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Too Radical for Harvard? Cornel West on Failed Fight for Tenure, Biden’s First 50 Days & More

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The prominent scholar and activist Cornel West has announced he is leaving Harvard Divinity School after he was denied consideration for tenure, and will rejoin the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he started his teaching career more than 40 years ago. West had left Harvard once before in 2002 and returned to a nontenured position at Harvard in 2017. The news about the denial of West’s request for tenure has led to an outpouring of support and incited conversation about diversity in academia. “There’s too much Harvard dishonesty, too much Harvard hypocrisy, in terms of mistreating too many Black folk at high levels,” says West, who suggests his political activism and vocal support of Palestinian rights likely played a part in Harvard’s decision. “The most taboo issue on U.S. campuses these days, in many instances, has to do with the vicious Israeli occupation of precious Palestinians.” West also discusses Joe Biden’s first 50 days as president and says that while there is some good news on domestic policy, he’s “not too encouraged” on Biden’s foreign policy.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As we continue to look at Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, which the House is voting to approve today, we’re joined by Harvard University professor Cornel West. We last spoke to him on January 21st, the day after Biden’s inauguration.

We welcome you back to Democracy Now!, Professor West. I’m wondering if you can comment. This also is Biden’s first 50-day mark, with this, this landmark legislation. The significance of all of this?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I think, on the domestic front, it’s a very positive development in terms of showing the power of government in helping working and poor people. The $15 minimum wage that we’ve got to still push through, Brother Bernie is right about that. But, generally speaking, it’s a positive orientation. We’ll see whether it transcends the very narrow neoliberal limits that so many of us have associated Biden with, to see whether he’s moving toward this more robust, FDR-like legislation.

So, I am, in some ways, encouraged, certainly so with the ending of the — attempt to end the support of the Saudis, sending equipment to the Saudis in the Yemen war. I was very encouraged by that. Now, when it comes to a number of other imperial policies, in Africa, in Latin America, in the Middle East, West Bank and in Gaza and so forth, I’m not too encouraged at all by the Biden administration. But I want to keep track of the best as well as the worst in the Biden administration.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Professor West, your own employment situation has been much in the news of late. You’re leaving Harvard again. The controversy this time, Harvard was not willing to grant you tenure — you, one of the most famous academics and philosophers and public intellectuals in the country. Could you talk about what specifically happened this time that has made you decide to leave Harvard and go back to Union Theological Seminary?

CORNEL WEST: You know, my dear brother, I’m one of these free Black men that I don’t put up with any kind of disrespect. And there’s too much Harvard dishonesty, too much Harvard hypocrisy, in terms of mistreating too many Black folk at high levels. And I thought it would be different this second time, but I turned out — turned out that I was wrong, and so it was time to go again.

Now, I do want to acknowledge the best of Harvard, though, brother. You’ve got Du Bois, Paul Sweezy, Helen Keller, Sister Amy Goodman, Rick Wolff. I mean, there’s a rich, rich legacy of Harvard, and I associated with the best. But the worst, of course, is Harvard’s commodified state tied to big money, tied to image, tied to reputation, and, in the end, just being of service to the empire and being of service to the ruling classes. So you’ve got the best and the worst of Harvard at work.

And it’s time for me to go back to the great Union Theological Seminary. That’s my institutional home, my brother. I can stretch out and try to be a truth teller and bear witness, still learn and listen, but also be in the middle of the Big Apple. Nothing like it.

AMY GOODMAN: You have suggested that, Professor West, that you believe some of the reasons that you were denied tenure were your support for Palestinian rights, as well as for Senator Bernie Sanders. Can you elaborate on both?

CORNEL WEST: Well, I argued to myself it could either be age, but when I’m given the Gifford Lectures — it’s kind of the Nobel Prize version of philosophical lectures — so someone in Scotland feels that I still have something to say, so it couldn’t be age. It couldn’t be academics, because I’ve published 20-some books. I was a university professor at Harvard, university professor at Princeton. I got tenure at Yale 37 years ago. So, it’s a joke. It’s just ludicrous and ridiculous that they would be so hesitant to allow for a tenure process to go forward.

