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Cornel West releases ‘candid’ resignation letter to Harvard dean

Cornel West.
Cornel West.Justin Saglio for the Boston Globe/file

Cornel West, the public intellectual and activist who resigned from his teaching position at Harvard in March following what he said was the denial of his request to be considered for tenure, released the letter he sent to his dean that made the move official.

West tweeted out the letter, dated June 30, on Monday night, calling it “my candid letter of resignation to my Harvard Dean. I try to tell the unvarnished truth about the decadence in our market-driven universities! Let us bear witness against this spiritual rot!”

He began the letter wishing the recipient’s family well before launching into his reasons for stepping down. West has taught at Harvard’s law school, divinity school, and department of African and African American studies.

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

West added that when he arrived at the divinity school four years prior, with a salary he asserted was less than what he received 15 years earlier and with no tenure status, he “hoped and prayed” he could still conclude his academic career with “some semblance” of intellectual rigor and personal respect.

“How wrong I was!” West wrote. “With a few glorious and glaring exceptions, the shadow of Jim Crow was cast in its new glittering form expressed in the language of superficial diversity: all my courses were subsumed under Afro-American Religious Studies, including those on Existentialism, American Democracy and the Conduct of Life, [and there was] no possible summer salary alongside the lowest increase possible every year.”

Despite that, West said, he delivered two convocation addresses and one commencement speech in four years. He said he was also promised a year of sabbatical but “in practice” could take only one semester.

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“And to witness a faculty enthusiastically support a candidate for tenure then timidly defer to a rejection based on the Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause was disgusting,” West wrote. “We all knew the mendacious reasons given had nothing to do with academic standards. When my committee recommended a tenure review — also rejected by the Harvard administration — I knew my academic achievements and student teaching meant far less than their political prejudices.”

Even West’s “good friends,” he said, in the Afro-American and African studies department were “paralyzed” amid the acrimony, owing to their “close relations” to the Harvard administration.

He also decried what he said was the “narcissistic academic professionalism” and “cowardly deference to the anti-Palestinian prejudices of the Harvard administration” taking hold on campus.

Harvard declined on Tuesday to comment on West’s letter.

When he first announced his resignation in March, West said he was leaving for a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York.

West, who has a long history of teaching at the seminary, rejoined its faculty 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 previously.

West’s March announcement marked his second acrimonious departure from Harvard. He 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.

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“It is once again this issue of just not putting up with being disrespected,” West told the Globe previously.

The deans of the Harvard Divinity School said in March 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 at the time.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.