Earlier this semester, Henry Louis “Skip” Gates came into the Locke Seminar Room of the Barker Center to do a little back-to-school redecorating. Gates, the Chair of the African-American and African Studies Department, was standing on crutches on account of a broken ankle, so he delegated the tasks that involved physical exertion to a few nearby students.
Surveying the room, Gates turned his attention towards Cornel R. West ’74, who stared down at the room through his black horn-rimmed glasses from the framed, blown-up cover of a 1996 Emerge magazine. Gates asked someone to help him take it down.
“Are you taking down Cornel West?” asked an intrigued student. No, Gates replied—he’d never do that to Cornel. He was just moving him to a different wall.
“He’s my main man,” Gates sighed. “I miss him, I miss him!”
Meanwhile, down at Princeton University, West looked as if he had just walked out of the frame, his trademark hairdo and beard as carefully styled as ever, and his shiny gold cufflinks complementing his black three-piece suit.
He had just started his third year at Princeton, having left Harvard in 2002 after a bitter dispute with University President Lawrence H. Summers. The confrontation was made extremely public, and although Summers has never revealed exactly what he said to the professor that made him so angry, the version West likes to tell is basically legendary.
By that account, Summers called West into his office and proceeded to criticize his work, questioning the scholarly value of West’s 2001 spoken word album “Sketches of My Culture” and requesting that West check in regularly with him about his research. West got up and left, and with his departure to Princeton, Harvard’s once ascendant Af-Am Department started on a quick path to dismemberment, losing five major professors in four years. Today, the fractured program is changing and sprouting new blossoms. West, meanwhile, is the same guy he always was—dynamic, personable, and controversial as ever.
“Cornel’s not gonna change,” says Eddie S. Glaude Jr., a professor in Princeton’s Religion department who was a graduate student when he met West 15 years ago. “Cornel West will be Cornel West whether he’s at Harvard, at Princeton, at Cambridge. He wears his institutions like a loose garment.”
A CHORUS OF CRITICS
Glances of recognition and excited murmurs reportedly trail the famed professor around the Princeton campus, just as they once did back in Cambridge. His lectures and seminars are wildly popular among students, but some don’t seem to take him seriously as a scholar—largely because he has continued pursuing the kinds of projects that got him into trouble with Summers.
Critics accuse West of being too media-hungry, too invested in his public image and not focused enough on his studies. Indeed, he now has more extracurriculars on his plate than ever before. He’s got a new album out, for starters. His website (www.cornelwest.com) claims that the2-CD set is “the new face of educational entertainment.”
“At the risk of sounding like a breakfast cereal, it feels so good you hardly notice that it’s good for you,” the website reads.
Then there were his recent appearances in the “Matrix” sequels—cameos in which he basically plays himself, minus the glasses. The DVD box set even features a three-hour-long commentary in his familiar voice.
No doubt about it, West has a penchant for populism, and he seems to carry none of the ivory tower pretensions some of his colleagues tend to champion.
And just like back at Harvard, where conservative student monthly The Salient frequently quipped about West’s radical methodology, Princeton has given the professor a fair share of its own detractors. The September 2005 cover of Princeton’s humor magazine The Princeton Tiger, for instance, features a vaguely offensive caricature of Cornel West playing beer pong and wearing a golden dollar sign pennant around his neck.
“Some think it’s a little silly, others think that it’s just his thing,” says Princeton senior Daniel G. Markiewicz of West’s non-traditional academic pursuits.
“There’s a certain pocket of our student body that’s very conservative that go into his courses or interactions with him with a certain attitude, that they’re going to disagree with him before they’ve heard what he has to say,” says Princeton sophomore Jose Leonor.
West’s 2004 book “Democracy Matters”, widely dismissed by critics as lacking in substance, is a pointed defense of his way of academia. With an entire chapter devoted to explaining “The Necessary Engagement with Youth Culture,” West characterizes his method as a struggle against “technocratic management culture”—a conceptual enemy he equates with “crude” traditionalists like Summers.
