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Cornel West Threatens Second Departure from Harvard

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UPDATED: Feb. 22, 2021 at 10:45 a.m.

Harvard professor and outspoken political activist Cornel R. West ’74 has threatened to leave Harvard — again — after he said the University dismissed his request to be considered for tenure.

In an interview with the Boston Globe published Thursday, West — a Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School and in the Department of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts of Sciences — said he requested consideration for tenure based on a “positive five-year review.”

West said the University rejected his request, however, and instead offered him a 10-year contract for an endowed chair position and a corresponding pay raise.

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West went on to claim that the University labeled his work as “too risky” and “too fraught” as justification for not reviewing his request for tenure.

“I’m too controversial,” West described his conversation with administrators to the Globe.

In a Friday tweet, West wrote he believes the University denied his request for tenure in part because of his outspoken criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

“After being tenured at Yale, Harvard, Princeton & Union Theological Seminary, the recent Harvard denial of a tenure process strikes me as a political decision I reject,” West wrote. “Nothing stands in the way of my profound love for & solidarity with oppressed peoples wherever they are!!”

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In 1993, the Divinity School and the African and African American Studies Department offered West tenure, and he eventually rose to the rank of University Professor, the Harvard’s highest faculty honor. In 2002, however, West elected to leave Harvard after a high-profile spat with then-University president Lawrence H. “Larry” Summers.

According to West, Summers questioned the merit of his scholarship, asked to monitor his research, and requested West’s course records to check for grade inflation. Following the conflict with Summers, West departed to teach at Princeton for 14 years.

In spring 2016, Divinity School faculty voted to invite West back. The University offered West a position as a professor of the “practice of public philosophy’”— a title bestowed upon individuals who have made outstanding contributions in their professional fields. In 2019, West also returned to teaching African and African American Studies 10: “Introduction to African American Studies” within FAS.

West’s public threat marks the latest controversy surrounding Harvard’s tenure review process.

The University received an onslaught of criticism in December 2019 for denying tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures Associate Professor Lorgia García Peña. Later that month, FAS Dean Claudine Gay launched a “comprehensive review” of tenure processes within the FAS following pressure from students and a letter signed by 107 faculty members. The review remains ongoing.

In a February interview with The Crimson, Gay said that the committee — led by Dean for Faculty Affairs and Planning Nina Zipser — was “on track” to provide a final report on Harvard’s tenure processes to all FAS affiliates later in the spring semester.

“[The committee]’s work is still underway, including lots of community outreach to solicit feedback on every aspect of our process,” she said.

Peña responded to West’s predicament on Twitter Thursday.

“So Harvard doesn’t think @CornelWest deserves tenure,” she wrote. “I’m feeling flattered to be in such great company. Sending you love, brother.”

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West did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Responding to a request for comment, University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain referenced a statement he provided the Globe in which he offered insight into the offer Harvard made West.

Swain wrote that a committee of faculty at the Divinity School and FAS successfully recommended the University reappoint West to his current posts. The committee did not have authority to conduct a review for tenure, per Swain.

Swain added that West was also recently appointed to the Victor S. Thomas Professorship of Public Philosophy at the Divinity School, an endowed chair position.

West told the Globe he feels “disrespected” by the University and will not “try to negotiate respect.”

He added he would like to return to Princeton or Union Theological Seminary.

“If I cannot be put up for tenure, then it is clear they don’t think I’m worthy of tenure,” West said. “And I will go.”

CORRECTION: February 22, 2021

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Dean of Students Katherine G. O’Dair was leading the FAS committee reviewing tenure procedures. In fact, Dean for Faculty Affairs and Planning Nina Zipser is leading the committee.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at andy.wang@thecrimson.com.

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