Harvard’s administrators completely miss the point of tenure, which was created to allow scholars to do their work, speak their truth, and stand up for something without risking their jobs.
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.
It never occurred to me that Harvard would bring Cornel West back as a contract laborer, especially given the criteria for tenure: the value and originality of scholarship.
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?
Robin D. G. Kelley
Black Agenda Report