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Amid Cornel West’s Tenure Dispute, Faculty and Students Clash Over Harvard’s Treatment Of Black Scholars

Before much of campus closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences held meetings in University Hall.
Before much of campus closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences held meetings in University Hall. By Aiyana G. White
By Meera S. Nair and Andy Z. Wang, Crimson Staff Writers

In light of the threatened departure of Professor Cornel R. West ’74 from Harvard, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay said during a faculty meeting Tuesday that Harvard is “unequivocally” committed to supporting an environment in which faculty of color can thrive.

West — a Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School and of African and African American Studies in the FAS — threatened in late February to leave Harvard for the second time after he said the University denied his request for consideration of tenure.

In subsequent media coverage, West claimed that the University cited that his work was “too risky” and “too fraught” while reviewing his tenure request. Student organizers who had rallied in support of West’s tenure have argued that the decision not to consider him for tenure speaks to broader challenges that faculty of color face at Harvard.

Gay acknowledged at the faculty meeting Tuesday that West’s situation ignited a broader debate of “whether Black scholars can succeed at Harvard.”

“Professor West is not only an esteemed philosopher, he’s a deeply valued colleague, and we take his concerns seriously,” she said. “It’s a legitimate question to ask of a University as old as ours, with a past represented rather instructively by the portraits on the walls of our Faculty Room. And I understand why it can be difficult to answer.”

However, Gay highlighted the work of the FAS to diversify its faculty ranks, including naming Sheree Ohen as its first Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging in August 2020.

“I will state unequivocally that the entire academic leadership of the FAS is committed to recruiting, retaining, and enabling the research and teaching of a diverse faculty,” Gay said. “And if you look over the last decade, for example, almost 90 percent of Black faculty who stood for tenure were successful.”

Gay also acknowledged that, despite the best efforts of the FAS, Black scholars at Harvard nonetheless face “particular challenges” in addition to Harvard’s already rigorous research and teaching responsibilities.

“Our ultimate goal is not just about recruitment and promotion,” Gay said. “It’s also about creating a community in which a diverse faculty, including Black faculty, can thrive. And that’s where we still have work to do.”

In 2021, just eight percent of tenured and 13 percent of tenure-track Harvard faculty are underrepresented minorities, up from five percent and 11 percent, respectively, in 2007, according to an annual University report.

In January 2020, Gay launched a review of the FAS tenure promotion process, with a final report expected to be published later this spring; however, in an interview with The Crimson last March, she said the review will examine neither Harvard’s use of ad hoc committees nor individual tenure denials.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow said during the faculty meeting that it would be “inappropriate” for him to comment on specific tenure cases because he evaluates tenure decisions after they are approved by individual schools. He said, however, that the University is deeply dedicated to inclusion efforts.

“The Provost and I are firmly committed to the success of our Black faculty, and here I would add, not only in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, but throughout the entire University,” Bacow said. “It’s a commitment that we each have to live up to daily. There is work that remains to be done, but it is work that we all collectively embrace.”

Last Friday, a group of undergraduate students penned a petition to University administrators demanding tenure for West, arguing the issue demonstrates that the University is “not committed to racial justice in any meaningful sense.” The students additionally called for the creation of an Ethnic Studies department within the FAS and the abolishment of the ad hoc committee — a faculty committee, which is chaired by the president or provost and whose composition is secret, that makes the final decision in most tenure cases — from the University’s tenure review process.

“Instead of investing in critical scholarship and pedagogy, Harvard has quelled dissent from students and faculty criticizing the University’s latent and active practices of racism, defended a racist and problematic tenure process, and continually failed to provide secure and valued employment for Black and Brown faculty,” the petition reads.

“How can this university possibly claim to champion ‘racial justice’ while denying the foremost scholar of race in America occupational security and institutional support?” the letter continues.

As of Wednesday evening, the petition had garnered signatures from nearly 90 student organizations and almost 1,700 Harvard students, affiliates, and alumni.

Sofia Andrade ’23-’24, a Crimson Arts editor who helped draft the petition, said the University has yet to respond to the petition.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain and FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven declined to comment on the petition. Michael P. Naughton, a spokesperson for the Divinity School, also declined to comment.

Meshaal Bannerman ’21, former vice president of the Black Men’s Forum and a contributor to the petition, said Harvard’s treatment of West is “emblematic of how Black scholars are treated” at the University.

“If you’re not able to accept Professor West for all himself — meaning his political views, his charisma, and his in-a-way unorthodox manner — then you can’t really post when it comes to admissions time that your school has ‘X’ amount of Black people, your school that does this and that for Black people,” he said.

“To me, that’s just showing that you’re being performative,” Bannerman added.

Injil Muhammad Jr. ’21, former president of the Black Men’s Forum and a fellow contributor to the petition, said he and other undergraduates who drafted the petition are considering not participating in Visitas, the College’s annual admitted students’ weekend, if the University does not reconsider granting West tenure.

“We understand that Professor West is part of the reason why we came to Harvard,” Muhammad said. “So if he’s not here, we would have to reconsider whether we want to encourage others to come.”

—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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