So I figured it had to be political. And the most taboo issue on U.S. campuses these days, in many instances, has to do with the vicious Israeli occupation of precious Palestinians. It’s very difficult to have a respectful, robust conversation about that. And I am unequivocal in my solidarity with Palestinian brothers and sisters. And as you’ve heard me say on many times, you know, if there’s a Palestinian occupation of Jews, then I’m unequivocally in solidarity with Jews. I hate injustice. I hate occupation. I’m not in any way going to stop talking about the Palestinian plight and predicament.

There was a brilliant, brilliant Jewish Israeli scholar who was denied a tenure position at Harvard just two years ago, and most believe it was political. Most believe it was political. Sister Lorgia [García Peña] was just denied. And I think that was, in part, political. So, people argue, “Well, you’re just grabbing for straws.” No, no, no. I detect a pattern at Harvard in terms of not being open to voices that are fundamentally committed to dealing with the plight and predicament of precious Palestinians. And I’m not going to be caught in that [inaudible] —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And speaking of that pattern, you were quoted in — Cornel, you were quoted in Truthout as saying, “If you subtract the number of Black people in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard and only include Black folk in other departments, Harvard looks like the National Hockey League.” Could you explain?

CORNEL WEST: Yes, that’s true. That’s true. A few ink spots against a backdrop of whiteness, just like Silicon Valley and just like Wall Street. All these professional managerial sites at the highest level of the empire still are very much lily white. Now, what you have is, at Harvard, you have a significant number of Black folk at the highest level of administration, the deans, but it hasn’t translated into increase of faculty.

And it hasn’t translated, most importantly, in terms of making sure that the students seeking truth and concerned about issues of justice are able to gain access to professors who are raising these kinds of issues. This has to do with the ethnic studies program. It has to do with courses in history, the great Walter Johnson and the others trying to provide some frameworks in order to come to terms with these injustices, be it predatory capitalism or be it white supremacy or male supremacy or imperialism around the world or whatever. Those issues are very difficult to get at the center of a discourse. And this is true not just at Harvard, but at other places, as well. But I think it’s especially Harvard.

I mean, Harvard now, I think, suffers from a kind of self-idolatry, that it needs to be critical of itself in order to grow. And again, if you can be in contact with the best of its past, then it’s got a chance. But if it just remains well adjusted to the status quo, generating careerist and opportunist students rather than critically oriented students who have a heart and soul, concerned about suffering here and around the world — then Harvard has a chance. So, I’m not giving up on Harvard, but I am making my way to New York. I only got one life to live, and I don’t have time for Harvard’s pettiness, no doubt about that. No, no, no, no.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a lot of people coming out in your support. I wanted to talk about the noted UCLA professor Robin Kelley, who wrote the piece “Why Cornel West’s Tenure Fight Matters.” And he says, “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.” He particularly references García Peña, one of the first of Harvard’s appointments to specialize in ethnic studies, who was denied tenure in 2019. Can you talk about the significance of this?

And, of course, you have the Harvard Black Law Students Association writing to the administration, “Harvard’s refusal to consider Dr. West for tenure continues a consistent pattern of practice that undermines and devalues the scholarship of Black professors and professors of color. … In 1992 Derrick Bell, the preeminent scholar on critical race theory and the first Black man to receive tenure at Harvard Law School (“HLS”), left HLS in protest of its refusal to hire a Black woman and the lack of diversity within the faculty. For seven years, the university denied the Latino Law Review the right to use the Harvard name. In 2019, the University refused to grant tenure to Professor Lorgia García Peña, a decision that undermined cross-organizational efforts on campus for an Ethnic Studies program. … The refusal to consider Dr. West for tenure raises concerns about the future treatment of Black academics and academics of color in a tenure process that already lacks transparency.” A lot there, Professor West, but your response?

CORNEL WEST: No, but my dear Brother Robin D.G. Kelley, though, he’s one of the great intellectuals in American life. It was one of the greatest tributes that I’ve ever received, really, because what he did, as you know, he published his letter that he wrote to the committee. So he went beyond the confidentiality of it — took tremendous courage to do that, you see? — and let the world know what he said. And you’re reading from that particular letter, so, I mean, this brother, he loves me in a deep way.

But I’ve got unbelievable support across the board, from the Harvard students, Harvard faculty — oh my god, my dear Brother Ron Sullivan, Stephanie Robinson and Davíd Carrasco and Walter Johnson. I mean, I’ve had unbelievable support across the board. And it’s a beautiful thing.

