Raising his hands as if at a pulpit, cast under the fluorescent light of his new office, Cornel R. West ’74 reflects on his recent departure from Harvard. He wears his daily uniform: golden Africa-shaped cufflinks, a black scarf, and a three-piece suit. He leans forward, his voice strained. He has one question for Harvard: “What the hell is so controversial and fraught about giving tenure to somebody who you gave a university professorship to 20-something years before?”
On July 12, after months of conflict over the University’s decision to not consider him for tenure, West tweeted his letter of resignation, dated June 30. He accused Harvard of harboring “spiritual rot,” casting “the shadow of Jim Crow,” and attributed his rejection, in part, to “cowardly deference to the anti-Palestianian prejudices of the Harvard administration.”
West wants to understand Harvard’s decision at its core. “Based on academic grounds? I want to know. Age grounds? I want to know. And if it’s not academic grounds, not based on age,” he says. “Must be political.”
His departure is one in a string of recent incidents across the nation in which a university denies tenure to a professor of color whose scholarship and politics dispute the foundational ideals of the United States. Most notably Nikole Hannah-Jones, creator of the 1619 Project, was initially denied tenure at UNC Chapel Hill in June; at Harvard, Lorgia García Peña, a scholar in Ethnic Studies and vocal immigrant rights activist, was denied tenure less than two years ago. Both had their work politicized and belittled by those in more traditional realms of academia. And all this concurrent with Harvard and similar institutions committing themselves to recruit scholars from, to use the University’s words, “the widest possible pool of exceptional talent, unifying excellence and diversity; promotion processes should be characterized by nondiscrimination and should recognize excellence in all its forms.”
We met West on 121 St. at the campus of Union Theological Seminary, where he was first hired as a professor 45 years ago and is now tenured. On a September evening, he takes us to his office inside a gothic tower overlooking Harlem and Columbia University’s main campus. The room is sparse, its perimeter lined with walls of bookshelves and framed images, including a signed “Funkadelic” George Clinton tour poster.
It’s already 9 p.m. when West greets us for one of the first extensive interviews he’s given about his 51-year relationship with, and turbulent departure from, Harvard. Only when his wife calls him, three hours later, does he walk the few blocks home, carrying just a plastic bag with his laptop inside.
West’s relationship to Harvard spans five decades: He was an undergraduate in the early 1970s leading demonstrations for Harvard to establish what was then called ‘Afro-American Studies’; he became a University Professor in 1998, a tenured position and the most recognized position a Harvard scholar can hold; he departed after a dispute with then-University President Lawrence H. Summers; and he returned five years ago.
West is not known to hold his tongue, and his recent viral departure is in keeping with a history of high-profile conflict. When he resigned from Harvard in 2002, his meeting with Summers was so salacious it made headlines in the New York Times. He also captured headlines away from the University — West was one of President Barack Obama’s fiercest critics from the left. In 2017, he charged that Ta-Nahesi Coates “fetishizes white supremacy,” sparking a debate on Twitter that became so contentious it drove Coates off of the platform.
A radical figure like West seems almost fated to clash with an institution like Harvard — one so established it verges on calcification. His recent letter of resignation provides an electrifying critique of the University, steeped as much in the structural as it is in the interpersonal, vacillating between a condemnation of Harvard's “narcissistic academic professionalism” to grievances about his salary. His condemnation, at heart, also offers a prediction: his alma mater, which he still loves, risks falling into decay.
“When I think of Harvard, I always have a smile and a critique at the same time,” West says.
If Harvard can appear obsessed with its status, hubristic, and lethargic — the last Ivy to add the study of women, gender, and sexuality as a degree; embroiled in controversy over establishing an Ethnic Studies department, with multiple high-profile departures of faculty of color proceeding García Peña’s; criticized for being overly-preoccupied with endowment returns — West presents an alternative vision to the “narcissistic” core most visible to the public.
He recalls a William James speech from 1903, “The True Harvard,” in which the esteemed philosopher said there is the Harvard of social clubs, money, and status, but also the True Harvard, the invisible Harvard, the best of Harvard. James — and West — call those who embody this divergent tradition the “undisciplinables.”
James said, in his speech, “The true Church was always the invisible Church. The True Harvard is the invisible Harvard in the souls of her more truth-seeking and independent and often very solitary sons.” With his unruly commitment to truth — to “Veritas,” Harvard’s motto and a staple of his vocabulary — West proudly follows this faith. His multiple clashes with the University are another chapter in an ongoing struggle between these two opposing sects within Harvard.
