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Cornel West leaving Harvard teaching post after tenure dispute

Cornel West announced Monday that he’s leaving for a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Topic: 23DuBois
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Cornel West announced Monday that he’s leaving for a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Topic: 23DuBois Reporter:Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2019

Cornel West, the philosopher, progressive political activist, and outspoken social critic who last month threatened to leave his Harvard University teaching post following what he said was the denial of his request to be considered for tenure, announced Monday that he’s leaving for a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

West, who has a long history of teaching at the seminary, will rejoin its faculty on July 1 as a fully tenured professor. He will teach classes covering philosophy, politics, culture, and practice, with a particular focus on the origins and evolution of white nationalism, the seminary announced.

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Union president the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, said the school is delighted to welcome West back for what will be the fourth time in his career.

“If there was such a thing as tenure times four, he would have it here,” Jones said in a phone interview with The Boston Globe.

Monday’s announcement marks West’s second acrimonious departure from Harvard, where he’s taught in the law school, divinity school, and Department of African and African American Studies. West first left 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 told the Globe previously.

West, 67, announced his move via Twitter on Monday after an interview he gave to The Boycott Times. He was still listed on Monday afternoon on the Harvard Divinity School website as the Victor S. Thomas Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy.

In a press release from Union Theological Seminary, West said “I am honored to return back home to Union, to a place with brilliant faculty and moral tenacity and that provides an opportunity to continue to work with students who are eager to put their faith into practice while striving for justice and truth.”

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The deans of the Harvard Divinity School said they were saddened to see their colleague depart.

“He has made an enormous contribution to our curriculum and to our capacity to address issues of racial justice in the United States and around the world. We had hoped to retain him on our faculty for many years to come. We nonetheless wish him every success in his future endeavors. We will miss him very much,” wrote David N. Hempton, dean of the faculty of divinity, and David Holland, acting dean of Harvard Divinity School, in a statement to the school on Monday.

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

Harvard spokesman Jonathan Swain told the Globe last month that he couldn’t comment on the specifics of the offer the university made to West but explained the process for his recent performance review.

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.

After his review West was also recently appointed to the 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, Swain said.

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West, however, maintained the dispute began when, after the 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,” West said last month.

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.

After West initially threatened to quit Harvard last month, more than 60 doctoral students at the university penned a letter in support of him. West’s departure, the students said, would deal “a devastating blow” to all scholars of color.

Mafaz Al-Suwaidan, a PhD student at Harvard who helped organize the letter of support, said on Monday the news came as a huge disappointment to many.

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“I’m both glad that he’ll be at a place that values him as he should be valued and incredibly saddened to lose a mentor of his stature and moral commitment at Harvard,” said Al-Suwaidan, who is earning a degree in religion and African and African American studies.

Al-Suwaidan, who trained under West as a master’s student and now counts him as a member of her PhD committee, said Harvard’s professed commitment to antiracism rings slightly hollow after seeing how it treated West.

“We (doctoral students) fought for him, undergraduate and master’s students fought for him, faculty of both departments in which he’s appointed . . . fought for him — and yet none of that mattered to the people making this decision,” she said.

In his new role at Union, West will hold the prestigious Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair, named for the renowned German theologian who fought against the Nazi regime.

“He embodies in his work everything that the school stands for, and I think that’s why he has always found a home here,” Jones, Union’s president, said. “We are an activist, intellectually rigorous and very socially engaged seminary. He can just be Cornel.”

West previously served at Union from 1977 to 1984, from 1987 to 1988, and again from 2012 to 2016, according to the seminary.

Travis Andersen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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