UPDATED: March 9, 2020 at 12:28 a.m.
Professor Cornel R. West ’74 announced his departure from Harvard and return to Union Theological Seminary in a Monday interview with the online publication The Boycott Times, weeks after West alleged Harvard denied his request to be considered for tenure.
“I am blessed to announce with my dear brother Mordecai Lyon of The Boycott Times that I am moving from Harvard to Union Theological Seminary in New York City! Our struggle for truth & justice continues with style & smiles!” West tweeted, linking to the interview.
West threatened to leave Harvard in late February after he said the University dismissed his request to be considered for tenure. In subsequent interviews with several media outlets, West said his request for tenure consideration was denied, in part, because administrators’ termed his work “too risky” and “too fraught.” Following his threatened departure, Harvard affiliates rallied behind West, launching several letters and petitions demanding his tenure.
Monday’s announcement marks the second time West — a Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at the Harvard Divinity School and in the Department of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts of Sciences — will leave Harvard. He previously departed Harvard in 2002, following a dispute with then-University President Lawrence H. “Larry” Summers. He returned to the University in 2017.
West previously said in an interview with the Boston Globe that he felt “disrespected” by the University and would not “try to negotiate respect.”
“There are wonderful people at Harvard, we know that. It has a great tradition of Du Bois and so many others, but I discovered that I can only take so much hypocrisy,” West told the Boycott Times.
“Harvard has actually done very well in terms of bringing different peoples of different colors and gender at a high level into the administration,” West added. “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.”
He said in the Monday interview that there are “certain taboo issues” at Harvard, including the Israeli-Palestine conflict. West has been an outspoken critic of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and alleged last month that Harvard dismissed his tenure request in part due to his position on the issue.
West said that he was “going with a smile” to Union Theological Seminary — his “perennial home” — where he currently serves as Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Christian Practice. From 2012 to 2016, during his time away from Harvard, West taught at Union — where he also began his teaching career as assistant professor in 1977.
In a Monday press release, Union Theological Seminary President Serene Jones wrote she was “thrilled to welcome Dr. West back home to Union.”
“Dr. West lives and breathes the values that Union aims to instill in all of the future leaders, scholars, ministers, and activists we educate,” Jones wrote. “His esteemed legacy of engaging the most pressing problems facing our world — including racism, poverty, sexism, and so much more — is an inspiration to all, and illustrates the power of faith to create profound change.”
West will begin at Union Theological Seminary on July 1, 2021 as the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair, teaching courses such as Philosophy of Religion and African American Critical Thought.
Jones told the New York Times Monday that West’s new position is tenured and that, if she could, she would grant West “quadruple tenure.”
In a message to Divinity School students Monday afternoon, David N. Hempton, Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, and David F. Holland, acting Dean of HDS, wrote that they wanted to “express our sadness at the departure of our esteemed colleague.”
“Since coming to Harvard in 2017 as a jointly appointed Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy in HDS and FAS, he has made an enormous contribution to our curriculum and to our capacity to address issues of racial justice in the United States and around the world,” Hempton and Holland wrote.
“We had hoped to retain him on our faculty for many years to come,” they added. “We nonetheless wish him every success in his future endeavors.”
HDS and African and African American Studies Professor Jacob K. Olupona said he is deeply saddened by the departure of West, whom he described as “one of the leading lights in Black theology and philosophy.”
“I think there are just very few senior Black scholars in the Divinity School, very few,” Olupona added. “So for us to lose one of the very few, I think that’s a sad, sad thing.”
Olupona said he was surprised to hear of West’s decision, even though he had been aware of West’s initial threat to leave Harvard.
“He is irreplaceable,” Olupona said. “I was hoping against hope that the University will try to do something to keep him, to make him change his mind.”
“You don’t need anybody to tell any citizen of Harvard — whether it is a student or faculty who is familiar with him — what they’re losing,” Olupona added.
Late Monday night, undergraduate organizers who had previously launched a petition to urge Harvard to grant West tenure announced they planned to continue pushing the University to “retroactively consider Professor West for tenure.”
“We’re devastated by Professor West’s departure from Harvard, but our fight will not end here,” one of the organizers, Ajay V. Singh ’21, wrote in an emailed statement. “In a continued testament to our collective power and solidarity with Professor West, we would like to stage a demonstration in honor of his legacy at Harvard and escalate our approaches for change.”
Singh wrote that although West will depart from Harvard, students will continue to rally around issues of diversity and inclusion on Harvard’s campus, such as demanding the creation of an ethnic studies department and reform to the tenure process.
“Too often are calls for justice forgotten because an institution relied on the short memory of its advocates,” Singh wrote. “In that vein, we will continue to fight to support people of color on Harvard’s campus. We deserve and demand respect.”
In the Boycott Times interview, West — who was often seen at demonstrations with student organizers — struck an optimistic note about the ability of Harvard to change, saying that the “best of Harvard” lies with students and faculty who are “not well adjusted to injustice.”
“Harvard can change. I’m an extension of Harvard in terms of my education and I have to be honest about it,” West said. “And that’s why I’m making the move back to New York, and it’s not a move out of default.”
“I’m going fired up. And I’m going with my focus on oppressed people around the world,” he added.
—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at email@example.com.