That Harvard’s own mystique would end up consuming its substance was James’s ultimate concern. West shares this anxiety: “If Harvard slips down the slope of self-institutional idolatry and loses sight of the best of its past and its present,” then the True Harvard will be subsumed. Left behind, West continues, will be “an empty institution obsessed with itself, dishing out different kinds of status, but the excitement, the vitality will be gone.”
University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment for this article.
When West recalls hearing from the University that there was, “no way under any conditions that [the administration] would consider that recommendation of tenure,” he says he interpreted this decision as an act of profound disrespect.
“If they make a recommendation, and say, ‘well, you’re not worthy,’ then you’re messing with my integrity,” West says.
Many of his peers agree. UCLA professor Robin D.G. Kelley, one of the foremost historians of African American history, put it bluntly.
Not even bringing his tenure application up for review “was just stupid,” Kelley says. “Because what, they thought that Cornel’s gonna be like, ‘Oh, yes, boss. Yes, massa. I know my time on the plantation is coming to an end, but massa, you know, I understand, I go back to the slave quarters.’ Like, really?”
West felt he was left with no option but to defend his dignity.
“Harvard disrespect me, I come out fighting,” he says. “That’s just the way it is.”
The ‘Golden Age’
West arrived at Harvard as an undergraduate in 1970 during what he describes as the “second Golden Age of the philosophy department.” In a low and rhythmic tone he lists his undergraduate influences: John B. Rawls, Hilary W. Putnam, Stanley L. Cavell, Robert Nozick, Roderick Firth, H. Nelson Goodman ’28. Professor Orlando H. Patterson, who West deems “the greatest Black scholar in the academy,” was his tutor.
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1953, West was raised in South Sacramento. His mother was an educator and his father worked at McClellan Air Force Base.
“I had people in my life who loved me so deeply, sustained me. And not just family, but those people I was talking about at Harvard,” he says. “They weren’t just my professors. These are people who loved me. These are people who cared for me.” It was his first encounter with the “True Harvard.”
Under the personal guidance of Martin L. Kilson, the first Black scholar appointed to a full professorship at Harvard, and J.G. St. Claire Drake, who created one of the first African American studies programs in the country at Roosevelt University, West decided to become an academic during his freshman year, at the age of 17.
West says he already entered college with “certain decolonized sensibilities and decolonized perceptions.” He and his classmates “were riding the crest of the social movements” of the late ’60s and early ’70s. In college, he volunteered for the Black Panther Party’s breakfast program and, every Sunday after church, travelled 30 miles from Cambridge to Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Norfolk, where Malcolm X was incarcerated, as part of the Panthers’ prison program.
As co-president of the Black Students Association, West’s on-campus activism included multiple takeovers of University Hall. “I was taking it in with tremendous joy — just to learn,” he says, “the sheer adventure of being rooted in the life of the mind and relating that life of the mind to the world of actions, struggle, and passion.”
After his freshman year in Holworthy Hall, West moved to Leverett House with a group of six friends, including Sylvester Monroe ’73, who went on to become an editor at The Washington Post, and James T. Brown ’73, later the sportscaster of the James Brown Show.
Placed in two adjacent suites of three, the young men dismantled the connecting door so they could move freely in a makeshift, six-person rooming set-up. Monroe describes his friend group as “very militant activists, all of us,” concerned with “changing the world and changing Harvard. It was about changing Harvard, getting Harvard to accept us for who we were, who we are, and not trying to turn us into Black versions of Harvard students who had been there for years and years.”
In 1969, the number of Black students who matriculated to Harvard, 100, doubled from the previous year. Monroe, who is currently writing a book on Harvard’s Black student body in the graduating class of 1973, attributes this jump to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the University subsequently making a greater effort to recruit Black students.
West spent an inordinate amount of time with his head in a book. “We’d be at a party, and when there was a lull in the music or something, you’d see Cornel with a book, reading some great philosopher. He always had a book, even at a party,” Monroe says. During a takeover of University Hall in protest of Harvard’s investment in Angola, West jumped out of a window, ran to a nearby building to take a Hebrew test, then hurried back into the occupied building.
Despite these flashes of eccentricity, “he was just one of us,” Monroe recalls. He describes West in college as down-to-earth, fun, and even unassuming. He wouldn’t don an afro or a daily three piece suit until years later. West’s closest friends knew he had an unbelievable intellect, but he was never obnoxious or condescending. “He’s imposing in that he’s so smart, but he doesn’t make you feel like an idiot when you’re around him,” Monroe says.
