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Dr. Cornel West Calls Out ‘Shadow of Jim Crow’ In Scathing Resignation Letter to Harvard Over Tenure Dispute

Dr. Cornel Ronald West‘s fight to secure tenure at Harvard has come to an end. In a lengthy and scathing letter uploaded to his Twitter account earlier this week, the philosopher and political activist announced his resignation from the university. He also claimed the prestigious institution was on a decline. 

Cornell West introduces Colin Kaepernick at the W.E.B. Du Bois Medal Award Ceremony at Harvard University on October 11, 2018 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Paul Marotta/Getty Images)

“This is my candid letter of resignation to my Harvard Dean,” the renowned scholar captioned the document. “I try to tell the unvarnished truth about the decadence in our market-driven universities! Let us bear witness against this spiritual rot!”

“How sad it is to see our beloved Harvard Divinity School in such decline and decay,” he began. “The disarray of a scattered curriculum, the disenchantment of talented yet deferential faculty, and the disorientation of precious students loom large.”

West wrote that “the shadow of Jim Crow” loomed over most of his time at the school with “few glorious and flaring exceptions.” In other paragraphs, the Harvard alumnus claimed he was “promised a year sabbatical but could only take one semester in practice.” He continued, “And to witness a faculty enthusiastically support a candidate for tenure then timidly defer to a rejection based on the Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause was disgusting. We all knew the mendacious reasons given had nothing to do with academic standards. When my committee recommended a tenure review — also rejected by the Harvard administration — I knew my academic achievements and student teaching meant far less than their political prejudices.”

When news of his mother’s passing appeared in the school’s newsletter, West said he received replies from two colleagues, while his academic affairs garnered more attention.

The 68-year-old social critic had been tenured at the school before his initial departure in 2002 following a public feud with former Harvard President Lawrence Summers — an economist who served as secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration — over his dealings outside of the school, including producing hip-hop music and advising civil rights figures such as Rev. Al Sharpton.

After West rejoined the university in 2017, his latest stint with the faculty on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus again began to very publicly sour when he announced in March he’d be leaving Harvard over the tenure issue. As West alluded in his letter from Monday, the contention began when a faculty committee reportedly recommended him for tenure but the administration rejected the appointment. Although West subsequently walked back his threat to leave after Harvard reportedly relented on denying him tenure, this time it appears the break is final.

Tenure status is significant boon to a professor’s career. It’s an indefinite academic appointment, making it difficult to remove the appointee. The Tulsa, Oklahoma, native, who is identified in the Harvard Crimson newspaper as “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,” had been teaching philosophy, divinity, and public policy at the school.

Supporters of the professor rallied behind him, including journalist Elie Mystal who wrote, “You were one of the best lecturers I had and they can never take that away from me. F-ck ’em, Professor West.”

“Excellent letter, Brother Cornel. Sad that you had to endure this, sad that Harvard students have lost the chance to be in conversation with you. Peace & Solidarity,” wrote another.

West is returning to Union Theological Seminary, where he was first hired when he was 23. He also taught there at different times throughout his career. 

Harvard University and Harvard Divinity School have yet to comment on the matter. 

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