Cornel West, the outspoken public intellectual, made good on his promise to leave Harvard after he said the university denied a faculty committee’s request that he be considered for tenure.
Harvard’s failure to back West fueled rumors and an outcry among students and colleagues, especially in the context of a broader reckoning about the underrepresentation of faculty members of color in the coveted ranks of tenure at elite universities. The prospect of West’s being denied tenure enraged his colleague Jamaica Kincaid, who refused to be silent about Harvard’s secretive tenure process.
“Harvard has done a lot of stupid things, but this would be one of the stupidest,” Kincaid, novelist and Harvard professor of African and African American Studies, told me. “Cornel is a national treasure. The whole notion of subjecting him to another review was insulting to who he is.”
West—the wildly popular philosophy and religion professor, equally comfortable discussing everything from jazz to neoliberalism in classrooms, churches, and prisons—left a tenured position at Harvard in 2002 for Princeton, and returned to Harvard in 2017 for a non-tenured joint appointment as a professor of the practice of public philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School (HDS) and of African and African American studies at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). He has accepted the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair at Union Theological Seminary, a progressive ecumenical school where he taught from 2012 to 2016.
Many Harvard professors are deeply saddened by Harvard’s failure to hold onto West after his colleagues backed him. “The African and African American Studies faculty firmly believes unanimously that Cornel West should be a tenured member of the Harvard faculty,” said Kincaid. While HDS has offered no official response on the matter of West’s tenure, professor emeritus Preston Williams, who became the school’s first African American professor in 1971, says West “deserves tenure by any criteria imaginable.” HDS issued a statement on Monday, saying, “We had hoped to retain him on our faculty for many years to come.”
In the 30 years since I received a master’s degree in theological studies at HDS, I have watched the university lose numerous faculty members from underrepresented groups. Sometimes candidates have faculty backing but are denied tenure by ad hoc committees advising the president, who has final say. Harvard has failed to make counteroffers when scholars are lured to other universities. Such departures alienate students and faculty who question Harvard’s stated commitment to diversity and its judgment in evaluating merit.
In the late 1980s, Lamin Sanneh, a scholar of Islam and Christianity from the Gambia, was denied tenure despite strong faculty support at the divinity school, only to move on to a full professorship at Yale. “I was ready to quit and take another job [because of the decision to decline Sanneh’s tenure],” said Harvey Cox, Harvard professor of divinity emeritus, who served on the tenure committee. “It was the university shooting itself in the foot.”
Bernadette Brooten, a lesbian scholar, dared to write in the 1990s about early Christian responses to female homoeroticism. Harvard did not make a counteroffer when she was wooed by Brandeis University, where she became a distinguished professor and received a MacArthur “genius” grant. In 2019, Lorgia García Peña, an Afro-Latina scholar specializing in ethnic studies, was denied tenure, resulting in protests from hundreds of ethnic studies students and scholars.
According to a 2021 study, 41 percent of tenured faculty members are nonwhite males, up from 29 percent in 2007. The FAS dean, Claudine Gay, said during a faculty meeting on March 2 that Harvard is “unequivocally” committed to recruiting and retaining a diverse faculty.
But HDS has only two tenured Black faculty members, out of 21.
“Harvard has a lamentable and miserable record on minority candidates,” says Cox.
More than 160 Harvard doctoral students have signed a petition saying the move leaves students “disenchanted” and threatens the university’s ability to attract people of color, and undergraduates are circulating a letter demanding tenure for West, already signed by almost 1,700 students and alumni, according to The Harvard Crimson.
“Harvard has this arrogance that everyone wants to go there so they don’t have to worry about their brand,” said Mark Kabban, a Harvard doctoral student in education. “But students are going to be hurt. Cornel was my Harvard experience. At Harvard you’re taught you will work for the top companies, be leaders in government. Cornel reminded us to stay connected to the person suffering the most.”
Mafaz Al-Suwaidan, a Harvard doctoral student in religion and African and African American studies, said criticism of West is politically motivated. “He is the only faculty member who shows up for student activist causes, whether that be the Harvard Graduate Union Strike, the Prison Divestment Campaign [or] the Palestine Solidarity Committee…. He is one of the few in the academy today who can teach in great depth about literature, politics, history, [and] philosophy while connecting what he teaches to on-the-ground struggles.”
West began teaching at Harvard in 1994, leaving the university in 2002 after then-President Lawrence Summers rebuked him for recording a rap CD and for scholarship he didn’t consider serious enough, a fight Summers characterized at the time as a “terrible misunderstanding.”
Kincaid said that Harvard “is forgetting the hideous racism of Larry Summers that drove [West] away from Harvard in the first place. They should have apologized to him and just shower him with words and deeds of appreciation.”
By the time West returned to Harvard in 2017, he had already received tenure at Harvard and Yale, but he accepted a non-tenured position because he needed a job and wanted to return to Boston, he told The New York Times. Harvard recently offered him a 10-year contract, an endowed chair, and a raise, according to university spokesperson Jonathan Swain. But West, who is no longer commenting on the matter, believed his lifetime of work qualified him for the top honor—and security—of tenure.
West has his share of detractors, most notably religion scholar Michael Eric Dyson, who claimed in The New Republic that West is on a pronounced “scholarly decline” and objected to his vehement denunciations of President Obama, issues that could arise in a tenure review. Still, even some people he’s sparred with, such as Wake Forest political science professor Melissa Harris-Perry, offer unequivocal support. West is “a trailblazing public intellectual deserving of tenure at any American university,” she tweeted.
“Even people who are critical of his more recent popular scholarship do not argue that his early philosophical work wasn’t absolutely brilliant. That alone is tenurable,” said R. Marie Griffith, Washington University humanities professor, who initially received tenure at HDS. “When Cornel and I were colleagues at Princeton, the admiration and adoration for him was unbounded among faculty and students. Students would line up at his office to talk to him and he would stay late until he had seen the last one.”
West, 67, had also suggested that he was up against ageism at Harvard. Summers, for one, urged faculty to focus on professors whose best scholarly work was ahead of them, according to Cox.
“It’s a strange attitude that reveals the terrible state of the field,” said Eddie Glaude, professor of religion and African American studies at Princeton, who has been a visiting scholar at Harvard. “You don’t just look at the later work of [American philosopher] Richard Rorty or [German philosopher] Jürgen Habermas. Cornel is a philosopher of that import.”
West’s criticism of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, many believe, is a major factor in the university’s failure to conduct a tenure review. “Is Harvard a place for a free black man like myself whose Christian faith and witness put equal value on Palestinian & Jewish babies like all babies & reject all occupation as immoral?” he tweeted.
Kincaid rejects any suggestion that West, who co-authored the book, Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America with Rabbi Michael Lerner, harbors any anti-Semitic sentiment. “I’ve converted to Judaism. I’m not going to support an anti-Semite,” she said.
Cox, who has the perspective of a man in his 90s who spent his career at Harvard, thinks the university needs a full-scale audit conducted by people of color unaffiliated with the institution. “We need to look at all aspects of policy, including recruitment, fundraising, promotion, classroom activity, and what we are looking for in scholars.” Harvard, he says, needs outside eyes looking in.