks-long pressure campaign that gained attention as a measure of equity challenges at Harvard and across US higher education.

About 80 per cent of full-time professors in the US are white, according to 2018 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Harvard’s data show 41 per cent of its tenured faculty are not white males, up from 29 per cent in 2007.

Yet Professor West was among faculty and students who have demanded further improvement, and protested the recent denial of tenure for Lorgia García Peña, an associate professor of Romance languages and literatures.

Harvard has given Professor West some encouragement, including a comment to a faculty meeting by its current president, Lawrence Bacow, expressing appreciation for black faculty in the context of his tenure demand. A university spokesman, however, noted that faculty reviews at both the Harvard Divinity School and the Department of African and African American Studies recommended against tenure.

Professor West will begin in July at Union, where he first taught at age 23 after earning a bachelor’s degree magna cum laude at Harvard in three years. His courses will cover philosophy, politics, cultural theory and literature, the seminary said in a statement.

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