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Denied tenure, Cornel West is leaving Harvard. Is it because of his support for Palestine?

Editor’s note: This story has been updated. It was originally published on February 22, 2021.

Dr. Cornel West is an intellectual giant, one of a select group of academics who have recognition outside their field; he has published a wide range of books and has frequently appeared as a talking head on TV, and he is known for his fiery progressive politics and criticism of race in the U.S. He was also just denied consideration for tenure by Harvard University, and is leaving the university over the dispute. He will be moving to Union Theological Seminary, where he has previously taught; he will be entering his new position with tenure.

West implied that Harvard’s decision is retaliation for his critical stance on Israel. “Is Harvard a place for a free Black man like myself whose Christian faith & witness put equal value on Palestinian & Jewish babies — like all babies — & reject all occupations as immoral?” he wrote in a tweet.

In an interview with The Boycott Times, he added that there are certain “taboo issues” at Harvard. “One of them is the Palestinian cause, wrestling with a serious moral spiritual political critique of the Israeli occupation,” West said.

Harvard contests these allegations; West’s appointment, a joint position between the Harvard Divinity School and the Harvard Department of African American Studies, was not a tenure-track role, so the committee which reviewed and renewed his position say they did not have the authority to evaluate him for tenure. They did offer him a 10-year contract and an endowed chair, the Victor S. Thomas Professorship of Public Philosophy.

But West says the issue was his work. “What I’m told is it’s too risky. And these are quotes. It’s too fraught. And I’m too controversial,” he told the Boston Globe.

Students agree. In a petition, signed by over 90 organizations and interest groups at Harvard, including Jewish groups such as the Jewish Coalition for Peace, students called the denial of tenure “a testament to Harvard’s continued expulsion of faculty who offer incisive analysis of white supremacy, racial capitalism, Zionism, and the military-industrial complex, all of which Professor West fervently critiques.”

“Professor West has been vocal about his opposition to the settler colonial violence of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, which he believes was a decisive factor in Harvard’s refusal. With the rise of campus activism for Justice in Palestine, West stood with student organizers in their calls for Harvard to divest from companies implicated in human rights violations against Palestinians. Harvard must urgently commit to ensuring academic freedom of expression for those in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, including Professor Cornel West,” the statement continued. Graduate students also wrote and signed a letter of protest.

This is not the first time West has left Harvard; West taught at Harvard from 1994-2002, and left over disagreements with then-president Lawrence Summers. Summers criticized West’s spoken word albums and involvement with Al Sharpton, as well as accusing him of contributing to grade inflation. Later, on NPR, West called Summers “the Ariel Sharon of higher education.”

It’s also not the first time West has caught flak for his positions on Israel; the professor criticized President Obama harshly over his support for Israel, calling the former president a “war criminal” who is complicit in innocent deaths, to the dismay of many on the left.

However, West is not the first casualty of an opaque tenure process at Harvard; he is simply the professor with the highest profile to be rejected. He is part of a rising dispute with Harvard’s tenure system, which critics argue tends to deny tenure to women and people of color in particular. In the past few years, the university has denied tenure to several people of color, including those such as West who have activist ties, leading to calls for greater transparency from both students and the academic world.

Professor Ahmed Ragab was a professor of science and religion at Harvard, an Egyptian immigrant specializing in medieval Islamic history as well as an activist on issues of immigration as well as trans rights. He was the first Muslim professor to come up for tenure at the Divinity School, but was denied without a review from the tenure committee in 2019. (Full disclosure=: I was a student at the Divinity School during this time, and took a course with Ragab; I did not study with West. Hundreds of my fellow students signed a letter of protest, which also noted the university’s failure to retain women and people of color as faculty, citing two women in Asian studies who left Harvard after being denied tenure.)

In 2020, Lorgia Garcia-Pena, a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures who studied race and ethnicity, was also denied tenure despite an overwhelmingly positive faculty review; the ad hoc committee, which decides tenure at Harvard, still rejected her. Students and ethnic studies scholars signed letters criticizing the decision and excoriating Harvard’s supposed commitment to diversity and ethnic studies.

“Universities cannot simultaneously pledge a commitment to diversity and inclusion, and not take seriously the knowledge produced by and for communities that have long been excluded from or marginalized within the academy,” the faculty letter reads.

“As a black Latina immigrant of working-class background, I go against the university’s power structure with my work, with my activism, and with my body. I don’t belong at Harvard and I was made to know that in multiple ways and ultimately with my tenure denial,” Garcia-Pena said herself.

West’s denial of tenure is not quite the same as those who suffered from from Harvard’s secretive, closed-door tenure process; his request for tenure was officially denied because his post was not tenure-track, not because a secretive committee found him lacking in some way. Technically, he was never even evaluated for tenure. But elite universities often bend rules to lure famed thinkers to their hallowed halls, to continue a reputation of excellence and to draw students. West is an obvious candidate for such a choice, especially if Harvard is putting an emphasis on diversity — the student body who is attracted by West naturally tends to be diverse.

West clearly feels that the denial of tenure is not truly a technical issue. “If I cannot be put up for tenure, then it is clear they don’t think I’m worthy of tenure,” he said.

Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @miraefox.


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