Cornel West has made no secret of how he feels about Harvard University. The noted academic publicly chronicled his claims of the Ivy League school rebuffing his request for tenure before he just up and quit altogether.
But on Monday night, West — whose tenure plight preceded that of Nikole Hannah-Jones at the University of North Carolina yet bore many of the same arguably racist hallmarks — left nothing up to the imagination and made his disdain for Harvard clear with no uncertain terms in a public letter of resignation that he tweeted to his 1 million followers.
The latter, dated June 30, specifically referenced what West called “the shadow of Jim Crow” looming large over Harvard’s efforts at superficial diversity.”
West claims that Harvard also failed to make good on several promises he says he was assured, including “a year sabbatical.” He also suggests that some of his treatment by Harvard was due to its “disgusting” stance on “the Palestinian cause,” something West openly supports.
It was that combination of the above along with his peers’ reactions (or lack thereof) to his mother’s death and the treatment of Black faculty and staff that helped West reach his decision, he wrote in the letter.
“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,” West wrote before concluding his letter by insisting he had “no regrets!”
West tweeted his letter just about five months after he publicly revealed that Harvard was refusing to grant him tenure. Calling it “disrespect,” West — who was at the time a professor of philosophy at Harvard Divinity School — at the time threatened to resign if he was not granted tenure.
“It is once again this issue of just not putting up with being disrespected,” West told the Boston Globe in a report published on Feb. 18. He added later: “But I wasn’t raised to put up with being disrespected or tolerate disrespect. I don’t try to negotiate respect.”
West, who left his tenure-track position at Harvard in 2002 and returned in 2017 by accepting a non-tenure-track role, said Harvard offered him a lengthy and lucrative contract that included a raise, but no tenure.
Less than a month later, West announced he would be leaving Harvard to accept a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
“I discovered that I can only take so much hypocrisy. I can only take so much dishonesty. I can only take so much pettiness in terms of ways in which I thought I was disrespected and devalued,” West lamented in a Boycott Times interview with Mordecai Lyon, with whom he attended Harvard in the 1970s as a student.
West ultimately revealed that Harvard apparently buckled to the mounting pressure of negative media attention from the very public ordeal, reversing course with university leadership saying they would consider granting him tenure.
“After the public outcry, the administration changed their minds: they said, ‘Now we’re open to a tenure review,’” West told the Harvard Crimson. “You can’t impose and force people to respect you in that sense. That’s another reason why I knew I had to go.”
Harvard previously was adamant about not budging from its stance against tenure. Instead, West said, the school offered him “money and a prestigious chair.”
But West said “it was not about money or prestige” and was moving forward with leaving Harvard.
The incident was similar in nature to what happened with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, who was offered the Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism for the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media without tenure, which had been extended to everybody else who previously served in that role. After pressure from Black faculty and the community, the UNC board of trustees finally voted last month to grant Hannah-Jones tenure.
But by that point, it was too late. Hannah-Jones had already decided to take her talents to Howard University, where she will work to establish the Center for Journalism and Democracy as the newly created Knight Chair in Race and Journalism — a tenured position — in the Cathy Hughes School of Communications.
The news about West and Hannah-Jones has drawn attention to a 2016 report that found while colleges and universities are hiring an increasing number of minority professors, very rarely are they given a tenure track.
“Just as the doors of academe have been opened more widely than heretofore to marginalized groups, the opportunity structure for academic careers has been turned on its head,” a study conducted by TIAA Institute said in part. “The available jobs tend, less and less, to be the conventional ‘good’ jobs, that is, the tenure-track career-ladder jobs that provide benefits, manageable to quite good salaries, continued professional development opportunities — and, crucially, a viable future for academics.”
The topic was also explored when the Florida Journal of Educaional Administration & Policy published a report in 2011 that found similar results as TIAA. In addition to “barriers to tenure and promotion [serving] to disrupt the ability of faculty of color to perform in their faculty roles satisfactorily,” the report addressed how “academic bullying has also served to limit faculty of color in their ability to attain tenure and promotion on traditional campuses.”
This is America.