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This year’s conflict between Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West ’74 and University President Lawrence H. Summers left no victors.
Instead, the clash of these two academic titans left in its wake a mark upon the first year of a University presidency and a hole in the starting line-up of Harvard’s “dream team” of Afro-American studies professors.
West’s was not the only loss suffered by the department this year. Citing personal reasons, Carswell Professor of Afro-American Studies and Philosophy K. Anthony Appiah announced in January his plans to move to Princeton.
And though the department’s captain, DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr., has said he will remain at Harvard for at least one more year, he said he is still considering a standing offer from Princeton University.
Gates said he will likely make his ultimate decision this summer and said he is deeply divided over which course his future career should take.
On the one hand, he said he is tied by “deep loyalties” to Harvard, where he is largely credited with transforming Harvard’s Afro-American studies program from a department with only one tenured professor, who was white, into what many consider today to be the best department in its field.
On the other hand, Appiah is Gates’ close friend and intellectual soul mate. The two met as students at Cambridge University in 1973 and have spent most of their academic careers working at the same institutions.
“What I have to figure out is if I can live without Anthony Appiah, and only time will tell,” Gates said last week.
Professors in the department worry that if Gates goes after next year, many of the faculty he helped recruit, including University Professor William Julius Wilson and Professor of History and Afro-American Studies Evelyn B. Higginbotham, would soon follow.
But in the meantime, professors prefer to focus on the more immediate task at hand—rebuilding the department.
“The moment impresses me more as one of challenge and opportunity than of utter cataclysm and woe,” Lawrence D. Bobo, Tishman and Diker professor of sociology and of Afro-American studies, wrote in an e-mail.
“Any Afro-Am department that still counts Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates Jr. as it’s chair, and William Julius Wilson and Evelyn Higginbotham as stalwart members has an edge that arguably cannot be eclipsed.”
The Spat Heard ’Round The World
An October meeting in Summers’ Mass. Hall office provided the setting for the initial clash between Summers and West.
In that meeting, West has publicly alleged Summers “disrespected” him by calling into question the quality of his work, which West said Summers had not read.
Summers also reportedly chastised him 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.
West told National Public Radio’s Tavis Smiley that Summers urged him to pursue more scholarly endeavors and suggested that they meet again in two months to “see how my academic project was coming along.”
Summers has refused to comment on the content of any meetings with faculty members, though he has said he regrets what he called a miscommunication.
“I said at the time, several times, that no professor should leave my office feeling that they are not respected, and I regret that Professor West apparently left with that feeling,” Summers said last week. “I do think an important aspect of academic leadership is the maintaining of high standards for all of us.”
Once public—the Boston Globe first reported the dispute in late December—the conflict between West and Summers quickly became a leading story in the national media.
Reports quickly began to surface that not only West, but Appiah and Gates, were also considering offers from Harvard’s rival institutions, including Princeton.
A resolution of the conflict suddenly seemed possible when, shortly after the conflict became public, Summers met again with West to apologize.
But in January, Appiah’s announcement that he would depart Harvard for Princeton at the end of the academic year refueled the media frenzy.
Though Appiah cited personal reasons as his motivation for leaving—his permanent residence is in New York City, where his partner lives and works—his decision was viewed by some as evidence that the Afro-American studies department was a sinking ship.
The media hullaballoo subsided briefly during February and early March, as West recovered from prostate cancer surgery.
It was during this period that, West later told Smiley, Princeton may have won him over.
Princeton’s top two administrators, President Shirley M. Tilghman and Provost Amy Gutmann ’71, called West weekly after his surgery.
“I didn’t receive any telephone calls from President Summers,” West told Smiley. “I did receive one note.”
In the spring, Summers attempted to use Gates and Climenko Professor of Law Charles J. Ogletree Jr., who represented West to the press this year, as ambassadors to broker peace with West. These efforts to reach out to the professor were rebuffed, however, according to Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Alan J. Stone.
“Over the past several weeks, Professor West did not respond to repeated overtures from President Summers for conversation. It doesn’t seem fruitful now to have that conversation in the press,” Stone said in early April.
On Friday, April 12, Princeton announced its coup—West would join the ranks of its faculty in September as its Class of 1943 University Professor.
