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Cornel West threatens to leave Harvard again

“I wasn’t raised to put up with being disrespected or tolerate disrespect,” Cornel West said on Thursday of his issues with Harvard. “I don’t try to negotiate respect.”Justin Saglio for the Boston Globe/file

Harvard University professor Cornel West, the well known philosopher, progressive political activist, and outspoken social critic, is threatening to leave Harvard University after he said the administration disrespected him by denying his request to be considered for tenure.

If West follows through on the threat, it would be his second departure from the university, where he teaches in the law school, divinity school, and Department of African and African American Studies. West first departed in 2002 after a public spat with then-president Lawrence Summers over the quality of West’s scholarship and West’s complaints about the depth of the university’s commitment to affirmative action.


“It is once again this issue of just not putting up with being disrespected,” West said Thursday in his first interview about his possible departure.

West said he has been teaching courses via Zoom during the pandemic from his home in Cambridge. He spent much of 2019 and early 2020 traveling the country as cochairman of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

“It’s sad you have to go through this again,” he said. “But I wasn’t raised to put up with being disrespected or tolerate disrespect. I don’t try to negotiate respect.”

A Harvard spokesman disputed West’s characterization of events but did not deny that West’s request for tenure had been declined at this time.

West, 67, said the administration offered him a prestigious endowed chair with a 10-year contract and a pay raise, but he is not interested.

The controversy comes during a time of increased scrutiny of Harvard’s tenure process. In January of last year, more than 100 faculty signed a letter to Claudine Gay, dean for the faculty of arts and sciences, that prompted her to open an inquiry into the process.

The professors called for a review that took into account the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. Longstanding criticisms of the process boiled over in 2019, when hundreds of scholars protested Harvard’s decision to deny tenure to Lorgia García Peña, an ethnic studies scholar whose work involves race and ethnicity.


West on Thursday said he has watched a number of Black faculty depart over the past year and a half, including history professor Elizabeth Hinton, who left for Yale University, and divinity professor and Memorial Church minister Jonathan Walton, who became dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity.

“I don’t think they really understood how to keep these folk in terms of respect,” West said.

West, who was born in Tulsa, Okla., has long been a provocative figure in academia and involved in outside pursuits. He appeared in two “Matrix” films and has made several spoken-word and hip hop albums. West initially supported Barack Obama for president in 2008 but later became an outspoken critic of Obama’s stances on Israel and the Wall Street bailout, among other issues.

West earned his undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1973, received a PhD from Princeton University, and returned to Harvard to teach in 1994.

When Summers, the former treasury secretary, took over as Harvard president in 2001, he reportedly questioned West’s activities including his rap CD, his role as an adviser to activist Al Sharpton in a possible presidential campaign in 2004, and for allegedly giving students easy A’s in his classes.

The discord led to West’s departure in 2002 and he joined the faculty at Princeton, where he taught until 2012 when he left to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York.


When West returned to Harvard in 2017, he was appointed as a nontenured professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy appointed jointly to the Harvard Divinity School and the Harvard Department of African and African American Studies.

West said Thursday that the latest dispute began when, after a positive five-year review this year, he asked to be considered for the tenure process. He said his request was denied based on the substance of 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 said.

Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain said he could not comment on the specifics of the offer the university made to West but gave details on the process he recently underwent.

Following normal procedures, a faculty committee from both schools to which West is affiliated recently recommended his reappointment at his current rank, a decision endorsed by the deans of both schools and the university provost, Swain said. West was notified and the university hopes he accepts, he said.

West was also recently appointed to the Victor S. Thomas Professorship of Public Philosophy, an endowed chair position, at the Harvard Divinity School, the university said.

The faculty committee was only in charge of reviewing his reappointment and does not have authority to conduct a review for tenure, the spokesman said.


West said he has no plans yet for what he will do next if he does leave Harvard. He said he would like to return to Princeton or Union Theological Seminary.

West said he has requested a meeting with Harvard President Lawrence Bacow but has not heard back.

“If I cannot be put up for tenure, then it is clear they don’t think I’m worthy of tenure. And I will go,” West said.