West To Depart Harvard, Join Princeton in Fall
Announcement ends months of speculation after alleged dispute
West’s departure strikes a blow to Harvard’s Afro-American studies department, which in the past decade was transformed from a department with only one tenured professor—who was white—to a self-proclaimed “dream team” of scholars, widely considered the top black studies program in the nation.
In a statement released Friday, DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. said West played a vital role in that transformation and said his loss would be deeply felt.
“Cornel West’s recruitment to Harvard was crucial in establishing the department’s place of leadership in the field of Afro-American studies,” Gates, chair of the Afro-American studies department, said in his statement.
West, who directed Princeton’s Program in African-American Studies before coming to Harvard in 1994, said Princeton would offer stimulating academic opportunities.
“I am excited to return to the greatest center for humanistic studies in the country,” he said in a statement released Friday afternoon.
West’s decision came as a surprise to black student leaders on campus.
“It’s a bit of a shock right now,” Brandon A. Gayle ’03, president of the Black Students Association, said Friday.
“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.”
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.
“Anytime you lose someone as vocal as West was, it’s a loss to the academic debate that can go on at a University such as Harvard, and I think it’s a shame,” said Isaac J. Weiler ’02, president of the Black Men’s Forum.
In his statement, West said he looks forward to joining a university that “promotes high quality intellectual conversation mediated with respect.”
Since the fall, after a dispute with University President Lawrence H. Summers, West reportedly said Harvard’s leader had slighted his academic work and told the national media he had been “attacked and insulted.”
According to West’s account, Summers rebuked him for focusing more on outside activities—like recording a spoken-word CD and working on political campaigns—than on his scholarship.
Summers has refused to comment on personal conversations with faculty members. But he said he has made several attempts to mend ties with the University professor.
The two had a second meeting in January during which Summers “apologized graciously,” according to Gates.
And Summers said last week he had tried several times recently to contact West to “discuss any ways to make Harvard a more attractive place for him to remain.”
But the two never “connected,” Gates said.
In a statement released Friday 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 is the second prominent member of the Afro-American studies department this semester to announce he will leave Harvard at the end of the year.
In February, Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and of Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah said he would be joining the Princeton faculty next year, citing personal reasons unrelated to West’s dispute with Summers.
And Gates, who chairs the Afro-American studies department, said he is also considering offers from other universities, including Princeton, but will not make any decision before the summer.
Despite many accounts that have questioned the future of Harvard’s Afro-American studies department, West said yesterday he remains hopeful.
“The wonderful Faculty, students and staff who have been so loving and supportive to me will ensure a great future for Harvard,” he said.
At Princeton, where he taught from 1988 to 1994, West will serve as the Class of 1943 university professor of religion.
His appointment to the Princeton faculty was made official by a vote of the university’s Board of Trustees on Saturday.
“Cornel West, who is known for his intellectual contributions in the study of religion and for challenging those both inside and outside of academia to think about critical issues of race, was a popular and dedicated teacher during his previous tenure at Princeton, and we are pleased that he has decided to return,” Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman said in a statement released Friday.
The announcement of West’s move came just a day after he was arrested along with about 20 others for blocking the street outside the State Department in Washington. The protesters, led by West and his close friend Rabbi Michael Lerner, were detained for nine hours Thursday for standing in the street to protest Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.