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OPINION

Cornel West, Harvard, and the need for more transparency in tenure review

West’s feud with the university underscores why transparency is a key enforcement mechanism of antidiscrimination policies.

Though Harvard offered him a pay raise, an endowed chair position, and a 10-year contract earlier this year, tenure review was not on the table — that is, until his negotiations with the school spilled into the news.
Though Harvard offered him a pay raise, an endowed chair position, and a 10-year contract earlier this year, tenure review was not on the table — that is, until his negotiations with the school spilled into the news.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

When news broke that Harvard was not considering Cornel West for tenure, many people’s first thought was, Wait . . . Cornel West doesn’t have tenure?

It’s a reasonable question to ask, given that West is one of today’s most well-known public intellectuals. His scholarship has greatly influenced Americans’ understanding of racism and classism, and his body of work is undeniably impressive. He has written over 20 books and has had many books written about him. He has also given hundreds of lectures, participated in many public debates, and contributed to magazines, newspapers, and television networks. Notably, he has been tenured before — at Yale, Princeton, and, most paradoxically, Harvard before he left the university after a feud with then-university president Larry Summers.

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But when West returned to Harvard in 2017, he agreed to do so in a non-tenured position. He said he took the position with the expectation that it could eventually lead him back to tenure. Though Harvard offered him a pay raise, an endowed chair position, and a 10-year contract earlier this year, tenure review was not on the table — that is, until his negotiations with the school spilled into the news.

Both West and his supporters believe that Harvard’s decision to rehire him and offer to promote him in only a non-tenured position boils down to two things: race and ideology. “It’s not just a matter of skin pigmentation — it’s partly that, but that’s not the main thing,” West said in an interview. “The main thing is [my] willingness to be associated with very unpopular causes. And when I think of what is the taboo issue right now at most universities, it’s the plight and predicament of Palestinian brothers and sisters.” (West is an outspoken critic of the Israeli government and its occupation of Palestine.)

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There is no proof that Harvard engaged in any discriminatory behavior, and the school declined to speak about his case on the record, citing privacy matters over personnel issues. Yet there exists a pattern of behavior among elite institutions, academic and otherwise, that has stunted the growth of Black and brown professionals. Last year, for example, Harvard’s decision to deny tenure to Lorgia García Peña, a scholar of Latinx studies who had been vocal about establishing an ethnic studies program at the school, sparked outrage on and off campus. And regarding West’s concern about censoring ideas and scholarship, both academics and journalists have lost jobs over speaking out against the Israeli occupation. Nathan J. Robinson, for example, was fired as a columnist at The Guardian because, he alleges, he tweeted a joke about the unconditional nature of US aid to the Israeli military. And in a high profile case, the University of Illinois fired Steven Salaita, a tenured Palestinian-American professor, after he wrote a string of tweets expressing his outrage over Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza. (The University of Illinois eventually settled two lawsuits filed by Salaita.)

Though it remains unclear exactly how West’s negotiations with Harvard went down — whether he was formally denied tenure consideration or whether Harvard had any discriminatory intent — the mere news of his feud with the school renewed questions about potential discrimination in the school’s opaque tenure-review process.

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Marissa J. Joseph, a sophomore and opinion writer at the university’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, said in an interview, that West’s case is just another example of higher education undermining the scholarship of Black academics. “For me, the situation has always been larger than Professor West because there are tons of Black scholars making tremendous contributions at Harvard and other universities who are experiencing the same disrespect and the same dismissal for opportunities who aren’t making front-page news.”

Robin D. G. Kelley, a history professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who wrote letters in favor of West’s hiring and renewal at Harvard, says that academic censorship is a pervasive problem for certain controversial political communities, including the anti-zionist movement. “If you just go back over the last 10, 15 years (critiquing Zionism) has been the petard upon which many scholars have died,” he said.

Regardless of whether or not any widespread discrimination is taking place, obscure tenure-track systems may limit academic freedom. Academics could self-censor their work, for example, if they fear that ideological discrimination does take place. And so long as candidates are denied tenure without ample explanations, suspicions of discrimination are bound to arise. In the case of García Peña, for example, the candidate was denied tenure after her department unanimously voted in her favor, which raises the simple question: Why?

That’s why Harvard and other schools ought to use this moment as an opportunity to create a more transparent tenure-review process because transparency is a key enforcement mechanism of antidiscrimination policies. The more open promotion processes are at any institution, the less room there is for discrimination to take place because employers can more easily be held accountable.

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For their part, Harvard has taken some steps to reform their tenure process. Last year, Claudine Gay, the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, announced the formation of a committee to review her faculty’s tenure-track system. (That review is still ongoing, and does not apply to other schools at Harvard, which should all follow suit.)

West has decided to leave Harvard for Union Theological Seminary in New York as a result of the recent dispute. And though we will likely never know if any discrimination took place, the fact that so many people, including the employee himself, believe that to be the case is a failure on Harvard’s part — and that’s what they will ultimately have to address.


Abdallah Fayyad can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.