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Why Cornel West’s tenure fight matters

Originally published: Boston Review on March 3, 2021 by Robin D. G. Kelley, PhD (more by Boston Review)  | (Posted Mar 08, 2021)

Harvard hired Dr. Cornel West in 2016 without tenure? This was news to me. Five years ago I wrote what I believed was a tenure review letter for Dr. West; I even named the file “cornel_west_tenure.docx.” I received the request on April 18, 2016. Given Dr. West’s dual appointments in both the Harvard Divinity School and the Department of African and African-American Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the request was signed by David Hempton, Dean of Harvard Divinity School, and Claudine Gay, Dean of Social Science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. It asked me to evaluate Dr. West for a senior appointment as Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy. The letter never states that this was to be a non-tenured appointment, nor is tenure explicitly mentioned. But having received literally hundreds of requests over the course of three decades, I can say it certainly read like a tenured appointment.

Besides, Dr. West had already been tenured at Harvard—and at Yale and at Princeton. Dr. West left his tenured position at Harvard in 2002 after then Harvard president Lawrence Summers questioned his scholarship, his commitment to teaching, and his political advocacy. He took a tenured position at Princeton, where he remained for more than ten years before moving to Union Theological Seminary and then back to Harvard. It never occurred to me that Harvard would bring him back as a contract laborer, especially given the criteria for tenure: the value and originality of scholarship.

It is ridiculous to have to say this, but the public attacks make it necessary: Dr. West is a formidable intellectual who works in the interstices of philosophy, theology, cultural criticism, political analysis, and social critique. He has produced a massive body of work that cuts across forms and disciplines—books, articles, published dialogues, lectures, debates, and commentary displayed across several different media platforms. No need to reproduce his curriculum vitae here. Just consider the fact that Dr. West has been the subject of several scholarly books: Mark David Wood’s Cornel West and the Politics of Prophetic Pragmatism (2000), Rosemary Cowan’s Cornel West: The Politics of Redemption (2002), Clarence Johnson’s Cornel West and Philosophy (2003), and Keith Gilyard’s Composition and Cornel West: Notes Toward a Deep Democracy (2008), to name just a few. Only a handful of Dr. West’s tenured colleagues can make such a claim. And beyond all this, he is an immensely popular teacher and a stalwart supporter of student activism.

Graduate students from across the campus swiftly petitioned the university to reconsider its decision to deny Dr. West tenure. Jonathan L. Swain, Harvard’s director of media relations, would not comment on the petition, but he did say previously that West’s reappointment committee did not have the authority to review him for tenure. To put it bluntly, either the dean, the provost, or the president blocked any possibility of turning Dr. West’s appointment into a tenured position, but no one so far is willing to take responsibility for this decision. Dr. West suspects it has to do with his politics—notably, his active support for the Bernie Sanders campaign and his consistent advocacy for Palestinian human rights. I agree. Harvard has a problem with outspoken, principled faculty who take public positions that question university policy, challenge authority, or might ruffle the feathers of big donors. And when the faculty in question are scholars of color, their odds of getting through the tenure process are slim to none.

We saw what happened to Lorgia García-Peña, one of the first of Harvard’s appointments to specialize in ethnic studies, who was denied tenure in 2019 by Provost Alan M. Garber with the support of President Lawrence S. Bacow. Despite decades of student activism, Harvard still does not have an official ethnic studies program; García-Peña was the Roy G. Clouse Associate Professor within the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. As the New York Times reported, the department voted unanimously to grant her tenure and promotion, and the next level of review, Harvard’s Committee on Appointments and Promotions, clearly concurred; otherwise President Bacow would have had no reason to get involved. The decision to deny tenure at the presidential/provostial level, by a scholar of health care policy and darling of pharmaceutical companies (Garber) and a lawyer-economist (Bacow), incensed the academic community. When word got out, thousands of faculty and students from across the country and around the world rallied in support—Dr. West among the most vocal. Dr. García-Peña’s prize-winning book, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nation, and Archives of Contradiction (2016), broke new ground, creatively plumbing official archives to reveal how anti-Blackness established a Dominican national identity consistent with ruling class and U.S. imperial aims, one that elicited continual opposition from Black Dominicans on the island and in the diaspora. García-Peña’s colleagues judged her by the prevailing criteria for tenure.

