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Harvard Reversed Course And Offered Cornel West Consideration for Tenure After Public Outcry, He Says

Professor Cornel R. West delivers a speech at Harvard in 2017. West announced Monday that he would return to Union Theological Seminary after he said Harvard declined to consider him for tenure.
Professor Cornel R. West delivers a speech at Harvard in 2017. West announced Monday that he would return to Union Theological Seminary after he said Harvard declined to consider him for tenure. By Cynthia Guo
By Meera S. Nair and Andy Z. Wang, Crimson Staff Writers

In an interview with The Crimson on Tuesday, Professor Cornel R. West ’74 said Harvard changed course following public pressure and offered to consider him for tenure, but the fact that this reversal came only after external scrutiny merely solidified his decision to leave the University.

West also offered previously unreported details about the tenure controversy that led him to announce his departure, saying that it was a faculty committee’s recommendation that he be considered for tenure — not his own request — that was turned down by the University.

West — a Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School and in the Department of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts of Sciences — announced Monday that he would return to Union Theological Seminary, three weeks after he publicly threatened to depart over the tenure issue. He first told the Boston Globe in February that the University had dismissed his request to be considered for tenure.

Early in the semester, a faculty committee composed of professors from the Divinity School and FAS was tasked with evaluating West’s scholarship and teaching activity for reappointment to his nontenured Professor of the Practice seat. In the FAS, Professors of the Practice are considered for reappointment by such committees every five years; the Divinity School does not publicize its faculty appointment procedures. Neither school publicizes procedures for conversion from a Professor of the Practice position into a tenured role.

West said, however, that the faculty committee issued a report that called on the University to “immediately initiate” a review considering West for a tenured position, in addition to recommending his reappointment as a Professor of the Practice.

The University subsequently denied the committee’s request to initiate the tenure process for him, West said.

“The response was, ‘We accept renewal. We deny a tenure process,’” West said. “When the report put forward tenure, and it was then rejected, then I raised the question, ‘What was the reason for rejection?’”

West said he then approached FAS and Divinity School leadership, who offered him an endowed — but still untenured — chair position.

“When I spoke with the deans, they told me, ‘There is no possibility of a tenure review, but we could give you money and a prestigious chair,’” West said. “I said it was not about money or prestige.”

“I don’t know if you all have ever heard of any professor who’s had a chair without tenure, but I can rest be assured that it’s very, very, very rare for any professor in the history of Harvard,” he added.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on West’s characterization of the events. After West initially threatened to depart in February, Swain told the Globe that the faculty committee solely had a charge to review West’s reappointment and lacked the authority to itself conduct a tenure review.

Three members of the faculty committee considering the reappointment wrote in an emailed statement that they could not comment specifically on the contents of the confidential report but that the University’s characterization was incomplete.

“While the statement of the university spokesperson that the review recommended Professor West’s reappointment as Professor of the Practice is technically accurate, it is neither a full nor a forthright characterization of [the] report’s contents and recommendation,” the statement reads.

“We have written separately to the University administration asking that they instruct their spokespeople to represent the content of the report accurately, or to cease representing them at all,” the faculty added.

The statement was signed by Walter Johnson, a professor of History and African and African American Studies, who chaired the committee; David L. Carrasco, a professor of Anthropology and at the Divinity School; and Jacob K. Olupona, a professor of African and African American Studies and at the Divinity School.

Following West’s interview with the Globe, Harvard affiliates organized in support of West, launching several petitions to demand his immediate tenure. West said that after facing increasing public pressure, the University changed its position on tenure consideration.

“After the public outcry, the administration changed their minds: they said, ‘Now we’re open to a tenure review,’” West said. “You can’t impose and force people to respect you in that sense. That’s another reason why I knew I had to go.”

“I’m the same guy that I was before and after the public outcry,” he added.

Swain also declined to comment on whether the University eventually offered to consider West for tenure.

The New York Times reported Monday that shortly after West’s initial interview with the Globe, the faculties of the Divinity School and of the Department of African and African American Studies voted to initiate a tenure process for West.

In an emailed statement, Divinity School professor David C. Lambert did not dispute the Times’s account.

“Appointment discussions in the Faculty are confidential, and so I can’t comment on the details of those, but I certainly won’t contradict the Times,” he wrote. “For myself, I can say that I never have had a thought that Cornel was not and does not continue to be deserving of tenure.”

Carrasco declined to comment on a Divinity School faculty vote but wrote in an emailed statement that “the faculty supports West’s request.”

“I support Cornel West, and the manner of his departure seems to be unmasking something troubling in our beloved university,” he wrote. “The question is why is it that from one side of the mouth we hear support for African American studies and scholars while the other side of the mouth refuses to address Cornel West’s request and this situation directly.”

Michael P. Naughton, a spokesperson for the Divinity School, declined to comment.

In the week before West announced his departure, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay expressed her committment to supporting Black scholars at the University.

“It took generations for us to arrive at where we are right now. It’ll take time — hopefully not generations — to change,” Gay said in a March interview with The Crimson. “Change takes time. It doesn’t seem like a profound statement. It just seems obvious.”

West said he had a “wonderful talk” with Gay after he had already decided to leave Harvard.

“I told her that I want to do all I can to make sure that she’s able to push through to get high quality candidates of color and gender,” West said. “I can do that at a distance. I don’t have to be at Harvard to do that.”

West said as soon as he threatened to depart Harvard, he began to receive offers from several other top universities.

“This is why it just makes it so difficult for people to understand why initially there was no possibility of a tenure review when you have these kinds of voices coming at you around the country,” West said. “Like what is going on here?”

West said while he is departing now for Union Theological Seminary, which he has always considered his “home,” he retains fond memories of his years — as a college student, fellow, and University Professor, the highest academic honor — at Harvard.

“Those are the highest levels of joy that I experienced in the profession, in the academy,” West said. “That will always be the case.”

—Staff writers Alex M. Koller and Taylor C. Peterman contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at andy.wang@thecrimson.com.

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