West describes, at various points, his undergraduate days at Harvard as “fructifying,” “magnificent,” “empowering,” and “enabling.”
“It allowed me to become fruitful in my quest for truth and goodness and beauty, and I remain a revolutionary Christian, so I include the holy as well,” he says. Even so, he cut his college days short. Worried about his scholarship money running out, he enrolled in eight courses his junior fall and spring, got A’s in all but one, and graduated a year early.
‘The Saddest Day of My Academic Career’
After West’s graduation from Harvard, he was soon hired by Donald W. Shriver as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York, at age 23. He stayed at Union for eight years before being hired by the Divinity School at Yale in 1984, where he was later appointed to a joint position in the American Studies department.
Very little time passed before West ran afoul of the Yale administration — a year into his time at Yale, he says he became “the first Yale professor in its history to get arrested on Yale property” while protesting in support of a clerical workers union.
West recalls that after his arrest, then-Yale President Angelo B. Giamatti summoned West to his office. He informed West that “we can’t have faculty getting arrested” and ended West’s sabbatical a semester early. However, West had already committed to teaching courses at the University of Paris, so he flew between New Haven and Paris every week to teach at both institutions.
This conflict proved irreparable, and West left Yale for Union the following year. “I can’t put up with these kinds of conditions,” he recalls thinking. Shortly after his return to Union, Toni Morrison invited him to form “an intellectual neighborhood” with her at Princeton; he accepted, beginning one of the most prolific periods of his academic career.
He won the 1992 Critics Choice Award and the 1993 American Book Award. In 1992 West released “Race Matters,” propelling him from prominence in academic circles directly into the American zeitgeist. That book sold a million copies and firmly cemented West as one of the leading Black intellectuals of the decade.
Two years after the publication of “Race Matters”, West left Princeton and joined the “dream team” that Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. was forming in the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, which included other prominent Black academics such as the philosopher K. Anthony Appiah and sociologist and statistician Lawerence D. Bobo.
Four years after his return to Harvard, he became a University Professor and expanded his teaching to cover religion and philosophy. He released an album, “Sketches of My Culture,” a project that again brought West’s work to a broader audience. “It's intellectual without being cerebral,” he said in an interview with the New Yorker in 2001.
The same year that album was released, Summers became Harvard’s 27th president; tensions between him and West ensued immediately.
West alleges that Summers met with the head of every department with the exception of Afro-American Studies. Gates says he cannot speak for other departments, but that Summers “did not reach out and have a meeting with our faculty — that’s absolutely the case.”
In an email statement to The Crimson, Kelly C. Friendly, spokesperson for Summers, says that the Afro-American department was “the first department he met with.”
Gates, then head of the Department of Afro-American Studies, says he wrote a four-page letter to Summers on West’s behalf describing “how brilliant of a professor West was.”
Soon after, West says Summers summoned him to his office. Immediately, West says, Summers requested West’s help in “effing up Harvey Mansfield,” the conservative professor of Government.
With some edge to his voice, West recounts that “[Summers] in his little truncated sensibilities thought we gon’ become friends. ‘Oh, you a Black man, you must hate Harvey Mansfield.’” West took offense to this assumption and says he considers Mansfield “a brother of mine.”
When West refused, he recalls, the conversation turned. West says Summers “launched into all his different attacks,” claiming that West was missing class, embarrassing Harvard with his support for a potential 2004 Al Sharpton presidential campaign, inflating grades, and humiliating Harvard by associating it with an art form like hip-hop through his album.
Friendly wrote that “the suppositions are ludicrous and nonsensical, but it would be inappropriate for Professor Summers to discuss the details of any conversation with faculty for whom he had oversight responsibility.”
West waxed about his initial bout with Summers: “Here was a neoliberal gangster, upfront. But he’s honest about it, he’s candid,” West continues, “He is not wearing a mask, he’s not posing, and he’s not posturing.” According to West, Summers indicated that the days of the Afro-American Studies’ department centrality to the University’s mission, which it had been under the previous administration, were numbered.
Gates recalls that Summers made it clear during their first meeting that “President Summers didn't regard the field with the same esteem as President Rudenstine did.”
Friendly wrote that Summers “highly valued the African American Studies Department as a vitally important part of the FAS,” adding, “President Rudenstine made the department his top priority when he became President. Ten years later, Larry’s top priorities for the FAS were the student experiences, elimination of family costs to attend Harvard for low and middle income families, offering opportunity to younger faculty and growing the faculty, especially in the sciences.”
