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West Returns to Harvard, Joins Afro-Am Dream Team

By Cornel West, Crimson Staff Writer

Cornel R. West '74 is an icon. Three-piece suit. Starched shirt. Cufflinks. Full Afro. Limbs in motion, head thrown back, fist raised in the air. A sharp-dressed man, from top to bottom.

West looks the part. One of the country's most respected authorities on race relations, religion and philosophy, an impassioned and sought-after speaker, and the author of 13 books, West is sharp.

Twenty years after his graduation, West returned to Harvard, where he has since assumed the roles of professor of Afro-American studies, professor of the philosophy of religion, and Fletcher University professor, one of only 19 such posts for the entire Faculty. He stars on the "dream team" of the Department of Afro-American Studies, arguably the greatest collection of black intellectual talent in the world.

"There's no one like him," says Du Bois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis "Skip" Gates Jr., who serves as the chair of the Afro-American studies department. "He's a brilliant philosopher. He possesses a keen analytical mind, and he is blessed woratory. I know no on else my who combines this set talents."

West's intellectual ability is universally acknowledged. But what friends, colleagues and students also note about West is his accessibility, his genuine compassion and his respect for all people, regardless of status or intellectual fortitude.

"Cornel makes me run faster and work harder," Gates says. "He's an inspiration to me and I love him like a brother."

West Heads East

West attended Harvard at a time of great upheaval, on campus and in society. Born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Okla., West grew up in Sacramento, Calif., and attended John F. Kennedy High School before heading to New England.

West arrived at Harvard one year after the 1969 takeover of University Hall and the establishment of the Afro-Americanstudies department, and at the height of the BlackPower movement and the Vietnam War.

His admission in 1970 marked one of the firstgreat waves of African-American students.

"All of a sudden you had double, triple orquadruple the number of black students on campusthan the year before," says Senior AdmissionsOfficer David L. Evans.

The influx of large numbers of African-Americanstudents sparked campus-wide controversy,including allegations of relaxed admissionsstandards for black students.

"I think it's fair to say that the increasingenrollment of black students in these early dayswas accompanied by doubts about their academicability because observers thought that theUniversity was responding to pressure and notadmitting people on the basis of merit," says Deanof Students Archie C. Epps III, who was thenserving as a resident tutor in Leverett House.

But West's own academic career refuted anyallegations of intellectual inferiority.

He graduated with a magna cum laude degree inNear Eastern Studies in 1973, after only threeyears of study and without accepting advancedstanding.

According to Robert J. Gerrard Jr. '74--whoroomed with West in Mather House in his junior,and final, year at Harvard--West took eightcourses in the fall of that year and six in thespring.

"There was a sense of urgency," Gerrard says."[He wanted] to move his career along and move hisinterests along."

West's professors remember him as brilliant anddriven.

Cogan University Professor Hilary W. Putnam,who will be teaching a philosophy course with Westnext year, had him as a student in the early1970s.

"He was a brilliant undergraduate," Putnamsays. "At that time he already had very wideinterests in philosophy, pragmatism, Marxism andjust about anything under the sun."

Houghton Professor of Theology and ContemporaryChange Preston N. Williams taught West at theDivinity School and is his current colleague.

"I've been telling him since he was 17 that heneeded to slow down, and that of course hasn'thappened," Williams says. "He still operates at alevel of high energy."

West's intellectual curiosity extended farbeyond the classroom.

Evans recalls meeting West playing pool, andeven in that setting West would "crack jokes"about Marx, Hegel or Kierkegaard.

"He shot a good game of pool--or at least hethought he did--and I used to play him, and that'show I got to know him," Evans says. "Between shotshe would want to talk about Hegel or Mao Zedong orMarxism. He was very intellectually oriented."

Epps remembers West from a civil rights andblack revolution seminar that he headed.

"He would knock on my door and when I opened hewould push me aside and rush to my bookcase to seewhat new books I had bought," Epps says. "He wasintellectually precocious by any standard."

Gerrard remembers that even West's nightlydreams were on "a very different level ofthinking." West would "dream about ideas fightingeach other," he says.

Like his course selections and intellectualcuriosity, West's extracurricular activitiesreflect deeply rooted interests that still shapehis life. He was active in the Association ofAfricans and African-American Students and theInstitute of Politics, and also dabbled in socialcritique, writing a 1974 piece in The Crimsonexamining the race relations theories of one ofhis mentors, Thomson Professor of GovernmentMartin L. Kilson Jr.

