Cornel West Is Leaving Harvard After Tenure Dispute

The public intellectual and professor of African-American studies will head to Union Theological Seminary in New York.

Cornel West is joining the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, where he was first hired at the age of 23.
Credit…Craig Matthews/The Press of Atlantic City, via Associated Press

  • March 8, 2021

Cornel West is abandoning his quest for tenure at Harvard and going back to Union Theological Seminary, where he first taught 44 years ago, the New York seminary announced on Monday.

Over the past few weeks, Dr. West, 67, a popular professor of African-American studies and progressive activist, had threatened to leave Harvard because, he said, the university had balked at a recommendation by a faculty committee that his untenured position be converted to a tenured one.

He has been a tenured professor at Yale, Princeton and Harvard in the past but left Harvard once before, in 2002 after a public fight with Lawrence Summers, the university’s president at the time. He returned to a nontenured position at Harvard in 2017.

The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, the president of Union, said in an interview on Monday that “our whole school is devoted to the same prophetic message” as Dr. West, and that he would bring his intellectual rigor to bear on “the meaning of life and why we’re here, and what we’re called to do and be.”

Union was founded nearly 200 years ago as a “radical breakaway” from traditional ministerial education, and now attracts not only Christian students, but Buddhists, Muslims, Jews and other faiths as well as some students who are spiritual but not religiously affiliated, Dr. Jones said.

Dr. West has been awarded the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair, named after a German theologian, an announcement from the seminary said, and will teach a range of subjects in philosophy, politics, cultural theory and literature. His appointment is effective in July, and he will be entering with tenure.

“If you could give three times, four times tenure, he would come with quadruple tenure,” Dr. Jones said.

Dr. West could not immediately be reached for comment. But he told The Boycott Times in an interview published on Monday that he was tired of what he called 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,” Dr. West said in the interview.

“Harvard has actually done very well in terms of bringing different peoples of different colors and gender at a high level into the administration,” he said. “But it does not yet translate on the ground in terms of faculty. It does not yet translate in terms of being able to speak to the seeking of truth amongst the students.”

For that reason, he said, “I’ve got to make my move to the great Union Theological Seminary. My perennial home.” He noted that he had first been hired there at the age of 23. He has previously taught at Union over three different periods, including just before moving to Harvard in 2017, and he said he was returning with gusto.

“I’m making the move back to New York, and it’s not a move out of default,” he said. “Not at all. I’m going with a smile. I’m going fired up.”

Harvard’s divinity school sent out a message on Monday saying it would miss Dr. West and wishing him “every success in his future endeavors.”

After news of the tenure dispute became public, faculty members in the African-American studies department and divinity school, where he has his Harvard appointments, voted to begin the tenure process for him.

Word of his decision to leave Harvard spread quickly.

Walter Johnson, a colleague in the Department of African and African American Studies, said people were “shocked” and “deeply dismayed.” “He is an intellectual giant and moral polestar, and it is very sad for the university to see him go,” Dr. Johnson said.

Dr. West’s dispute over tenure put a new focus on complaints that Black and Latino professors are underrepresented in the ranks of tenured professors, not just at Harvard. It caused enough consternation at Harvard that the university’s president, Lawrence Bacow, told a faculty meeting last week that he was “firmly committed to the success of our Black faculty.”

Dr. West said in an interview with The New York Times last week that he did not know why his request to be considered for a tenured post had been rebuffed, but that he thought it could have something to do with his age and his support for the Palestinian cause, which he called a “taboo” issue at Harvard.

Dr. Jones said she hoped Dr. West would still be teaching at 90. “I think he still has some of his best work ahead of him,” she said.