Harsh words and accusations were exchanged Sunday night between a black professor and a university president in a clash that aired on national television.
A replay of the infamous back-room brawl between former University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 and University President Lawrence H. Summers? No, this was an episode of NBC’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.”
But the episode’s plot bore an uncanny resemblance to the West-Summers incident last spring that resulted in West’s departure for Princeton.
The Sunday show, which was seen in more than 10 million homes, opened with the news that the American Studies department chair at the fictional Hudson University would be retiring.
American Studies professor Sanders, who sports an afro and a goatee and who recently released a rap C.D. he calls “danceable education,” is a candidate for the post. But conflict ensues when university president Winthrop criticizes what he calls Sanders’ focus on non-academic issues—concern that Sanders says is motivated by racism.
During a reception for the outgoing department chair, Winthrop says of the absent Sanders: “And where is he today? He’s probably still working on that rap record.”
Later, during a heated meeting between the two in Sanders’ office, Winthrop says, “I expect my professors to be in the classroom teaching.”
To which Sanders replies, “I am not your professor. Just because you run this university like a plantation doesn’t mean you’re the massah and I’m yo’ field-han’.”
Sanders then threatens to leave if he is not given the chairmanship, at which point the plot veers substantially from reality—Winthrop is murdered by a love-struck graduate student seduced by a visiting (and mass-murdering) Oxford professor. Although Sanders is initially a suspect, he is later cleared.
In the real-life scenario, West—who also keeps a goatee and afro, and who released a “spoken word” CD last November—left an October meeting with Summers alleging he had “disrespected” him by calling into question the quality of his work.
Summers also reportedly chastised West for missing three weeks of classes during the 1999-2000 academic year while working on the presidential campaign of Bill Bradley—an accusation West has said is false.
While Summers said he regrets what he called a miscommunication, West in the spring accepted a professorship at Princeton. He told National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley last year that though he had not invoked racism as a cause, it seemed plausible.
“At a certain point you say to yourself, Good God, if it quacks like a duck and it walks like a duck, there’s a very good chance that it is a duck, and so there could be actually some unconscious or conscious elements at work here, and I would leave that up to the soul of Summers himself.”
Though Terry Robinson, a writer’s assistant who has in the past researched episodes for “Law & Order: CI,” said he did not know whether Sunday’s episode was actually based upon the West-Summers clash, he said that basing a show on real-life situations is not unusual.
“Sometimes it comes from the Internet, as well as ideas from headlines,” he said, referring to the ideas that writers base their stories on.