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Over the past several weeks, the chorus of support for Professor Cornel R. West ’74 and his request for tenure consideration has become increasingly spirited. Now, we must add our own voices to the mix, singing praises for West and chanting disillusionment with the University, which has undervalued yet another faculty member of color with its decision to deny his request.
The University’s decision is a profound loss. West has the presence of a rockstar, the deep wisdom of a prophet, and the warmth of a friend. His capacity to hold a room captive — to speak directly to the souls, minds, and hearts of every student he interacts with — is unrivaled, and our campus would be dimmed without his light. This plain reality, paired with the absence of any concrete explanation from the University, leaves us baffled, unable to connect the dots that led to this decision — a decision that will inevitably deplete the nature of academic life at Harvard.
The fact that West takes this recent decision as an act of disrespect is not at all surprising — in fact, it is entirely reasonable. West is prolific in ways that transcend his written publications, which are also formidable; his centrality to the academic lifeblood of this institution is unquestionable. Beyond that, tenure status — which West once held at Harvard before leaving after a rift with then-University President Lawrence H. “Larry” Summers — is intended to be for life unless something goes terribly awry. The University’s inability to honor its promise to West not only backtracks on its initial support of his work and undermines the concept of tenure, but also exudes a sense of disregard and ingratitude for his tremendous contributions — past and present — to Harvard’s academic vitality.
This particular controversy, as many have been quick to point out, does not emerge within a vacuum. It emerges within a culture of academia grounded in Eurocentricity and the systemic marginalization of Black and minority scholarship. It is directly tied to the ongoing fight for ethnic studies, and it is simply the latest iteration of a centuries-old pattern of barring Black voices from academia. This decision disrespects the importance of Black radical thought and ultimately harms Harvard students who wish to engage with it.
In light of the plethora of commitments Harvard made this past summer to uplift Black scholars and to push for greater diversity, this leaves a particularly bad taste — making it hard to view those promises as anything but cursory.
Indeed, there are other passionate intellectuals of color without West’s level of recognition and distinction who have been similarly scorned by tenure decisions in the past. The absence of these critical voices deserves the same level of outrage that West’s tenure denial has received. If a professor as renowned as Cornel West cannot receive tenure consideration, what hope is there for other academics of color working to test and push the bounds of radical thought?
Whatever its intent, the University’s choice also sends disquieting signals about the voices that Harvard seeks to elevate. West’s suspicion that the University denied his request because it views his work as “too risky” is particularly troubling, especially in light of the fact that Harvard professors so often come under scrutiny for their controversial views but continue to be provided with a solid foundation for their work at the University. What Harvard deems acceptable scholarship is all too arbitrary; this paradigm will no doubt leave lasting ripples.
At a minimum, the University must communicate its reasoning to the public. Academia on the whole would benefit from greater transparency on Harvard’s part about the tenure process: Tenure appointments are not simply matters of human resources, but are instead public statements about what constitutes intellectually valuable work. The former can be kept confidential; the latter cannot.
Fortunately, the University still has time to correct its missteps, and we believe that it must. Indeed, at the most fundamental level, it is the administration’s duty to grant Professor West the respect that he deserves; to pay tribute to the lineage of academic thought and Black scholarship that he helps to uphold; and to ensure that our campus is not stripped of one its most spirited, sharp, and incandescent voices.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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