The clash with Summers continued a streak of fierce public conflicts, which would only grow in notoriety in subsequent decades. These conflicts feed West’s celebrity — a reputation that seems tangential to his scholarship but has become inextricable from his status as a public intellectual.
Reflecting on the meeting with Summers, West says, “From that moment on, it was clear we were gonna have a real, real struggle.” And he was right. West and Summers’s relationship would continue to sour. In April of 2002, West announced that he was leaving Harvard for Princeton.
“The saddest day of my academic career was when Cornel West and Anthony Appiah left,” Gates says. “The second saddest was when Cornel left again. I spent 14 years trying to get him back.”
‘I Stand Accused’
Between 2002 and 2016, when West was invited back to Harvard, he had stints at Princeton and at Union Theological Seminary. He garnered criticism from journalists, academics, and other public figures for a purported decline in both the quality and quantity of his academic output. A review of “Black Prophetic Fire”, published in 2014, called the book “a strange and disappointing culmination of [West’s] metamorphosis from philosopher to celebrity.”
Even some former allies of West felt his forceful critiques of both Obama and Coates reeked of jealousy. “In truth, West is a scold, a curmudgeonly and bitter critic who has grown long in the tooth but sharp in the tongue when lashing one-time colleagues and allies,” Michael Eric Dyson, a former collaborator and friend of West, wrote in a 9,000-word attack of West published in The New Republic in 2015.
When West was a University Professor at Harvard 20 years ago, he taught more classes than required and relished in his day-to-day role as a teacher. When we ask him about his decision to return to Harvard in 2017, he answers confidently, “I was under the impression that I would just be what I am and teach and have a good time.”
West quickly became a fixture of campus life, especially within communities of color. The energy he brought to the classroom breathed life into the study of Black history and culture. For Undergraduate Council President Noah A. Harris ’22, West was the first Black teacher he ever had. In West’s popular “Introduction to African American Studies” course, Harris remembers engaging with the history of Black art in a way that felt novel. Harris remembers West speaking to the class and saying, “we’re engaging with black culture, not by reading just about the history of music,” but instead, “we’re gonna listen to it, and we’re gonna get up and dance, and we’re gonna have a good time.”
West’s approach in the classroom seems unconventional to some, even undisciplined — and that might be the point. A Black man rocking an afro encouraging students to dance, playing hip-hop music in class, and unapologetically critiquing white institutions does not fall under the rubric of respectability politics that many Black professionals contend with. Yet West’s experiential methods and confrontational scholarship are just as legitimate as his academic publications.
“I thought being a professor was teaching freshman seminars. I thought being a professor was teaching introductory courses to be able to revel in the minds of 18-year-olds who are just showing up unjaded, at least for the moment,” West says.
Suraj Yengde, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, was one of West’s most notable mentees. Before Yengde arrived in America, West was one of two scholars he was aware of (Gates was the other). When he got to Cambridge, West became his primary mentor — Yengde is now a leading scholar of Dalit studies, and his recent book, “Caste Matters”, is a clear allusion to West’s canonical text.
Towards the end of the fall of 2020, West’s joint appointment as Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was up for renewal. Divinity School Professor David Carrasco, one of the faculty members at the Divinity School in charge of evaluating West’s position, says that “we recommended him at the end of our report, that he should not only be renewed as professor of the practice but that he be put in the process for tenure evaluation.” Gates says that the African American Studies department voted unanimously to put West forward for tenure review. But the University refused, marking the beginning of the conflict that drove West to leave Harvard.
Swain, the Harvard spokesperson, declined to comment on the specifics of this article, but he told the Boston Globe in February that West’s performance review followed “normal procedures” in which a faculty committee from both schools West was affiliated with evaluated him and recommended his reappointment to the same rank. Swain told the Globe that the committee did not itself have the authority to conduct a tenure review.
But three Harvard professors on the committee, including Carrasco, wrote a statement in March stating that while Swain’s description of the committee’s report to reappoint West was technically accurate, it was “neither a full nor a forthright characterization of [the] report’s contents and recommendation.”
Carrasco rises in his chair and almost shouts with indignation that the letters of recommendation for West’s renewal compared him to some of the “major philosophers of the last hundred years.” He adds, “This man is making a contribution to human thought.”
