News & Opinion | February 20, 2021 5:43 pm

Cornel West Clashes With Harvard Administration Over Tenure Request

The situation is also part of a larger debate around tenure at Harvard

Cornel West
Political activist Cornel West listens to speakers during an interfaith ceremony at Oceti Sakowin Camp on the edge of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation on December 4, 2016.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Cornel West is well known for his writings, his political activism and his time teaching at prestigious institutions such as Harvard and Princeton. But like many others working in academia, West currently faces a dilemma: he would like to be considered for tenure, and his current employer — that would be Harvard University — denied his request.

Now, West is threatening to leave the university. That’s based on a new report by Laura Krantz at The Boston Globe. West taught at Harvard from 1994 to 2002; after leaving Harvard at that time, he moved on to Princeton University and then to Union Theological Seminary. He resumed teaching at Harvard in 2017.

West told the Globe that his 5-year review with Harvard went well, at which point he asked to be considered for tenure. The university declined this request. “If I cannot be put up for tenure, then it is clear they don’t think I’m worthy of tenure. And I will go,” West said.

As Krantz notes in the article, West’s situation is part of a larger debate over tenure at Harvard. The university adopted a tenure track system in 2010. Last year, Kate Taylor at The New York Times reported on a protest among students, including a request for increased transparency regarding the process of getting tenure.

The Times article also noted that Harvard was criticized for denying tenure to a number of professors who would have made the faculty more diverse. These criticisms came from students and faculty alike. Is West’s situation the latest example of this? It’s certainly one of the highest-profile cases of a controversial tenure decision — but whether it will prompt change remains uncertain.

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