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Cornel West accuses Harvard of ‘spiritual rot’ in resignation letter after tenure dispute

by Janelle Griffith

Cornel West, a prominent professor of African American studies and progressive activist, said this week that his resignation from Harvard University was driven by a tenure dispute and the Ivy League school’s “intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy.”

“How sad it is to see our beloved Harvard Divinity School in such decline and decay,” he wrote in a letter dated June 30 and posted to his social media accounts Monday. “The disarray of a scattered curriculum, the disenchantment of talented yet deferential faculty, and the disorientation of precious students loom large.”

West said he sent the “candid letter of resignation” to his Harvard dean.

“I try to tell the unvarnished truth about the decadence in our market-driven universities!” he wrote on his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. “Let us bear witness against this spiritual rot!”

Harvard University and the Harvard Divinity School declined requests for comment.

West, who had been a professor of the practice of public philosophy in the divinity school, announced plans to leave Harvard in March, according to The Boycott Times, which describes itself as a publication of dissent.

Attempts to reach West by phone and through email were unsuccessful.

West, 68, graduated from Harvard and earned a doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. He has also taught at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Yale University and the University of Paris.

He left Harvard before, in 2002, after a public spat with Lawrence Summers, its president at the time.

West wrote in the letter that when he returned to Harvard four years ago, after having been a professor at Harvard and Princeton, he had a salary less than what he earned 15 years earlier and no tenure, an academic appointment that makes it very difficult to remove professors.

“I hoped and prayed I could still end my career with some semblance of intellectual intensity and personal respect,” he wrote. “How wrong I was!”

“With a few glorious and glaring exceptions, the shadow of Jim Crow was cast in its new glittering form expressed in the language of superficial diversity,” he continued.

To witness the faculty “enthusiastically support a candidate for tenure then timidly defer to a rejection” based on “Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause was disgusting,” West wrote.

(West told The New York Times in March that he may have been denied tenure because of his age and his support for the Palestinian cause, which he described as a “taboo” issue at Harvard.)

He said that when the news of his mother’s death in April appeared in a newsletter, he received only two public replies, whereas an ordinary announcement about a lecture, award or achievement would typically result in 20 replies.

“This kind of narcissistic academic professionalism, cowardly deference to the anti-Palestinian prejudices of the Harvard administration, and indifference to my Mother’s death constitute an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of deep depths,” he wrote. “In my case, a serious commitment to Veritas requires resignation — with precious memories but absolutely no regrets!”

West’s letter was made public about a week after the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who is Black, said that she will not join the faculty at the University of North Carolina after an outstretched tenure fight marked by allegations of racism and conservative backlash about her involvement in The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which re-examined America’s bitter legacy of slavery.

Instead, Hannah-Jones, a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, said that she would join the faculty of Howard University. Her announcement came less than a week after the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees voted to grant her tenure, reversing its earlier decision.

In March, the Union Theological Seminary announced West would be rejoining its faculty.

“I am honored to return back home to Union, to a place with brilliant faculty and moral tenacity and that provides an opportunity to continue to work with students who are eager to put their faith into practice while striving for justice and seeking of truth,” West said at the time.

He told The Boycott Times in an interview published in March that he discovered he “can only take so much hypocrisy” and “dishonesty” at Harvard.

“I can only take so much pettiness in terms of ways in which I thought I was disrespected and devalued,” West said in the interview. “I found out that my return here, leads me to have to make a move … no doubt about that.”


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