Yet she has also been a passionate advocate for social justice. While at Harvard she has talked openly, among many things, about the structural racism on campus. She called on colleagues and administrators to support undocumented students and students of color. And she acted—defending vulnerable students from ICE, protesting police violence, modeling what it means to stand up for students in and out of the classroom. Before she arrived in Cambridge, she spent her spare time as a faculty member at University of Georgia, co-founding and running Freedom University, a college created for undocumented students in Atlanta. As the only untenured faculty member and the only woman of color to help launch Freedom University, she risked everything to create alternative educational spaces for young intellectuals persecuted and criminalized for their undocumented status. She disobeyed the law that stripped these kids of the right to an education, and she stood up to the extralegal threats of violence from vigilantes and the Klan. And then she comes to liberal Cambridge where, after giving a public speech on the need to protect undocumented students and students of color, she faced a barrage of hate mail and outright harassment. Harvard’s decision to fire her meant that twenty-four graduate students who chose to work with her were left scrambling to find new advisors.

Dr. García-Peña also spoke out in 2019 when Harvard Divinity School denied tenure to Ahmed Ragab. He, too, is a distinguished scholar—of medicine in the Middle East and North Africa—and an incredibly popular teacher. Not surprisingly, Dr. Ragab and his wife, Soha Bayoumi, were also vocal social justice advocates. In 2017 they both had been arrested while protesting Trump’s decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Tenure was created to allow scholars to do their work, speak their truth, and stand up for something without risking their jobs. The American Association of University Professors is clear on this point: “The principal purpose of tenure is to safeguard academic freedom, which is necessary for all who teach and conduct research in higher education. When faculty members can lose their positions because of their speech, publications, or research findings, they cannot properly fulfill their core responsibilities to advance and transmit knowledge.” Of course, Harvard’s firing of outspoken, controversial, politically engaged faculty—and firing it is, because faculty who are denied tenure must leave the university—is not exceptional. Just a few months ago, the University of Mississippi fired a brilliant young historian, Garrett Felber, in the wake of a grant he received for a political education project on mass incarceration and immigrant detention. According to Felber, the chair of his department rejected the grant on the grounds that it was a “political” rather than “historical” project and that it “could jeopardize department funding.”

These patterns matter. So when Harvard’s administrators tell Professor West that they cannot bring him up for tenure because it’s “too risky” and he’s “too controversial,” they completely undermine the point of tenure: to preserve and protect his freedom to speak truth to power, to expose injustice anywhere, to bring to bear his enormous critical faculties and prophetic voice to say those things we need to hear in order to advance knowledge and create a more just world. After all, neither his generous salary, nor the name on his endowed chair, nor all the effusive assurances from the administration will protect him from dismissal if, in the course of “offering ideas, views and analyses,” he offends the powers that be or their donors.

Of course, the practice of using tenure as political management and faculty discipline has a long history at Harvard. For some proof, just take a glance at John Trumpbour’s edited collection, How Harvard Rules: Reason in the Service of Empire (1989). And while the Crimson has had its share of tenured faculty of color—including Dr. West—the denial of tenure to such an accomplished Black scholar and public intellectual inevitably provokes racist characterizations of fraud and showmanship. One only need look at the comments on the news stories about Dr. West’s case. This ugly and predictable public response has always served to denigrate Black intellectual production.

In the name of transparency and in an effort to demystify the entire tenure process, I have decided to publish my most recent letter of evaluation solicited by the Dean of the Divinity School as part of Dr. West’s reappointment review. I share it not only to highlight his significant intellectual contributions just over the last few years, but also to expose the absurdity of this story. Is granting tenure to Cornel West really that controversial? Are we prepared to question the idea that the obscure monograph written for a roomful of specialists is the only measure of intellectual productivity? And do we really want to compare his body of work with the many tenured, senior white men at Harvard who haven’t produced anything in years?

Editor’s Note: The following letter was written by Robin D. G. Kelley as part of Cornel West’s reappointment review last summer.

August 1, 2020

Dr. David Hempton, Dean
Harvard Divinity School

Dear Dean Hempton,

Per your letter of June 10, 2020, I am submitting my evaluation of the scholarship of Dr. Cornel West, who is being considered for reappointment. 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.