Despite West's heavy academic workload, heremained social and personable.

"He was tremendously down to earth andextremely social," Gerrard says. "He was verypopular among all his peer groups, men and women."

Becoming a Tiger

After graduating from Harvard, West headed toNew Jersey, where he became the first black man toreceive a doctorate in philosophy from PrincetonUniversity, earning his masters in 1975 and a Ph.Din 1980.

In 1977, West launched his career in academiawith an appointment as assistant professor ofphilosophy in New York's Union TheologicalSeminary. He later held positions at the YaleDivinity School and Barnard College and served atthe Harvard Divinity School in 1984.

In 1987, West accepted a tenured position atPrinceton University as professor of religion anddirector of the school's African-American studiesprogram.

Arnold Rampersad, currently the Kimballprofessor of English at Stanford University, was acolleague of West's at Princeton.

"He's a very honorable man, very sympathetic,very giving," he says. "[West] is a person ofgreat integrity and warmth."

As West's academic reputation grew, Harvardbecame increasingly interested in luring West backto his alma mater. But West turned down a 1990offer to join the Afro-American studiesdepartment, which at the time had only one tenuredFaculty member.

In 1991, Gates assumed leadership of thedepartment and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute forAfro-American Research, and soon Harvard againcame knocking. In 1994, West answered.

Faring Well at Harvard

When Gates first arrived at Harvard, he drew upa "fantasy list" of intellectuals he would like toattract for the Afro-American studies departmenthere. West figured prominently on the list, butGates says he likened attracting him to "throwinga Hail Mary pass."

"There are very few people who would give up achairmanship and move and begin building a newdepartment," Gates says. "Harvard University willbe eternally grateful for the active courageCornel West manifested in leaving anextraordinarily comfortable and nourishingenvironment to join other people in building a newentity."

Rampersad termed West's return to Harvard as"the turning point of his life." Newspapers suchas the New York Times and the Boston Globeannounced a major "coup" for Harvard when hisappointment was announced on Nov. 10, 1993. Gatesand University President Neil L. Rudenstinelavished praise on West and heralded therejuvenated Afro-American studies department.

Princeton, on the other hand, was devastated.

"I don't think Princeton has ever recoveredreally," Rampersad says. "It was a tremendous lossfor us, but it was important that [West] be happyand his work be maximized."

Despite his personal disappointment, Rampersadcould understand West's desire to return to hisalma mater.

"It's not unusual for people to go to Harvard,and with Professor Gates and the finestAfrican-American studies program in the country,it's not unusual to want to be a part of that," hesays.

West immediately became one of the drivingforces in the department and in the University.His appointment as Fletcher University professorin 1998, the highest position a Faculty member canattain, cemented his status as one of Harvard'smost distinguished scholars.

According to Head Tutor K. Anthony Appiah,professor of Afro-American studies and ofphilosophy, the Afro-American studies departmenthas benefited tremendously from West's presence.Appiah specifically praises West's courseAfro-American Studies 10, "Introduction toAfro-American Studies," which is a required coursefor concentrators and one of the most popularelectives at the College.

"He's been terrific for the program; his Af-Am10 has become a major course in the College,"Appiah says. "It lets people know about thesubject and the department."

April Yvonne Garrett, who studied under Westand served as a teaching fellow for Afro-AmericanStudies 10 last fall, appreciates West's abilityto attract a diverse group of students, all ofwhom are passionate and dedicated.

"I was always impressed with students in mysection because they really worked, and theyweren't always Af-Am concentrators," she says."There were people of every concentration."

A Public Intellectual

Colleagues and students from throughout West'scareer recognize him not just for his intellectbut his ability to forge personal connections.

His strength, according to West's associates,lies in his ability to reach out to the widerpublic and individuals.

West's most recent books, including thebest-selling Race Matters (1993), Jewsand Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995),written with Michael Lerner, and The WarAgainst Parents: What We Can Do for America'sBeleaguered Moms and Dads (1998), co-authoredwith Sylvia Ann Hewlett, all focus on currentthemes designed to appeal to a mass audience.

