A Childish Departure

West’s shamefully petulant behavior will permanently tarnish his legacy at Harvard

The departure of Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 for Princeton originally left many at Harvard feeling disappointed. Many praised West for his contributions to both the University and its students. But after the disgraceful way he has acted over the last week, the Harvard community will not miss Cornel West.

West’s recent antics have made him look patently ridiculous. Rather than exiting gracefully and showing a suitable degree of class, he has acted like a spoiled child.

In an interview with Tavis Smiley, aired on National Public Radio earlier this week, West remarked that “Larry Summers is the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.” He further expressed his concern that University President Lawrence H. Summers was “hanging out with the wrong crowd.”

First of all, the comparison of Summers to the Israeli Prime Minister is manifestly inappropriate. Sharon is fighting a war; Summers’ battles concern Faculty size and grade inflation. Secondly, we wonder who West was referring to when he mentioned “the wrong crowd.” Summers is a university president who interacts with other top academics from around the world; is anyone whose political view differs from West’s a member of the “wrong crowd”?

Even before his comments on the radio, West’s “close associates” had been anonymously assaulting Summers in the New York Times. “It’s clear there’s only one reason he’s going to Princeton,” one associate said—“It’s Larry.” Snide remarks like this, whether they were made with West’s blessing or not, only bolstered the overblown media circus regarding his status.

West never even officially contacted the Black Students Association (BSA) after the group spent countless hours collecting over a thousand signatures asking him to stay at Harvard. Such thoughtlessness is insulting on its own, but, moreover, the manner of his departure puts the BSA in an impossible position, having to reconcile their support for West and the need to avoid utterly alienating the Administration.

West claims he became incensed when Summers criticized his lack of recent scholarship. But this irritation is unreasonable; the president is supposed to supervise all University professors. Being in favor of serious academic work is different than being opposed to academic freedom. West had no plausible reason to feel that either his professional independence or his honor was being threatened.

Summers erred in not phoning West earlier during his recovery from surgery. But that is hardly a sufficient reason to leave, and nothing can excuse the vitriolic and spiteful way in which West departed.

Despite our disillusionment with West, we sincerely hope that DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr.—who is considering offers from other universitites—remains at Harvard. Not only does Gates chair the Afro-American studies department, but he was one of its main architects. His departure would be an immeasurable harm to the University—certainly much greater than West’s.

Before he left, we lauded West as “a respected scholar and a mentor to many undergraduates” and asked him to stay. But after the manner in which he departed, the University is better off without him. West’s recent behavior is destined to tarnish his otherwise commendable legacy at Harvard.