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Bacow Defends Harvard’s Tenure Process Following Cornel West’s Decision to Depart

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UPDATED: March 19, 2021 at 2:00 p.m.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow declined to provide details on the circumstances that led to the departure of Cornel R. West ’74, citing confidentiality policies, but defended Harvard’s existing tenure process in a Thursday interview.

West, a professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard Divinity School, announced on March 8 that he would leave his post for a tenured position at the Union Theological Seminary after he said the University declined to take up his case for tenure consideration.

“Cornel was a valued member of our community — a terrific teacher, valued colleague. And I wish him well,” Bacow said.

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But Bacow declined to comment on any of the specifics of West’s case, despite ambiguity surrounding the process that preceded his departure.

West served as a professor at Harvard for eight years — including four as a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty position — before leaving the school in 2002 after a dispute with then-University President Lawrence H. Summers. When West returned in 2017, he was named a Professor of the Practice, an untenured position.

West told The Crimson on March 9 that a committee evaluating him for reappointment to the untenured role recommended that the University “immediately initiate” a review considering him for tenure but the request was denied. He also claimed that Harvard offered to consider him for tenure after he publicly threatened his departure.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain told the Boston Globe on Feb. 18 that the committee did not have the authority to consider West for tenure. Three members of the committee wrote in an emailed statement last week that Harvard’s characterization of the committee’s report was “technically accurate” but failed to provide the full picture.

Still, University administrators and spokespeople have repeatedly declined to comment on the specifics of West’s case, citing a policy of confidentiality for individual tenure cases.

“We don’t comment on tenure or promotion cases,” Bacow said Thursday. “They’re conducted in the strictest of confidence, and it would be inappropriate for me to breach that confidence with respect to any specific case.”

Bacow defended Harvard’s tenure process, which has faced scrutiny for its lack of transparency.

“The tenure process has served Harvard well for generations,” he said. “We enjoy the quality of faculty that we do largely because of it, and I think it’s a process that works well.”

The Faculty of Arts and Sciences launched a review of Harvard’s tenure process last January at the request of over 100 faculty members. The review, which is expected to be released this spring, came after the tenure denial of Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña sparked outrage among students and ethnic studies scholars.

But FAS Dean Claudine Gay told The Crimson last March that the review will not examine Harvard’s use of ad hoc committees — confidential faculty committees which comprise one of the final steps in most tenure cases and have been the subject of criticism in the past — because they are held at the University level.

Bacow and University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 hold the final say over all tenure decisions. In an interview with The Crimson last month, prior to West’s announced departure, Garber defended the use of the ad hoc committees.

“The use of ad hoc committees at Harvard has a very long history,” Garber said on March 5. “Having had deep involvement in the tenure process at another university, I believe the ad hoc process is thorough and fair — and one that works exceedingly well.”

Garber previously served as a professor of medicine and of economics at Stanford University.

“There is no tenure process, including our own, that is flawless,” Garber said. “And we constantly seek to improve how we approach these processes — and we will continue to do so going forward.”

CORRECTION: March 19, 2021

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that West said Harvard offered him tenure following his public threats to depart the University. In fact, West stated that Harvard offered to consider him for tenure following the public pressure.

—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at kelsey.griffin@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.

—Staff writer Jasper G. Goodman can be reached at jasper.goodman@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jasper_Goodman.

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