West is also greatly in demand on the lecturecircuit across the country, famed for hisimpassioned oratory with roots in the Baptisttradition.

The popularity of both his written and spokenwork is a testament to his ability to connect withlarger society.

"He has chosen to be a public intellectual, andhe brings to that wide learning and very sharppower of intellect," Rampersad says. "He isseeking to bridge the gap between the academy andthe world outside, especially on race."

Appiah says he sees no gap between West'sintellectual and daily life.

"There isn't a gap between his private andpublic self," Appiah says. "He's not just doing ajob when he reads and writes, it's what he mostloves to do and he hasn't stopped doing it."

West's ability to connect with individualpeople is also apparent in his lectures, accordingto Garrett, who also serves as the fellowscoordinator at the DuBois Institute forAfro-American Research.

"He reads student bodies really well; he knowsdemographics. Whether you're from the West or theSouth, he can communicate to you," she says. "He'smade African-American studies what it should be,when you're not marginalized. No matter who youare, black and white or other, it's relevant. Heplaces you in the context."

Uncle Corn

Faculty members and students say theyappreciate the individual attention that Westaffords his colleagues and admirers. Despite hisnational prominence and hectic schedule, they say,he truly cares about the individuals he teaches.

"The amazing thing about him is in spite of howbusy he is, when he is with you his attention isentirely on you," Putnam says.

Appiah says he feels this sense of mutualrespect extends beyond intellectuals and membersof the academy. According to Appiah, West isuniquely tuned to his audience members during hisspeeches and listens intently to their questions.

"He attends to what they're saying, andresponds to what they're saying as best he can,"Appiah says. "A lot of intellectuals don'tmanifest a real respect for everyone, but [West]is always thoughtful and humane."

West's students say they appreciate hisextraordinarily approachable nature. Garrettplayfully calls him "Uncle Corn," and remembers"hanging out" with him after class and joining himfor three-hour lunches.

"For those who are serious about their work hewill give you his time," she says. "You have to bedisciplined--he's very concerned about making youdo your project and doing it well."

Clarence O. "Neil" Brown III '74, one of West'scollege friends who now lives in New York, saysWest appeals to all people, not justintellectuals. "Guys with mohawks and tattoos willstop and congratulate and thank him for the workhe's done," Brown says.

West has also stayed in touch with Gerrard andis godfather of his son Brian. Gerrard recallsWest lighting the cigarette of a homeless personin New York City "without missing a beat."

"He was just as natural in that setting in themiddle of Times Square as giving a lecture," hesays.

A Lasting Impression

Very few people forget Cornel West after seeinghim only once, and few still after hearing himspeak.

His colleagues say his impact on theAfro-American studies department and on theUniversity is already considerable, less than fiveyears after his move back to his alma mater.

"When the history of 20th centuryAfrican-American intellectuals is written, CornelWest will have his own chapter," Gates says.CrimsonChristine Y. ChiouSHOW OF SOLIDARITY:CORNEL R. WEST '74speaks up at a recent Living Wage Campaignrally..

His admission in 1970 marked one of the firstgreat waves of African-American students.

"All of a sudden you had double, triple orquadruple the number of black students on campusthan the year before," says Senior AdmissionsOfficer David L. Evans.

The influx of large numbers of African-Americanstudents sparked campus-wide controversy,including allegations of relaxed admissionsstandards for black students.

"I think it's fair to say that the increasingenrollment of black students in these early dayswas accompanied by doubts about their academicability because observers thought that theUniversity was responding to pressure and notadmitting people on the basis of merit," says Deanof Students Archie C. Epps III, who was thenserving as a resident tutor in Leverett House.

But West's own academic career refuted anyallegations of intellectual inferiority.

He graduated with a magna cum laude degree inNear Eastern Studies in 1973, after only threeyears of study and without accepting advancedstanding.

According to Robert J. Gerrard Jr. '74--whoroomed with West in Mather House in his junior,and final, year at Harvard--West took eightcourses in the fall of that year and six in thespring.

"There was a sense of urgency," Gerrard says."[He wanted] to move his career along and move hisinterests along."

West's professors remember him as brilliant anddriven.

Cogan University Professor Hilary W. Putnam,who will be teaching a philosophy course with Westnext year, had him as a student in the early1970s.