A MAN OF THE PEOPLE
If the old, dusty robes of tradition are West’s greatest enemy, then the young students who flock to him are his closest allies. To them, his reputation in the teacher’s lounge is irrelevant.
Every Tuesday night, the basement bar of Annex Restaurant, a quaint Italian-American diner just outside the Princeton campus, enjoys a sudden influx of customers as soon as West and Glaude’s three-hour graduate seminar on the African-American intellectual tradition lets out. It’s a group of students about 15 strong, and West comes out with them every week. The crowd takes up four or five tables, and they’ve never missed a week as long as class has been in session.
One of the biggest constants in West’s career as an academic is this devoted student following. Students who have heard him speak are enamored with his dynamic lectures, and many of them stay in touch with the professor well after their final exam is over. A three-week advance booking is recommended to land an appointment during his office hours, students say, although he has been known to hold them from anywhere between five to 12 hours at a time. Despite his over-booked schedule, West remains as friendly and approachable as Jia-Rui Chong ’99 remembers him from his days at Harvard.
“Everyone just loved him. He would always greet you as if he knew you, and he remembered who you were, which was at the same time disconcerting and disarming,” Chong says.
Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe ’01 told The Crimson that African-American Studies 10, the intro course West made so famous in the 1990’s, “isn’t a class, it’s like attending church on a Sunday morning…I was sitting in the front row going ‘mm-hmm’ and ‘amen’ to everything Professor West was saying.”
“At Harvard, he was definitely a superstar,” Chong says. And he continues to be at Princeton.
“He’s read more than any person on the planet, but you would never know because he’s such a down-to-earth guy. You can talk to him about absolutely anything,” says Leslie-Bernard Joseph ’06, president of the Princeton Undergraduate Student Government.
Glaude has seen this side of West from both ends, first as his student years ago and now as co-instructor of the Tuesday evening graduate seminar. “He is very open to listening to people, and he’s invested in conversation as a crucial dimension of the experience in a classroom,” Glaude says. “Many times, when people reach a certain status they seem to always talk to or at people, but Cornel is invested in talking with people.”
Such a reputation is not easy to maintain, and to keep up, West has to schedule his workday around the needs of his students. Joseph says he once found West in his office at 11 p.m. during spring break—he told her it was the only time he could get to his office and get some work done. Indeed, West’s commitment to his students meant that FM only got to talk to him for three minutes on the phone. A student was at his door, he said, and despite what his critics say, duty must precede press.
A BETTER FIT
In “Democracy Matters,” West’s largest academic work since his departure from Harvard, the professor gives a detailed, nine-page account, rich with parenthesized sarcasm, of his dispute with Summers.
During his short conversation with FM, the conflict still seemed to be hanging heavily over West’s mind. “I am much freer under [Princeton University President] Shirley [M.] Tilghman than I was under Larry Summers,” he said.
The Princeton Tiger’s ridicule notwithstanding, West feels that his work is “much more appreciated at Princeton than at Harvard.”
His focus on spending time with undergraduates also seems to be more at home in the pastures of central New Jersey. “At Princeton, undergraduates are center-stage, while Harvard has its law, business, and so on,” he says. “There is a much more intense liberal arts college within the university.”
“He seems happier here,” Sanders says, and Glaude agrees. “He seems to be flourishing, he’s enjoying his time here.”
“It’s been magnificent. Princeton is a more congenial context…It’s the leadership, that’s all,” West says of the last three years, revealing a hint of enduring bitterness over the battle with Summers.
Meanwhile, as dearly as Skip Gates may miss his friend Cornel, for msot of Harvard’s current student body, the professor is little more than a framed photo and a blot on Summers’ tenure. The last class that remembers his powerful presence on campus graduated this past June, taking his memory with them, for better or for worse. Even though his portrait still hangs, the mark he left on Harvard Af-Am may soon be obscured by the department’s new direction and influx of new faculty.
West is a Princeton man now, through and through. Conveniently for him, he didn’t have to change at all before he could call himself one.
—Simon W. Vozick-Levinson contributed to the reporting of this story.