That said, my letter will not be long since you have on file my 2,500-word evaluation of Dr. West’s body of work dated May 18, 2016. I don’t see the need to repeat it and trust that the evaluations committee will have access to that letter as a supplement to his current dossier. I will repeat one thing I wrote in that 2016 letter: “Cornel West is undeniably the leading American public intellectual of my generation.”

Since Dr. West’s last evaluation, he has coauthored a volume with Haki R. Madhubuti and Michael Pfleger, Keeping Peace: Reflections on Life, Legacy, Commitment and Struggle (2018); released two anniversary editions of earlier texts, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life—25th Anniversary, co-authored with bell hooks, and Race Matters: 25th Anniversary with New Introduction, both published in 2017; published over thirty essays, articles, book forewords, and interviews; and delivered hundreds of public talks and made countless appearances on television, radio, online forums, and documentary films. He was also the subject of a book by Mahamadou Sagna, Cornel West Matters: Politics, Violence, Racism and Religion in America, translated from French by Arlette Afagbegee. The English translation came out in 2019.

A significant proportion of Dr. West’s writing continues to examine the thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and its significance for our times. He published penetrating essays for a general audience in the Crisis and the Guardian that not only offer greater depth into King’s radical, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist vision but also do not shy away from King’s own nagging despair and doubt about our capacity to confront the crisis ahead. (He also talked with Robert P. George about these issues for America magazine.) His most exemplary essay in this vein is “Hope and Despair: Past and Present,” Dr. West’s contribution to To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry (2018). He did not write it for a general audience; rather, it is a scholarly piece but—like most of his writing—accessible to non-academic readers.

The book itself has been recognized as the most consequential collection of essays on King’s thought published in the twenty-first century, if not ever. With contributions from such intellectual heavyweights as Robert Gooding-Williams, Paul C. Taylor, Bernard R. Boxill, Martha C. Nussbaum, Danielle Allen, Lawrie Balfour, Tommie Shelby, and Brandon M. Terry, Dr. West’s essay is distinguished from the rest for its bold examination of late King’s struggle with nihilism—the dialectic operating within him placing hope and despair in tension. Dr. West had recently edited and (re)introduced King as a visionary radical, especially late in his life, but here he reveals another side of what it meant for King to wrestle with the crises facing Black movements and all of humanity as the dream of a Beloved Community unraveled before the altar of U.S. militarism and political sectarianism. He writes with eloquence and profundity about how King’s crises operated on three planes—personal, political, and philosophical—and how his efforts to resolve or come to terms with them occurred not in isolated reflection but in struggle, in a movement that felt increasingly fractured and rudderless and yet as urgent as ever. In many ways, Dr. West’s meditations on King have autobiographical echoes in his struggle to come to terms with Barack Obama’s election and eight years in office. Indeed, President Obama’s impact in this context is even more significant than the election of Donald Trump and America’s right-wing turn, largely because King’s sense of betrayal came from a liberal Democratic regime, not the Right. West expected more from a president who claimed the lineage of Dr. King; he ended up profoundly disappointed but not unbowed and not entirely surprised given the lessons culled from King’s experience.

These themes appear in some of Dr. West’s other writings, especially in the popular press. Indeed, between his essays and speeches during the period under review, Dr. West focused much of his attention on diagnosing the current political situation and reminding us that much of the path the Trump regime has taken was paved during the Clinton and Obama years of neoliberal policies. He doesn’t argue for continuity, per se, acknowledging the rupture produced by a global right-wing authoritarian turn, but he refuses to ignore the impact of Obama-era global war on terror or domestic law enforcement policies around urban policing and deportation. Critics have mistakenly accused Dr. West of being inconsistent or contradictory but one could only come to this conclusion by not actually reading him and assuming that politics is about loyalty to party and not principle. His political interventions, taken together, constitute a sustained attack on America’s drift toward anti-democracy and call for a new anti-imperial, democratic movement based on the principles of what W. E. B. Du Bois identified as “abolition democracy”—which is to say, the radical democratic tradition forged by former enslaved and dispossessed people. Some of these essays, published primarily in the Guardian, intervene in the electoral arena; others extend beyond to a general diagnosis of America’s moral and spiritual crisis. I would also add his commentary in Astra Taylor’s powerful 2018 film, What is Democracy?