"He was a brilliant undergraduate," Putnamsays. "At that time he already had very wideinterests in philosophy, pragmatism, Marxism andjust about anything under the sun."

Houghton Professor of Theology and ContemporaryChange Preston N. Williams taught West at theDivinity School and is his current colleague.

"I've been telling him since he was 17 that heneeded to slow down, and that of course hasn'thappened," Williams says. "He still operates at alevel of high energy."

West's intellectual curiosity extended farbeyond the classroom.

Evans recalls meeting West playing pool, andeven in that setting West would "crack jokes"about Marx, Hegel or Kierkegaard.

"He shot a good game of pool--or at least hethought he did--and I used to play him, and that'show I got to know him," Evans says. "Between shotshe would want to talk about Hegel or Mao Zedong orMarxism. He was very intellectually oriented."

Epps remembers West from a civil rights andblack revolution seminar that he headed.

"He would knock on my door and when I opened hewould push me aside and rush to my bookcase to seewhat new books I had bought," Epps says. "He wasintellectually precocious by any standard."

Gerrard remembers that even West's nightlydreams were on "a very different level ofthinking." West would "dream about ideas fightingeach other," he says.

Like his course selections and intellectualcuriosity, West's extracurricular activitiesreflect deeply rooted interests that still shapehis life. He was active in the Association ofAfricans and African-American Students and theInstitute of Politics, and also dabbled in socialcritique, writing a 1974 piece in The Crimsonexamining the race relations theories of one ofhis mentors, Thomson Professor of GovernmentMartin L. Kilson Jr.

Despite West's heavy academic workload, heremained social and personable.

"He was tremendously down to earth andextremely social," Gerrard says. "He was verypopular among all his peer groups, men and women."

Becoming a Tiger

After graduating from Harvard, West headed toNew Jersey, where he became the first black man toreceive a doctorate in philosophy from PrincetonUniversity, earning his masters in 1975 and a Ph.Din 1980.

In 1977, West launched his career in academiawith an appointment as assistant professor ofphilosophy in New York's Union TheologicalSeminary. He later held positions at the YaleDivinity School and Barnard College and served atthe Harvard Divinity School in 1984.

In 1987, West accepted a tenured position atPrinceton University as professor of religion anddirector of the school's African-American studiesprogram.

Arnold Rampersad, currently the Kimballprofessor of English at Stanford University, was acolleague of West's at Princeton.

"He's a very honorable man, very sympathetic,very giving," he says. "[West] is a person ofgreat integrity and warmth."

As West's academic reputation grew, Harvardbecame increasingly interested in luring West backto his alma mater. But West turned down a 1990offer to join the Afro-American studiesdepartment, which at the time had only one tenuredFaculty member.

In 1991, Gates assumed leadership of thedepartment and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute forAfro-American Research, and soon Harvard againcame knocking. In 1994, West answered.

Faring Well at Harvard

When Gates first arrived at Harvard, he drew upa "fantasy list" of intellectuals he would like toattract for the Afro-American studies departmenthere. West figured prominently on the list, butGates says he likened attracting him to "throwinga Hail Mary pass."

"There are very few people who would give up achairmanship and move and begin building a newdepartment," Gates says. "Harvard University willbe eternally grateful for the active courageCornel West manifested in leaving anextraordinarily comfortable and nourishingenvironment to join other people in building a newentity."

Rampersad termed West's return to Harvard as"the turning point of his life." Newspapers suchas the New York Times and the Boston Globeannounced a major "coup" for Harvard when hisappointment was announced on Nov. 10, 1993. Gatesand University President Neil L. Rudenstinelavished praise on West and heralded therejuvenated Afro-American studies department.

Princeton, on the other hand, was devastated.

"I don't think Princeton has ever recoveredreally," Rampersad says. "It was a tremendous lossfor us, but it was important that [West] be happyand his work be maximized."

Despite his personal disappointment, Rampersadcould understand West's desire to return to hisalma mater.

"It's not unusual for people to go to Harvard,and with Professor Gates and the finestAfrican-American studies program in the country,it's not unusual to want to be a part of that," hesays.

West immediately became one of the drivingforces in the department and in the University.His appointment as Fletcher University professorin 1998, the highest position a Faculty member canattain, cemented his status as one of Harvard'smost distinguished scholars.

