Cornel West accuses Harvard University of ‘spiritual bankruptcy’

Author and activist announced his departure in March but has now published resignation letter which cites ‘superficial diversity’ and ‘spiritual rot’

Author, activist and scholar Cornel West has resigned from his role as professor at Harvard University, accusing the institution of “an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of deep depths”.

West, a prominent Black intellectual, had been in a dispute with Harvard over tenure. His departure from the university, and new role at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was announced in March. West has now posted his resignation letter to Harvard on his social media accounts, citing the “spiritual rot” at the US’s “market-driven universities”, and “decline and decay” at the Harvard divinity school where he taught.

“When I arrived four years ago – with a salary less than what I received 15 years earlier and with no tenure status after being a university professor at Harvard [in the 90s] and Princeton – I hoped and prayed I could still end my career with some semblance of intellectual intensity and personal respect. How wrong I was!” writes West. “With a few glorious and glaring exceptions, the shadow of Jim Crow was cast in its new glittering form expressed in the language of superficial diversity: all my courses were subsumed under Afro-American religious studies, including those on existentialism, American democracy and the conduct of life.”

West writes that his faculty supported him as a candidate for tenure, but went on to “timidly defer to a rejection based on the Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause”, describing this as “disgusting” and lambasting Harvard for “an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of deep depths”. West had told the New York Times in March of his belief that the reluctance to grant him tenure could have been linked to his support for the Palestinian cause. Harvard declined to comment on the situation.

West had left Harvard once before in 2002, after a dispute with its then-president, Lawrence Summers. The publication of his letter comes after the University of North Carolina board of trustees withheld tenure from the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones, over concerns from conservative members. Hannah-Jones, the journalist behind the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 project, had been appointed as the university’s next Knight chair, a position that had previously come with tenure. After protests from staff, students and alumni, and a threat of legal action, the board reversed its position and offered full tenure to Hannah-Jones, but she subsequently announced she had declined the offer, and would be taking up a position as the inaugural Knight chair in race and reporting at Howard University.

“Since the second grade when I began being bussed into white schools, I have been fighting against people who did not think a Black girl like me belonged, people who tried to control what I did, how I spoke, how I looked, the work I produced. I have never asked for special treatment. I did not seek it here. All I asked was to be judged by my credentials and treated fairly and equally,” said Hannah-Jones in a statement.

“I have decided that instead of fighting to prove I belong at an institution that until 1955 prohibited Black Americans from attending, I am instead going to work in the legacy of a university not built by the enslaved but for those who once were. For too long, Black Americans have been taught that success is defined by gaining entry to and succeeding in historically white institutions. I have done that, and now I am honoured and grateful to join the long legacy of Black Americans who have defined success by working to build up their own.”

Contributor

Alison Flood

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Cornel West: Australia is on the path to US-style fascism
Any country that connects mass surveillance, corporations, big money and even bigger government is in trouble, says the American academic

Jim Poe

09, Jun, 2015 @2:49 AM

Article image
Cornel West: 'They say I'm un-American'

The American academic and firebrand campaigner talks to Hugh Muir about Britain's deep trouble, fighting white supremacy and where Obama is going wrong

Hugh Muir

13, May, 2013 @6:00 AM

Article image
Harvard to name first woman president
Harvard University, whose last president was forced out two years ago amid charges of sexism, is about to name a woman president for the first time in its 370-year history, according to reports yesterday.

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington

10, Feb, 2007 @10:30 AM

Article image
Cambridge ousts Harvard as world's best university

US college knocked off top spot for first time in seven years, while UK institutions 'struggle to compete on funding'

Jeevan Vasagar and Rachel Williams

07, Sep, 2010 @11:06 PM

Article image
Harvard 'pausing' investments in some fossil fuels
University stops short of fully divesting its $36bn endowment from coal, oil and gas but green groups welcome the breakthrough after a five-year campaign

Oliver Milman

27, Apr, 2017 @2:33 PM

Article image
Cornel West and Tavis Smiley do a disservice to African Americans | David Dennis

David Dennis: I used to revere these two prominent black intellectuals. But lately, their critical voices have turned to crude Obama-bashing

David Dennis

26, Jul, 2013 @12:30 PM

Harvard fears big cuts after $8bn fund slump

University's president warns deans that Harvard is braced for 30% fall in its endowment fund's value by June 2009

Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington

04, Dec, 2008 @12:01 AM

Article image
Cornel West warns of 'Planetary Selma' at Harvard fossil fuel divestment protest
Activist joins ‘heat week’ calling for full fossil fuel divestment and says ‘Ecological catastrophe is as evil as white supremacist catastrophe’

Nicky Woolf in Cambridge, Massachusetts

17, Apr, 2015 @7:24 PM

Article image
Harvard cleared of racial bias against Asian Americans in court decision
Judge rejects challenge accusing undergraduate admissions program of discrimination against Asian American applicants

Guardian staff and agencies

01, Oct, 2019 @9:40 PM

Article image
Harvard insists Israeli shares sale not driven by boycott

Routine financial decision, says university spokesman, but pro-Palestinians claim Gaza aid conflict behind move

Ewen MacAskill in Washington

16, Aug, 2010 @8:39 PM