West Fights for Minority Rights

“A lot of brothers and sisters have the wrong conception of the front line,” voices a smooth-talking Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 in his prophetic and radically democratic text Sketches of My Culture. To brother Cornel, the real front lines include “working people fighting against unaccountable corporate power with its obscene levels of wealth and inequality.” At Harvard, the front line struggle can be seen in the bureaucratic reluctance to pay workers a living wage, the inequitable recruitment and retention of minority faculty, the tight-fisted apportionment of degree-granting programs and the unaccountable president and corporate-chartered institutional power. Whereas West may consider leaving the University, Harvard must take steps to ensure that he continues his work here on this front line.

Given consistent academic degradation that leads underrepresented faculty to question whether they are truly welcomed at Harvard, can the “revolving-door faculty” phenomenon be addressed? How do we deal with the loss of many professors of color from the faculty, such as Michael Jones-Correa in the Department of Government, Allan Callahan at Harvard Divinity School, Eileen de los Reyes at Graduate School of Education and K. Anthony Appiah in the Afro-American Studies and Philosophy Departments, who left to more accepting and appreciative environments within the past year? Rather than endeavoring to transcend the color line, the recent incident between University President Lawrence H. Summers and West has accentuated a practice of unfair treatment at Harvard.

For example, I recently presented Summers with a letter on behalf of the Latino and Latin American Studies Initiative that was signed by over 100 student supporters from diverse organizations throughout the college, graduate and professional schools. The letter sought support for Latino and Latin American studies through concrete acts leading to a degree-granting program, additional courses, tenured faculty, increased student recruitment and research support. Whereas Summers shared a generic objection to having particular groups teach their own ethnic groups, he was then asked about his support for Afro-American Studies. “My feelings about African American Studies has been that it is so central to the Civil War,” responded the president who added, “perhaps it warranted a separate department.” Sensing a lack of support for fields based around the concept of ethnicity, we proceeded to stress that Latino and Latin American studies also fits within a tradition at Harvard to create regional and area studies programs.

The president reiterated his resistance and suggested that Afro-American and regional studies were exceptions rather than the rule at Harvard. All the more telling is the fact that Summers had his feet up on the table as he tossed a ball back and forth between his hands while meeting with students. Following our request for a written response and a town hall meeting, Summers responded that we would get the same response he had already given us without even having read the letter. Only after articles were printed in The Harvard Crimson, the Boston Globe and other media sources did students receive a formal response.

In a public “Statement on Diversity at Harvard University” following the controversy with West, Summers wrote, “I look forward to working with colleagues at Harvard and elsewhere to promote ever greater opportunity for all.” In his letter to students, Summers writes, “Let me reaffirm my admiration for the major strides that Harvard has made over the past decade in African-American studies. The members of our Afro-Am Department, individually and collectively, have done much to enhance education and scholarship at Harvard, and I look forward to helping sustain Harvard’s strength in this area in the time ahead.” President Summers, the time for action is now.

In Sketches of My Culture, Cornel West makes a traditionally elitist discourse palatable to the mass public with his radically-democratic prophetic voice. Rather than being praised for his overarching civic concern, West unfairly became the target of insult. The tragic irony is that faculty, students and colleagues hold West with utmost respect for his intellectual stature, compassionate character and brilliant insights. West empowers diverse and marginalized communities that traditionally are not privy to the rhetoric reserved for those within ivory towers. West ends his song with a challenge for professors, among others, to be on the front line.

Brother Cornel, you who continually teach us that the front line is here as well as around the world, that a prophetic framework solicits genuine solidarity, that there is no struggle without sacrifice, that without hope there can be no future, we need you with us now more than ever in our work for equity and dignity—please “stay on the front line.”

Luis S. Hernandez Jr., a Harvard Divinity School student, is co-chair of Concilio Latino.