Harvard Loses West to Princeton

Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 will depart Harvard for Princeton at the end of the academic year, Princeton announced this afternoon.

West’s decision ends months of speculation about whether he would leave, following a conversation in the fall with University President Lawrence H. Summers which West describes as disrespectful. During that conversation, Summers reportedly criticized West for focusing on outside activities—like recording a rap C.D. and working on political campaigns—rather than his scholarship.

“I am excited to return to the greatest center for humanistic studies in the country,” West said in a statement released by Princeton earlier this afternoon. “I look forward to being a part of President [Shirley M.] Tilghman’s vision that promotes high quality intellectual conversation mediated with respect.”

Pending the approval of Princeton’s Board of Trustees, which meets tomorrow, West will return to Princeton as the Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion. He taught at Princeton from 1988 to 1994 and directed Princeton’s Program in African-American Studies.

Summers said earlier this week that he has made several attempts to contact West to “discuss any ways to make Harvard a more attractive place for him to remain.”

But Summers and West had not yet “connected” as of Wednesday, according to DuBois Professor of Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.

In a statement released this afternoon, Summers said West’s departure will be a loss to Harvard.

“All of us in the Harvard community are grateful to Cornel West for his significant contributions to Harvard’s academic life, especially the great inspiration he provided to so many students,” the statement read. “We will miss him and I wish him every success at Princeton.”

West’s departure is a blow to the Afro-American studies department, which is also losing to Princeton next year K. Anthony Appiah, Carswell professor of Afro-American studies and of philosophy.

Appiah made his decision public in February, citing personal reasons he said were unrelated to West’s dispute with Summers.

Gates, the chair of the Afro-American studies department, said West played a vital role in the transformation of the department into one of the leading black studies programs in the country.

“Cornel West’s recruitment to Harvard was crucial in establishing the department’s place of leadership in the field of Afro-American studies,” Gates said in a statement released this afternoon. “He will be sorely missed and my colleagues and I wish him well in his new position.”

West’s decision comes as a surprise to black student leaders on campus.

“It’s a bit of a shock right now,” said Brandon A. Gayle ’03, president of the Black Students Association.

Gayle said he and other student leaders who gathered 1,200 signatures for a petition urging West to remain at Harvard had not been notified by West or other Faculty members of his decision.

Gayle said West would be missed by students.

“It’s certainly a big blow to the department,” he said, “but at the same time that department’s chock full of people who do a tremendous amount of good work, and I have no doubt the department will be fine in the long run.”

West, who is on a medical leave of absence this semester, could also not be reached for comment this afternoon.

But West has not been out of the spotlight, even while on leave.

He was arrested yesterday for participating in an act of civil disobedience outside the State Department in Washington. He and roughly 20 others were arrested for standing in the street while protesting Israel's occupation of the West Bank. Most of the protestors were affiliated with the Tikkun Community, a self-described progressive coalition that is currently calling for U.S.-led U.N. intervention in the conflict in Israel. West co-chairs the organization.

The protesters were all released last night, according to Deborah L. Kory, the managing editor of Tikkun Magazine.

—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at rakoczy@fas.harvard.edu.