One of those letters came from Kelley, a leading scholar of American History at UCLA. His letter to Dean of Harvard Divinity School David N. Hempton includes the following:
“I will confess that I find the entire exercise of writing letters of evaluation for such a towering intellectual figure as Dr. West to be absurd, though I’m sure such letters must exist for the likes of Hannah Arendt, Herbert Marcuse, W. E. B. Du Bois, Michel Foucault, John Dewey, Angela Davis, Slavoj Žižek, and the like. But it does seem like an abuse of time since, honestly, if Professor West produced nothing since his appointment and tenure review in 2016, Harvard’s Divinity School would still bend over backward to retain him.”
Similarly, Gates notes, “To me the most important criteria for tenure is academic excellence,” and that “there is absolutely no question that Cornel West exemplifies academic excellence. In fact, I believe that Cornel West is a genius.”
Hempton, in an earlier statement to The Crimson “on behalf of Harvard Divinity School,” wrote: “We had hoped to retain [West] on our faculty for many years to come. We nonetheless wish him every success in his future endeavors. We will miss him very much.” Bobo, Dean of the Social Science division, declined to comment.
After hearing of the University’s decision, West says he wanted to speak to the President. He sat down with Bobo and told him, “I want to talk to brother Bacow,” but says Bobo discouraged him.
“Why not?” West asked. “I’ll sit down and talk to the brother, person to person, eye to eye, soul to soul. Over a drink, I’ll buy the cognac.”
West alleges that after public outcry surrounding his case, the University reversed its decision and offered to consider him for tenure. But that came after West’s announcement that he would be leaving and, in his view, the decision only compounded the original affront. Swain declined to comment on whether the University made this offer.
“I think Harvard goes around as if everyone’s replaceable, and we’re not,” says Harris, who sponsored a student-led petition against the University, favoring West’s tenure review. “If you want to keep the best, you have to treat them with the respect that they deserve. And so you can’t replace Cornel West.”
West has repeatedly contended that the reason the University refused the faculty committee’s request to consider him for tenure was that he is “too controversial” — referring in particular to his vocal support for Palestinians.
He argues he could not have been refused on academic grounds. “If it was just, some isolated Black man [who had] been around Harvard 47 years, I would be very, very, very, very reluctant and careful to say this has anything to do with anti-Palestinian prejudice. But once I saw it was a pattern of behavior, I said, ‘It’s hard to deny this.’”
West lists a number of Harvard affiliates whom he alleges have been pushed out of the University in part for their positions on Palestine; multiple sources interviewed for this story concurred. Kelley points to a broader trend in academia, saying he has “lived through the past decades of University presidents who just close rank in terms of attacking any members of the faculty, or any organizations that are critical of Israel's occupation, in illegal wars, on Gaza.”
When West publicly stated that Harvard declined to review him for tenure because of his stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Rabbi Jonah C. Steinberg, the Executive Director of Harvard Hillel, responded that West’s comments risked stoking conflict. Following an op-ed published by Steinberg in The Crimson, the two convened for what Steinberg calls a “warm and amiable” dinner at a Cambridge restaurant. Steinberg remembers asking West “if he had any evidence at all for his claim that he was denied tenure because of his views on Israel and the cause of the Palestinian people,” and says West did not.
At the end of the dinner, West says Steinberg acknowledged that they may not come to a satisfying agreement on the Israel-Palestine conflict. West responded, “We all have a right to our opinion. But the truth is the truth. I’m not a relativist. A domination is a domination.”
It may be too simplistic to claim that West was not considered for tenure solely due to his stance on the Israeli-Palestine conflict, especially given the black box of Harvard’s tenure review process and bureaucratic hurdles posed by his non-tenure-track appointment.
It’s also too easy to dismiss West’s claims as unfounded or to write him off as peddling anti-semitism — which would fit into a longer tradition of discrediting Black leaders and activists through character assassination. Supporting Palestinian human rights is not anti-Semitic, and West has deeply engaged in scholarship on Black and Jewish relations; in 1996, he wrote “Jews and Blacks: a Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America” with Michael Lerner, a progressive rabbi and activist.
“If by trying to speak the truth, I am sowing division, then I stand accused: I’m guilty,” West says.
Yet focusing only on the significance of Palestine in West’s experience with tenure may distract from how the structures of the University affect scholars of color. And the very opacity of Harvard’s tenure process, which many argue is at the root of the problem, makes it impossible to pin down the role West’s stance on Palestine played.
