Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Dr. Cornel West - You Know WHO And WHAT You Must Never Discuss...,

bostonreview |  Harvard hired Dr. Cornel West in 2016 without tenure? This was news to me. Five years ago I wrote what I believed was a tenure review letter for Dr. West; I even named the file “cornel_west_tenure.docx.” I received the request on April 18, 2016. Given Dr. West’s dual appointments in both the Harvard Divinity School and the Department of African and African-American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the request was signed by David Hempton, Dean of Harvard Divinity School, and Claudine Gay, Dean of Social Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It asked me to evaluate Dr. West for a senior appointment as Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy. The letter never states that this was to be a non-tenured appointment, nor is tenure explicitly mentioned. But having received literally hundreds of requests over the course of three decades, I can say it certainly read like a tenured appointment.

Besides, Dr. West had already been tenured at Harvard—and at Yale and at Princeton. Dr. West left his tenured position at Harvard in 2002 after then Harvard president Lawrence Summers questioned his scholarship, his commitment to teaching, and his political advocacy. He took a tenured position at Princeton, where he remained for more than ten years before moving to Union Theological Seminary and then back to Harvard. It never occurred to me that Harvard would bring him back as a contract laborer, especially given the criteria for tenure: the value and originality of scholarship.

It is ridiculous to have to say this, but the public attacks make it necessary: Dr. West is a formidable intellectual who works in the interstices of philosophy, theology, cultural criticism, political analysis, and social critique. He has produced a massive body of work that cuts across forms and disciplines—books, articles, published dialogues, lectures, debates, and commentary displayed across several different media platforms. No need to reproduce his curriculum vitae here. Just consider the fact that Dr. West has been the subject of several scholarly books: Mark David Wood’s Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism (2000), Rosemary Cowan’s Cornel West: The Politics of Redemption (2002), Clarence Johnson’s Cornel West and Philosophy (2003), and Keith Gilyard’s Composition and Cornel West: Notes Toward a Deep Democracy (2008), to name just a few. Only a handful of Dr. West’s tenured colleagues can make such a claim. And beyond all this, he is an immensely popular teacher and a stalwart supporter of student activism.

Graduate students from across the campus swiftly petitioned the university to reconsider its decision to deny Dr. West tenure. Jonathan L. Swain, Harvard’s director of media relations, would not comment on the petition, but he did say previously that West’s reappointment committee did not have the authority to review him for tenure. To put it bluntly, either the dean, the provost, or the president blocked any possibility of turning Dr. West’s appointment into a tenured position, but no one so far is willing to take responsibility for this decision. Dr. West suspects it has to do with his politics—notably, his active support for the Bernie Sanders campaign and his consistent advocacy for Palestinian human rights. I agree. Harvard has a problem with outspoken, principled faculty who take public positions that question university policy, challenge authority, or might ruffle the feathers of big donors. And when the faculty in question are scholars of color, their odds of getting through the tenure process are slim to none.