The two essays where he most clearly elaborates on his critique of anti-democracy and what to do about it appear in Transition (2017) and as the new Introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Race Matters (2017). The former is a transcribed address he delivered not long after the 2016 election titled, “The Trump Era: Hope in a Time of Escalating Despair” (part of which appeared as the Foreword to Haki R. Madhubuti and Lasana D. Kazembe edited collection, Not our President). His talk is an unrelenting defense of radical democracy as the answer to the neo-fascist turn. He returns to Du Bois for direction for how to mount a critique and a movement. He builds on four questions that Du Bois asked—directly or indirectly—during the height of the Red Scare when he (much like King in the last years of his life) was regarded not only as an enemy of the state but untouchable even among elite Black leaders. These questions centered on how we respond to the catastrophe of Trump’s election and keep the ongoing neoliberal order from devolving into a neofascist order. They come down to how do we maintain integrity in the face of oppression, honesty in the face of deception, decency in the face of vicious attacks, and virtue “in the face of brute force.” The latter opens the door to the current discussion around escalating state violence. The speech is a tour de force, and so is the Q&A included as part of the published text.

Likewise, his new Introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of Race Matters focuses on the current political interregnum. Returning to his critique of nihilism, he argues that America’s nihilistic turn is even more pervasive now than twenty-five years ago, but he also expands our understanding to include the ecological catastrophe and the consolidation predatory capitalism. He introduces the idea of “imperial meltdown” to signal the impending collapse of U.S. empire, which he cautions can create the space for creating real freedom or fascism. Here he repeats his insights in his essay on King and other essays: “The painful truth is there is no Donald Trump without Barack Obama, no neofascist stirrings without neoliberal policies.” It is a fiery and expansive critique of the neoliberalization of the country and of African American politics and culture, in particular. At the same time, it closes on a hopeful note, recognizing a growing insurgency from the Movement for Black Lives to Standing Rock to the Poor People’s Campaign to new radical directions in Black scholarship and journalism. Of course, most of the people and movements he calls out ended up becoming the architects of, or catalysts for, the current uprising sparked by the murder of George Floyd. It doesn’t surprise me that Dr. West would anticipate this moment since he has always remained organically connected to movements, and activists have long sought out his sage advice.

But at no point has Dr. West retreated from his role as a philosopher engaged in ongoing critiques and conversations with other thinkers about theology, literature, art, and being—which is to say, the perennial ontological question of what it means to be human. His “Afterword” to Melville Among the Philosophers (edited by Corey McCall and Tom Nurmi), titled “A Time to Break the Philosophic Silencing of Melville,” is a substantive and original essay in its own right. Dr. West makes a powerful plea for philosophers to engage Herman Melville, whom he regards as perhaps the most insightful writer for our times—let alone nineteenth-century America. “We live in the age of Melville,” he writes, “an age of spiritual blackout and moral meltdown against the backdrop of an American empire in cultural collapse and political breakdown.” Melville, he argues, is especially skilled at capturing the contradictions in a multiracial democracy based on racism, empire, slavery and dispossession. He then goes on to assess the volume’s contributions with the dexterity of a Melville specialist and the insight of one of America’s greatest philosophical minds—moving deftly between pragmatism, existentialism, and poetics.

Moreover, Dr. West’s various interviews with other philosophers have the makings of a new book. In particular, we can point to his extensive engagement with Eduardo Mendieta (“What It Means to be Human!: A Conversation with Cornel West”), which was conducted in 2011, and his interview with Tommie Shelby (“Fear and Courage”). Each interview can be characterized as a tour de force, riffing on Kant, King, and Curtis Mayfield to meditate not only on the current political crisis but the Black condition, Black consciousness, and the future of American democracy. I would include his interview with George Yancy, especially if a longer version certainly exists than what appeared in the New York Times, and his wonderful interview in the Boston Review with Deb Chasman (“Speaking the Truth,” Boston Review, April 24, 2019) in which he talks about the genesis and life of Race Matters and the tasks of Black public intellectuals. Incidentally, this interview was not included in his dossier.