According to Head Tutor K. Anthony Appiah,professor of Afro-American studies and ofphilosophy, the Afro-American studies departmenthas benefited tremendously from West's presence.Appiah specifically praises West's courseAfro-American Studies 10, "Introduction toAfro-American Studies," which is a required coursefor concentrators and one of the most popularelectives at the College.

"He's been terrific for the program; his Af-Am10 has become a major course in the College,"Appiah says. "It lets people know about thesubject and the department."

April Yvonne Garrett, who studied under Westand served as a teaching fellow for Afro-AmericanStudies 10 last fall, appreciates West's abilityto attract a diverse group of students, all ofwhom are passionate and dedicated.

"I was always impressed with students in mysection because they really worked, and theyweren't always Af-Am concentrators," she says."There were people of every concentration."

A Public Intellectual

Colleagues and students from throughout West'scareer recognize him not just for his intellectbut his ability to forge personal connections.

His strength, according to West's associates,lies in his ability to reach out to the widerpublic and individuals.

West's most recent books, including thebest-selling Race Matters (1993), Jewsand Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995),written with Michael Lerner, and The WarAgainst Parents: What We Can Do for America'sBeleaguered Moms and Dads (1998), co-authoredwith Sylvia Ann Hewlett, all focus on currentthemes designed to appeal to a mass audience.

West is also greatly in demand on the lecturecircuit across the country, famed for hisimpassioned oratory with roots in the Baptisttradition.

The popularity of both his written and spokenwork is a testament to his ability to connect withlarger society.

"He has chosen to be a public intellectual, andhe brings to that wide learning and very sharppower of intellect," Rampersad says. "He isseeking to bridge the gap between the academy andthe world outside, especially on race."

Appiah says he sees no gap between West'sintellectual and daily life.

"There isn't a gap between his private andpublic self," Appiah says. "He's not just doing ajob when he reads and writes, it's what he mostloves to do and he hasn't stopped doing it."

West's ability to connect with individualpeople is also apparent in his lectures, accordingto Garrett, who also serves as the fellowscoordinator at the DuBois Institute forAfro-American Research.

"He reads student bodies really well; he knowsdemographics. Whether you're from the West or theSouth, he can communicate to you," she says. "He'smade African-American studies what it should be,when you're not marginalized. No matter who youare, black and white or other, it's relevant. Heplaces you in the context."

Uncle Corn

Faculty members and students say theyappreciate the individual attention that Westaffords his colleagues and admirers. Despite hisnational prominence and hectic schedule, they say,he truly cares about the individuals he teaches.

"The amazing thing about him is in spite of howbusy he is, when he is with you his attention isentirely on you," Putnam says.

Appiah says he feels this sense of mutualrespect extends beyond intellectuals and membersof the academy. According to Appiah, West isuniquely tuned to his audience members during hisspeeches and listens intently to their questions.

"He attends to what they're saying, andresponds to what they're saying as best he can,"Appiah says. "A lot of intellectuals don'tmanifest a real respect for everyone, but [West]is always thoughtful and humane."

West's students say they appreciate hisextraordinarily approachable nature. Garrettplayfully calls him "Uncle Corn," and remembers"hanging out" with him after class and joining himfor three-hour lunches.

"For those who are serious about their work hewill give you his time," she says. "You have to bedisciplined--he's very concerned about making youdo your project and doing it well."

Clarence O. "Neil" Brown III '74, one of West'scollege friends who now lives in New York, saysWest appeals to all people, not justintellectuals. "Guys with mohawks and tattoos willstop and congratulate and thank him for the workhe's done," Brown says.

West has also stayed in touch with Gerrard andis godfather of his son Brian. Gerrard recallsWest lighting the cigarette of a homeless personin New York City "without missing a beat."

"He was just as natural in that setting in themiddle of Times Square as giving a lecture," hesays.

A Lasting Impression

Very few people forget Cornel West after seeinghim only once, and few still after hearing himspeak.

His colleagues say his impact on theAfro-American studies department and on theUniversity is already considerable, less than fiveyears after his move back to his alma mater.

"When the history of 20th centuryAfrican-American intellectuals is written, CornelWest will have his own chapter," Gates says.CrimsonChristine Y. ChiouSHOW OF SOLIDARITY:CORNEL R. WEST '74speaks up at a recent Living Wage Campaignrally..

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