Cornel West resigns from position at Harvard University in open letter

“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," Professor West wrote.

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Venerated professor Dr. Cornel West has resigned from his position at Harvard University, penning an open letter just months after being denied tenure at the illustrious college from which he graduated. 

On Monday, West posted a copy of the letter on Twitter, a missive dated June 30. “This is my candid letter of resignation to my Harvard Dean,” he wrote. “I try to tell the unvarnished truth about the decadence in our market-driven universities! Let us bear witness against this spiritual rot!” 

Cornel West thegrio.com
Venerated professor Cornel West has resigned from his position at Harvard University, penning an open letter just months after being denied tenure at the illustrious college. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

“I hope and pray you and your family are well!,” West began. “This summer is a scorcher!” He then immediately announced: “Here is my brief and candid letter of resignation.” 

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

A philosophy professor who has taught in the past at Harvard’s law school, divinity school and department of African and African American studies, West notes that when arriving at the divinity school four years sgo, his salary was less than what he’d earned 15 years earlier. The first African American to graduate from Princeton with a Ph.D. in philosophy added he “hoped and prayed” he could end his career with “some semblance and intellectual intensity and personal respect.” 

“How wrong I was!” West wrote. “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, [and there was] no possible summer salary alongside the lowest increase possible every year.”

He added that in addition to a low salary, he was promised a sabbatical, but “in practice” was only allowed to take one semester off. 

West claimed he believed that his tenure denial was based on his political beliefs about the Palestinian crisis in Israel. “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,” he posited.

Cornel West thegrio.com
Philosopher Dr. Cornel West speaks onstage during the ‘Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise’ panel discussion at the PBS portion of the 2016 Television Critics Association Summer Tour (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

He noted that there is a “cowardly deference to the anti-Palestinian prejudices of the Harvard administration” taking hold on campus.

This split makes the second time West has departed Harvard; in 2002, he left the university after clashing with then-president Lawrence Summers after West complained about the depth of the university’s commitment to affirmative action. He returned in 2017. 

While Harvard University officials offered no response to West’s resignation letter, the School of Divinity said in March that they were saddened about West’s made-public pending decision to resign. He’s reportedly set to return to Columbia University’s Union Theological Seminary as of July 1.

David N. Hempton, dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Divinity, and David F. Holland, acting dean of HDS, wrote to Divinity School students that West 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.” 

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