Petition Urges West To Remain In Harvard Post

Student groups collect 400 names as professor ponders rival offer

Michael W. Nitsch

IAN A. THOMPSON ’04 and ISAAC J. WEILER ’02, officers of the Black Men’s Forum, promote a petition in front of the Science Center yesterday urging University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 to remain at Harvard.

Fourteen black and Latino student groups from across the University collected more than 400 signatures yesterday in a campus-wide petition drive urging Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 to stay at Harvard.

Students tabled outside the Science Center and said they will continue to promote the petition there, as well as in House dining halls and Annenberg during dinner, for the rest of the week. Professors at several of Harvard’s schools are also circulating the petition.

The students plan to present one copy of the petition to West and one to University President Lawrence H. Summers by Friday.

West will have to decide by next Monday whether he will accept an offer to join the faculty at Princeton University before the Princeton Board of Trustees, the governing body which approves all senior faculty appointments, meets next week.

The board would have to be certain of West’s decision before they officially vote to offer West a position, according to the students circulating the petition.

“We, the students of Harvard University, put forth this petition with hopes that it will convince you to remain here at Harvard as Fletcher University Professor,” the petition reads. “While President Summers and the Administration have inexcusably done little to keep you at this fine institution, we the students will not walk the same path.”

West was unavailable for comment yesterday, and petition organizers said they had not been in touch with him since their drive began. He is on a medical leave of absence this semester.

He has reportedly been considering a move away from Harvard since an incident in the fall when, West has alleged, President Lawrence H. Summers treated him disrespectfully.

Princeton University spokesperson Robert Durkee confirmed yesterday that Princeton has made an offer to West, though he said he could not confirm that the Board of Trustees would vote on a possible West appointment next week.

Brandon A. Gayle ’03, president of the Black Students’ Association, said he and the other students who initiated the petition feel that Summers and the central administration have not done enough to convince West to remain at Harvard.

“As students, we’re really shocked and dismayed that the administration has been so quiet about this,” Gayle said.

He said they are hoping the strong message of support for West will prompt Summers to take a more active approach in encouraging West to stay at Harvard, such as a public statement of support for the professor.

“We’ve heard repeatedly over the last few months how much he values diversity, and yet in this situation...he’s really done very little,” Gayle said. “This is really an opportunity for Summers to practice what he’s been preaching.”

Summers was unavailable for comment yesterday. But University spokesperson Joe Wrinn denied that administrators were ignoring West’s concerns.

“[Summers] has stressed his support for Professor West and other members of the department both individually and collectively, and he sincerely hopes he will stay,” Wrinn said.

Gayle said the impetus for the campaign came from an e-mail he received from Lowell House tutor Christopher D. Tirres shortly before spring break, informing him that West was leaning towards a move to Princeton.

Gayle said that he then contacted leaders of black and Latino student groups at several of Harvard’s schools.

He and a handful of other students met before spring break to develop a plan of action to convince West to remain at Harvard and came up with the petition.

DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr. said yesterday he has been urging West to remain at Harvard. Though he said he does not yet know what West’s ultimate decision will be, he said he felt West would appreciate the petition.

“I think it’s wonderful and I hope it’s effective,” Gates said. “Anyone would be moved by this expression of affection.”

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