Dr. West’s brief but profound essay, “Vocation, Invocation and Provocation,” was written as a contribution to A Moment on the Clock of the World (edited by Melanie Joseph and David Bruin). It is an important intervention that best captures the meaning and purpose of the Foundry Theater and its intrepid founder-director, Melanie Joseph. Full disclosure: I, too have an essay in A Moment on the Clock of the World, so I do have a unique perspective on both the history of the Foundry Theater and Dr. West’s unique insight. Joseph founded it really as an abolitionist project, a space to “re-imagine everything.” Dr. West suggests here that imagination is far more important than a correct analysis since art resists, and sometimes transcends, the constraints of time and space. The same cannot always be said of our political imagination. Melanie Joseph started the Foundry Theater precisely to bring the power of art to free the political imagination and to stage the dreams, stories, and criticisms of the oppressed as a means to advance a radical democracy. Although Trump’s election also coincided with the closing of the Foundry Theater as we know it, Dr. West argues for it as a model of what it means to take a step back from the state of emergency in order to imagine a world in which power is horizontal and organized around sustaining life and joy.

Finally, I’m compelled to say something about Dr. West’s integrity. Integrity is not a keyword in the history of academic evaluations, unless we’re pressed to respond to egregious violations of academic codes. We are not rewarded for integrity; it is not a measure of our value as academics. (Perhaps Divinity Schools are different; I should hope so…) Cornel West is the greatest exemplar of integrity of any intellectual I have ever encountered—in or out of the academy. I’ve written about this in my article about his debate with Ta-Nehisi Coates (“Coates and West in Jackson,” Boston Review, December 22, 2017).

Let me give you two brief examples from his dossier that may not be self-evident. First, the fact that he co-authored an article criticizing the Democratic Party’s choice candidate, Joe Biden, with Adolph Reed, Jr., shocked many people who lived through the 1990s Black culture wars and attacks on Black public intellectuals—including Reed’s many attacks on Cornel West. And yet, Dr. West reached out to Reed and worked with him on the Sanders campaign and on developing a sharp critique of DNC policies.

Second, his co-authored book, Keeping Peace: Reflections on Life, Legacy, Commitment, and Struggle, is more than just a free-wheeling conversation between Haki Madhubuti, Father Michael Pfleger, and Cornel West. Much of the conversation centers on the fifty-year history of Madhubuti’s Third World Press, which has been, I believe, the longest running Black independent publishing house in American history. What is not known to most readers, however, is that Dr. West’s participation in putting this book together was his gift to Third World Press, which has always struggled to make ends meet. Haki Madhubuti called out a lot of so-called “celebrity” Black scholars for never publishing with a Black press, especially his. He was ignored by most people, but not Cornel West. This book was his response and evidence of his commitment to independent Black publishing. You cannot find the book on Amazon or most sites, and there is no e-book available anywhere. And I guarantee that Dr. West is not making a dime on the sales of Keeping Peace.

I cannot speak with much authority on his works in progress, but I can add that one of the projects missing from his dossier is the book he is writing on Abraham Joshua Heschel. He has spoken many times about Dr. Heschel’s ideas and legacy, both in the context of his times and our own. Besides linking Heschel with King, noting their anti-war activism, their fight against poverty and racism, etc., Cornel presents Heschel as a counterpoint to the stalemate over the fate of Palestine and the question of justice. For West, Heschel provides a means to think collectively about Jews, Arabs, and Palestinians in a way that doesn’t foreclose the radical Jewish tradition of embracing the oppressed, dispossessed and colonized peoples of the world. Hints of his more elaborate argument are made in Dr. West’s beautiful foreword to Houria Bouteldja’s Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love (2016).

Whoops! I’m at 2,500 words again!!! That was not my intention, but if I had the time I could easily whip up 25,000 words on Dr. Cornel West. And so I close, repeating words I ended with in my letter of 18 May 2016: “Thus it goes without saying, if he were being considered for a major endowed chair, a university professorship at UCLA—or any university with which I’m familiar—he would sail through with few deliberations.” There is only one Cornel West, no matter how much we all try.


Robin D. G. Kelley, PhD
Distinguished Professor of History, Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History
University of California at Los Angeles

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