Cornel West Is Leaving Harvard After Tenure Dispute

Cornel West is abandoning his quest for tenure at Harvard and going back to Union Theological Seminary, where he first taught 44 years ago, the New York seminary announced on Monday.

Over the past few weeks, Dr. West, 67, a popular professor of African-American studies and progressive activist, had threatened to leave Harvard because, he said, the university had balked at a recommendation by a faculty committee that his untenured position be converted to a tenured one.

He has been a tenured professor at Yale, Princeton and Harvard in the past but left Harvard once before, in 2002 after a public fight with Lawrence Summers, the university’s president at the time. He returned to a nontenured position at Harvard in 2017.

“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. West back home to Union where he started his teaching career, at this time of momentous challenge,” the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, the seminary’s president, said in a statement announcing the move. “His esteemed legacy of engaging the most pressing problems facing our world — including racism, poverty, sexism and so much more — is an inspiration to all, and illustrates the power of faith to create profound change.”

Dr. West has been awarded the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair, named after a German theologian, the announcement said, and will teach a range of subjects in philosophy, politics, cultural theory and literature. His appointment is effective in July.

Dr. West could not immediately be reached for comment. But he told The Boycott Times in an interview published on Monday that he was tired of what he called hypocrisy and dishonesty at Harvard. “I can only take so much pettiness in terms of ways in which I thought I was disrespected and devalued,” Dr. West said in the interview.

Dr. West said in the interview that he had received strong support from Harvard students and slices of the faculty — more than 1,500 people signed a petition asking that he be considered for tenure — but that the university had become “highly commodified and bureaucratized.”

“Harvard has actually done very well in terms of bringing different peoples of different colors and gender at a high level into the administration,” he said. “But it does not yet translate on the ground in terms of faculty. It does not yet translate in terms of being able to speak to the seeking of truth amongst the students.”

For that reason, he said, “I’ve got to make my move to the great Union Theological Seminary. My perennial home.” He noted that he had first been hired there at the age of 23. He has previously taught at Union over three different periods, including just before moving to Harvard in 2017, and he said he was returning with gusto.

“I’m making the move back to New York, and it’s not a move out of default,” he said. “Not at all. I’m going with a smile. I’m going fired up.”

After news of the tenure dispute became public, faculty members in the African-American studies department and divinity school, where he has his Harvard appointments, voted to begin the tenure process for him. The university did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Word of his decision to leave Harvard spread quickly.

Walter Johnson, a colleague in the Department of African and African American Studies, said people were “shocked” and “deeply dismayed.” “He is an intellectual giant and moral polestar, and it is very sad for the university to see him go,” Dr. Johnson said.

Dr. West’s dispute over tenure put a new focus on complaints that Black and Latino professors are underrepresented in the ranks of tenured professors, not just at Harvard. It caused enough consternation at Harvard that the university’s president, Lawrence Bacow, told a faculty meeting last week that he was “firmly committed to the success of our Black faculty.”

Dr. West said in an interview with The New York Times last week that he did not know why his request to be considered for a tenured post had been rebuffed, but that he thought it could have something to do with his age and his support for the Palestinian cause, which he called a “taboo” issue at Harvard.

Although he had been offered more money and an endowed chair at Harvard, the dispute, Dr. West said last week, was not about money but about respect.

Dr. West could not immediately be reached for comment. But he told The Boycott Times in an interview published on Monday that he was tired of what he called hypocrisy and dishonesty at Harvard. “I can only take so much pettiness in terms of ways in which I thought I was disrespected and devalued,” Dr. West said in the interview.

Dr. West said in the interview that he had received strong support from Harvard students and slices of the faculty — more than 1,500 people signed a petition asking that he be considered for tenure — but that the university had become “highly commodified and bureaucratized.”

“Harvard has actually done very well in terms of bringing different peoples of different colors and gender at a high level into the administration,” he said. “But it does not yet translate on the ground in terms of faculty. It does not yet translate in terms of being able to speak to the seeking of truth amongst the students.”

For that reason, he said, “I’ve got to make my move to the great Union Theological Seminary. My perennial home.” He noted that he had first been hired there at the age of 23. He has previously taught at Union over three different periods, including just before moving to Harvard in 2017, and he said he was returning with gusto.

Dr. West said in an interview with The New York Times last week that he did not know why his request to be considered for a tenured post had been rebuffed, but that he thought it could have something to do with his age and his support for the Palestinian cause, which he called a “taboo” issue at Harvard.

Although he had been offered more money and an endowed chair at Harvard, the dispute, Dr. West said last week, was not about money but about respect.

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