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, where he currently teaches.
West implied, in a tweet, 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.
1/2 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? https://t.co/Wv8gcgEVtk— Cornel West (@CornelWest) February 19, 2021
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.
West is threatening to leave Harvard over what he refers to as disrespect. If he does so, it will not be the first time; 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 him 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.
West is not overtly a victim of Harvard’s secretive, closed-door tenure process; his request for tenure was denied because his post was not tenure-track, not because a secretive committee found him lacking in some way. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @miraefox.
Harvard denied Cornel West tenure. Is Israel why?