The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cornel West says in resignation letter over tenure dispute that Harvard is in ‘decline and decay’

Cornel West introduces Colin Kaepernick at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University in October 2018, in Cambridge, Mass. (Paul Marotta/Getty Images)
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Cornel West, considered one of the most prominent Black philosophers and progressive activists in the country, announced Monday that he has resigned from his position at Harvard University’s Divinity School, saying the institution is in a state of “decline and decay” and “spiritual rot.”

In a resignation letter dated June 30 and posted to Twitter, West suggested that discrimination at the university drove him to leave the Divinity School. The 68-year-old scholar said in March that he was abandoning his quest for tenure at Harvard to return to the Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he first taught more than four decades earlier.

“How sad it is to see our beloved Harvard Divinity School in such decline and decay,” he wrote. “The disarray of a scattered curriculum, the disenchantment of talented yet deferential faculty, and the disorientation of precious students loom large.”

West, who added that Harvard has become “market-driven,” tweeted, “Let us bear witness against this spiritual rot!”

“The School has no comment on Dr. West’s letter,” Jonathan Beasley, a spokesman for the Divinity School, said Tuesday morning.

The release of what West described as his “candid” resignation letter came after journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones announced last week that she had accepted a faculty position at Howard University and turned down an offer to teach at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill because of a long and remarkably contentious back-and-forth over tenure. Although trustees for UNC-Chapel Hill voted to award tenure to Hannah-Jones, the vote came after the public university hired her as a professor without the job-protection status, which caused faculty members and students to protest that she had been mistreated.

Nikole Hannah-Jones to join Howard faculty after UNC tenure controversy

At Harvard, many students were sharing West’s letter on social media, said Noah Harris, the student body president, “because it’s really bringing to light a lot of the treatment of professors of color. … We have to do a better job as a university, as a culture.”

Harris, who is Black and from Mississippi, said West was the first Black teacher he ever had. Hundreds of students have taken West’s introductory course, he said, and have been able to talk about things in their lives as a shared experience. At Harvard, Harris said he became close to several professors who left because they weren’t given the opportunities and respect they deserve. “It’s just devastating to the student body every time.”

Harris said he doesn’t know all the facts about what happened regarding West. “What I do know is that Harvard lost one of the best professors of our generation,” he said.

David Carrasco, a professor at the Divinity School and the department of anthropology wrote in an email that he was hurt and deeply disappointed — “down for the count.”

“Cornel West is an intellectual powerhouse, a truth teller, an attentive and even generous colleague and a beloved teacher,” he wrote. At convocation and graduation talks, “he lifted us all up!” Carrasco wrote. “Why would the university now say ‘no’ to his very reasonable request in a timely manner? Something is very wrong in this story.”

West is irreplaceable, said Jacob K. Olupona, a professor of African and African American Studies and at the Divinity School, who wrote in an email that West is “an outstanding professor; a leading intellectual and scholar of repute.”

“We’re still hoping that he will be able to come back, and return to our community,” Olupona said by phone. “That is our wish and our prayer.”

West was previously a tenured Ivy League professor at Harvard, Princeton and Yale. He left Harvard in 2002 after a public fight with the university’s president at the time, but returned to the institution in a nontenured position in 2017.

He told The Washington Post that although he was happy to come back to Harvard for “one last chance” four years ago, not having tenure had been a point of contention since his return to campus.

“You could tell they were so frightened of me,” he said of the administration.

The news first came to light in the spring when West, in announcing he was leaving, said the university had turned down a recommendation by a faculty committee that would have made his untenured position a tenured one. When that tenure fight became public, he told the Boycott Times, a nonprofit outlet, in March that Harvard had made strides in diversity but that the “pettiness” of the talks about his status made him feel “disrespected and devalued.”

“Harvard has actually done very well in terms of bringing different peoples of different colors and gender at a high level into the administration,” he said. “But it does not yet translate on the ground in terms of faculty. It does not yet translate in terms of being able to speak to the seeking of truth among the students.”

The school changed course following an outcry to give him tenure, but West told the Harvard Crimson that the university’s shift as a result of public pressure only reaffirmed his decision to leave.

West, a professor of the practice of public philosophy, said in his letter that he hoped for a different outcome to an issue that has been a sticking point since his return to the university. He said he had been earning “a salary less than what I received 15 years earlier.”

“I hoped and prayed I could still end my career with some semblance of intellectual intensity and personal respect,” he wrote. “How wrong I was!”

The public intellectual claimed that “the shadow of Jim Crow” is present in Harvard through “the language of superficial diversity.” Although the issue of tenure in university classrooms has come up in the past week with him and Hannah-Jones, West said to The Post that many Black instructors face what he describes as a “systemic problem” in higher education.

In addition to mentioning the lack of tenure, he noted the administration’s “hostility toward the Palestinian cause.” The school has reportedly invested nearly $200 million in companies linked to Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.

The lack of support and well wishes from the administration after his mother died were also mentioned in his resignation letter. “In my case, a serious commitment to Veritas requires resignation — with precious memories but absolutely no regrets!” he wrote.

West said Tuesday that he was surprised by the reaction to his resignation letter, which he made public to start a “substantive public conversation about the prospects for excellence in higher education.” He emphasized that the problems he laid out are not exclusively confined to the halls of Harvard.

“As I think about Harvard, I think about the best, and I think about the worst,” he told The Post. “That best is the magnificent care and challenge and adventure and deep love and friendships and students and colleagues.

“The worst are the hounds of hell: greed, contempt and disrespect.”

Read more:

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