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Harvard grad students say Cornel West’s departure would be ‘devastating blow’ to scholars of color

Cornel West speaking at the W.E.B Du Bois Medal Ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theatre.   

Topic: 23DuBois
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Cornel West speaking at the W.E.B Du Bois Medal Ceremony at Harvard's Sanders Theatre. Topic: 23DuBois Reporter:Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2019

More than 60 doctoral students at Harvard University are rallying around professor Cornel West, who threatened to quit last week after he said the administration denied his request to be considered for tenure.

West’s departure, the students said, would deal “a devastating blow” to all scholars of color.

“If Professor Cornel West, one of the most important intellectuals of our time, is not deemed worthy of tenure, we must ask — what is the inherent message Harvard is sending to generations of Black scholars and intellectuals?” the students wrote in a letter posted online Monday. “This is an urgent matter of equity and parity for the University.”

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The letter, signed by PhD students across several schools and disciplines within the university, highlights West’s contributions to scholarship at large and his influence on the many students he has taught. It also raises larger questions about the university’s ability to attract and retain faculty of color.

“We are keenly aware of how predominantly white institutions disregard the contributions of Black scholars. To cast aspersions on Dr. West’s scholarship is not only deplorable, it also casts doubt on the generations of scholars who have benefited from and built upon his work,” they wrote.

The letter comes after West, 67, last week said that the Harvard administration had denied his request to be considered for tenure. West said that he was told he was “too controversial.” The university instead offered him a 10-year contract with an endowed chair position and a pay raise, which he declined, saying he will likely leave the university instead.

If he does leave, it would be the second departure from Harvard for the philosopher, progressive political activist, and outspoken social critic, who also earned his undergraduate degree there in 1973.

West began teaching at Harvard in 1994 then left in 2002 after a disagreement with former president Lawrence Summers, who reportedly criticized West’s scholarship at the time as not serious enough. West returned in 2017 to a non-tenured position and recently received a positive five-year review, both he and the university said.

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West’s request to be considered for tenure also comes at a time when the university is taking a hard look at its own tenure process after criticism that it disadvantages faculty of color. Criticism hit a peak 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.

A Harvard spokesman on Monday declined to comment on the graduate students’ letter. A request to speak with West was not returned.

The letter also raised larger questions about Harvard’s commitment to be a place of diverse scholarship, saying students have grown concerned over the past five years about the number of faculty of color, and especially Black faculty, leaving Harvard.

“The loss of Brother West, a towering intellectual and prophetic voice, on our campus would deal a devastating blow to an already near disenchanted community of color,” the students wrote.

Harvard in recent years has worked to diversify its faculty. A 2021 university report shows that women and people of color now make up 64 percent of tenure-track faculty and 41 percent of tenured faculty, an increase of about 10 percent from 2007.

However, the number of tenure-track professors who are “underrepresented minority” women, a term the university uses to refer to non-Asian people of color, shrank from 5 percent to 4 percent from 2007 to 2021, according to the report.

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The report does not include statistics on non-tenured faculty like West.

The university has lost several Black faculty members recently, including history professor Elizabeth Hinton, who joined Yale University, and divinity professor and Memorial Church minister Jonathan Walton, who accepted a position at Wake Forest University.

The graduate students’ letter describes West’s impact on students at Harvard, where he teaches across several disciplines.

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Dr. West’s presence on campus is electrifying,” they wrote. “The sight of his familiar black-and-white suit ensemble signals the presence of kindness, humility, and intellectual rigor, a combination that has become increasingly rare among today’s professionalized class of intellectuals.”

“We, the students of Harvard University, strive to be the best of who we are in the service of others because of scholars and teachers like Dr. West. He reminds us that solidarity is not abstract, that theories without practice fail, and that our minds do not live in a world apart from the dangers that threaten bodies on the streets.”


Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.