But it can’t be focused on me. We’ve got to open the doors to the younger generation. That’s the key. And when they get in there, they shouldn’t sell their souls. But when they get in there, they ought to be truth tellers. When they get in there, they ought to be seekers of conditions under which poor and working people can live lives of decency and dignity. That is the key.

So, in a way, now we’ve got to shift away from me and really focus on keeping the pressure on the Harvard administration. And this is true for colleges and universities across the board, because everywhere you go in a university, Black folk being disrespected, Black folk being devalued, Black folk being overworked, Black folk being undercut and so forth, undermined. And it’s ridiculous, really. It really is. And when I think about where I am now in my own calling, in my own vocation, it’s just downright pathetic that I even have to worry about this mess. You know what I mean?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Cornel, I wanted to ask you — in terms of this issue of the systemic problem that this and other attacks on the African American community represent, we had a huge high tide of mass protests across the nation. There were commitments by local governments, police departments, foundations. Everyone said, after the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, things are going to change. But now we’re in the winter of discontent here. And all of a sudden, all that fire of the summer and the early fall has gone out of the movement. Talk about what’s happening right now in terms of the country addressing these systemic problems.

CORNEL WEST: No, my dear Brother Juan, that’s a wonderful question. Oh man, you begin to see just how superficial their rhetoric actually is. Very little execution, very little follow-through. You have a Black Lives Matter moment for a while where people are in the streets. Corporate America, university America acts as if it’s going to undergo this fundamental transformation and change. They bring in a few Black folk at the top. Next thing you know, we’re right back to business as usual, routinizing all of the built-in forms of holding Black folk at arm’s length. And this is especially so when it comes to our precious Black poor and working-class folk, who hardly ever get in on any of the benefits. Usually it’s a cooptation of Black folk at the top.

And so, that’s why we have to keep the pressure. But we can’t in any way be seduced by the superficial rhetoric. We have to make sure that there’s content. We have to make sure that there’s substance in terms of following through with high-quality figures, gaining access to positions of power and being able to try to push this quest for veritas, this quest for truth. And the condition of all truth for human beings is to allow suffering to speak. I don’t care whose suffering it is — Africa, Latin America, Middle East, Roxbury, Harlem, poor white brothers in Appalachia, Dalits, Roma in Europe, Muslims in China. We have to have that kind of universal embrace, even as we function within these universities. These universities are just context, but our calling cuts much deeper. And that’s why Union Theological Seminary means so much to me, because in that context I can be the full, free Black man, the Jesus-loving, free Black man, fundamentally committed to focusing on the oppressed around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, wasn’t it you, Professor West, that told the story of President Obama, being next to him at some event and him saying, “Please, give me a break. Lay off a little bit”? So, that was during the Obama-Biden years. Now this is the Biden-Harris years. And I’m wondering where you feel the most pressure needs to be brought, as you see it shaping up, as we talk today in the midst of the Derek Chauvin jury selection, the passage of the George Floyd Police Accountability Act. Your thoughts?

CORNEL WEST: I think the two major issues we’ve got to zero in on are poverty and the empowerment of workers, especially empowerment of trade union movement, and militarism around the world, in all various parts of the world. And that militarism also is connected to that $3.8 billion that goes to the state of Israel, that still subordinates too many of precious Palestinian brothers and sisters, their suffering rendered invisible. And I’m very worried about the secretary of state and Biden in the words that I hear in that regard. But those two fronts, it seems to me, Sister Amy, the militarism abroad and the poverty, hitting poverty head on. This is why the uplifting of precious children of all colors out of poverty is a very positive thing. But we’ve got to empower their parents, workers, trade union movement. We’ve got to hit those head on. Now, of course, we’ve got police brutality, and you got vicious white supremacy, too, but that’s kind of a given. We’ve been talking about that, as well. But, for me, they all go hand in hand, those three — white supremacy, the predatory capitalism, and the empowerment of poor and working people, especially tied to the best of the trade union movement, and the militarism around the world, the imperial militarism of the United States around the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Cornel West, we want to thank you for being with us, former professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University, recently announced his departure from Harvard. In July, Dr. West will be joining the Union Theological Seminary as the Dietrich Bonhoeffer chair, teaching courses on philosophy of religion and African American critical thought, among others, author of many books, including Race Matters and Black Prophetic Fire. His new podcast, The Tight Rope.

Next up, Rutgers University, the largest state university system in New Jersey, divests from fossil fuels. Bill McKibben will join us.

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