West’s being denied the opportunity to be considered for tenure differs from the outright denial of tenure to Professors García Peña or Ahmed Ragab (the first Muslim professor to be considered for tenure at the Divinity School). While all three are distinguished scholars of color and vocal activists, only West’s position as Professor of the Practice was not tenure-track. Administrators may have been legitimately constrained from putting West up for tenure review or providing public clarification on the bureaucratic complexities.
Yet these procedural differences produced similar results. That overwhelming support from faculty at the Divinity School and in African and African American Studies, as well as peers in academia, could not even get West considered for tenure reveals an unyielding rigidity. At a time when Harvard purports a commitment to diversity, its inability to overcome superfluous and bureaucratic barriers illustrates the entrenched complacency of the University.
“It’s built into the system,” Kelley says when asked about the nature of West’s case. “The system is one that has a façade that claims, on the one hand, to be fair, impartial, focus on standards, but on the other hand to be racist, sexist, classist, patriarchal, and succumb to big money. That’s just how it is.”
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay declined to comment for this article, but through a spokesperson, referenced an earlier comment where she acknowledged West’s controversy fuels debates over “whether Black scholars can succeed at Harvard.”
“It’s a legitimate question to ask of a university as old as ours, with a past represented rather instructively by the portraits on the walls of our Faculty Room,” Gay said in March. “And I understand why it can be difficult to answer.” Kelley is careful to note that he heard Gay “wasn’t opposed to [West] coming up for tenure, but it’s not her choice to make.”
Thirteen percent of tenure-track faculty at Harvard are underrepresented minorities, a marginal increase from the 11 percent in 2007. Last January, 107 faculty signed a letter questioning Harvard’s opaque protocols surrounding tenure, citing García Peña’s case among others, which prompted Gay to initiate a review of the tenure process. The results, released last Tuesday, found the FAS tenure-track system was “structurally sound,” even as faculty expressed “mistrust and low morale” in the process.
Speaking to the Harvard Gazette, Professor Hopi E. Hoekstra, who chaired the committee, said they thought about bias mitigation and “also made several recommendations about how we can better and more fairly assess contributions to teaching, advising, mentoring, and service.”
Decisions like West’s denial, which determine an academic’s worth and come from some nameless heart of the University’s administration — seemingly indifferent to a professor's commitment to educating students and antithetical to values the school supposedly holds dear — may feel most salient to the student body. After the public announcement of his case, hundreds of graduate and undergraduate students signed petitions in support of West.
But the strength of the institution’s inner workings relative to even someone of West’s stature, with so much public support, are overwhelming. “It’s their house, they are boulders, we are just passengers in this journey,” Yengde says. “And you know, it would be mad to think that we are the occupants, or we are the permanent residents of this house.” Paradoxically, the positions of those who embody the “True Harvard” are often the most precarious.
West has decades of accomplishments, accolades, and a magnetic presence; he has attracted just as many controversies, criticisms, and personal feuds. In other words, he is human. After what happened to West, the knee-jerk reaction may be to treat his case as exceptional — but it is not. Both the quiet and sensational forms of alienation West experienced happen to undergraduates, adjuncts, and postdocs, and spill over to the students, peers, and mentors whose lives they touch — countless people whose names you will never hear. “The True Harvard,” William James wrote, “is the invisible Harvard.”
Before West’s departure in 2002, he says he angrily told Summers, “I’m just as much, or more, Harvard as you are.” He first stepped foot on campus 51 years ago. He studied under Rawls. He took over University Hall when the Black Panthers were still running a breakfast program in Jamaica Plain. He was central to establishing one of the leading African American Studies departments in the nation.
In his “True Harvard” speech, James wrote that those who embody this alternative ethos are drawn to the school because “of her tolerance of exceptionality and eccentricity, of her devotion to the principles of individual vocation and choice.” To lose this spirit would be the death of a persisting heritage at Harvard.
“Like any other institution, [Harvard] can decay, it can deteriorate, and it can undergo serious bankruptcy, spiritual intellectual bankruptcy,” West says.
There is — and always has been — a danger of a disquieting homogeny consuming the rebellious spirit.
Over a hundred years earlier, James said, “The day when Harvard shall stamp a single hard and fast type of character upon her children, will be that of her downfall. Our undisciplinables are our proudest product. Let us agree together in hoping that the output of them will never cease.”
— Staff writer Josie F. Abugov can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @_JosieJo.
— Staff writer Harrison R. T. Ward can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @HarrisonRTWard.