Just days after the Princeton announcement, West appeared again on Smiley’s show with harsh words for his soon-to-be-former employer, and his comments reignited the media hoopla surrounding his clash with Summers.
After describing his side of that fateful October meeting, West criticized Summers for what he called his disrespectful treatment of faculty.
“I think in one sense that Larry Summers is the Ariel Sharon of American higher education,” West said on Smiley’s show. “He acts like a bull in a china shop; he acts like a bully in a very delicate and dangerous situation.”
This final airing of dirty laundry in public, as some saw it, was perhaps a fitting end to a conflict that had been largely waged in the public arena.
The conflict with West strained Summers’ relationship with both members of the department and with minority students on campus, as it called into question his commitment to both the department and, on a larger level, diversity at Harvard.
In early media accounts of the conflict, top members of the department said they felt Summers had failed by not issuing a strong statement in favor of affirmative action at the start of his presidency.
Jumping on that criticism, the Rev. Jesse Jackson held a New Year’s Day press conference in Cambridge at which he called for Summers to take a stronger stance on these issues.
“Harvard must be a beacon of light for the nation, not a shadow of doubt,” Jackson said in an interview following the press conference.
Also at the time, the Rev. Al Sharpton threatened to sue Summers for his treatment of West. Sharpton said Summers’ criticism of West’s extracurricular activities was an effort to prevent West from working on Sharpton’s presidential campaign. West heads Sharpton’s exploratory committee for a 2004 presidential bid.
Summers responded to these concerns by citing the University’s “long-standing commitment to diversity” and vowing to “maintain that commitment.”
“With regard to the Afro-American studies program at Harvard, we are proud of this program collectively and of each of its individual members. We would very much like to see the current faculty stay at Harvard and will compete vigorously to make this an attractive environment,” Summers said in the statement.
Several professors in the department said they were satisfied with the statement and believed Summers is sincerely committed to promoting diversity at Harvard.
Gates himself said he was content with Summers’ newly clarified stance toward affirmative action and the department, saying in April that any decision to leave Harvard at this point would not be directly related to Summers.
Nonetheless, many students have said the West-Summers disagreement has led them to question Summers’ respect for issues that are important to minority members of the Harvard community—an image that will be hard for Summers to counter.
“We’ve heard repeatedly how much he values diversity, and yet in this situation, he’s really done very little,” said then-president of the Black Students’ Association Brandon A. Gayle ’03, during the midst of a student campaign to collect signatures for a petition that urged West to remain at Harvard.
The conflict has also caused some faculty to question Summers’ administrative style.
West is a University professor and thus reports directly to the dean of the Faculty, like most of his colleagues.
But some professors said that, if accurate, West’s description of his October meeting with Summers depicted a president overstepping his job description in dealing with Faculty.
“Every one of us has engaged in vigorous and contentious debate...about our scholarship and our teaching, and that is healthy,” Ogletree said. “But when a president takes on that role and does it in a way that is both uninformed and sort of unreflective of the contributions of the individual, that crosses the line.”
But not all professors said they felt the spat with West should lead Summers to change his ways.
“I hope that President Summers will not yield to his critics, because if he does they will only multiply,” said Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature Ruth R. Wisse.
Keeping the Faith?
Gates’ announcement that he will remain in Harvard next year provides at least a temporary break in the storm clouds that have swirled around Harvard’s Afro-American studies department in the past six months.
But some say the future of the department still hangs on Gates’ ultimate decision.
If he joins West and Appiah at Princeton, the department he helped to build over the past decade may be in serious danger. The group of Harvard professors dubbed the Afro-American studies “dream team,” might follow West in something of a mass exodus from Cambridge, some worry.
But other professors are more optimistic. They see Gates as more of the bricklayer than the cornerstone of Harvard’s department—Gates’ department was built to last.
“The moment impresses me more as one of challenge and opportunity than of utter cataclysm and woe,” Bobo said.
“We’ve got a deeply-rooted and solid foundation. We’re all excited about continuing to build on it,” he added. “And, naturally, we’ll keep a place open for Brother Corn and Brother Appiah should New Jersey prove to be, well, New Jersey!”
—David H. Gellis and Catherine E. Shoichet contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer Kate L. Rakoczy can be reached at email@example.com.
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