Cornel West, a philosophy scholar and progressive activist, is claiming that he was denied tenure at Harvard University due to his views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
West announced on March 8 that he was leaving his position as a philosophy and African American studies professor at Harvard and will be teaching at Union Theological Seminary full time, where he is currently a professor emeritus. He had threatened to leave Harvard in February when they declined his request for tenure.
West, a supporter of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, has maintained that his pro-Palestinian views were the reason for Harvard denying him tenure. He told Haaretz that “the neoliberal hegemony in the universities is still very reluctant to have a robust, respectful, free dialogue on what’s going on, past and present, when it comes to Israeli and Palestinian issue.” A student petition has also been circulating denouncing Harvard’s decision not to give West tenure over West’s criticism of “the settler colonial violence of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.”
Rabbi Jonah Steinberg, director of Harvard Hillel, wrote in a March 12 email to community members that West “egged” on the students into promulgating “anti-Jewish libels” in the petition.
“Student leaders who have signed the petition likely do not realize how the words ‘Israel’s occupation of Palestine’ are used to suggest that the entire country of Israel is illegitimate, and perhaps they are not sensible of how eliding ‘white supremacy, racial capitalism, Zionism, and the military-industrial complex,’ as the petition does, is a dangerous ethnic slander,” Steinberg wrote, adding that it was ludicrous for West to suggest that his views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict had anything to do with Harvard’s decision.
West told the Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, that he didn’t think his support for Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) 2020 presidential campaign or his support for the Black Lives Matter movement would be considered controversial by Harvard, but he thinks his “support of this critique of Israeli occupation is a plausible hypothesis, given what I know about earlier candidates who have been denied.” He added that while he shares Steinberg’s concerns about anti-Semitism, such charges shouldn’t “trump a serious discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.” West has also claimed that the university eventually relented to public pressure and told him they were open to giving him tenure, telling the Crimson: “You can’t impose and force people to respect you in that sense. That’s another reason why I knew I had to go.” The university declined to comment on that allegation to the Crimson.
Steven Lubet, a law professor at Northwestern University, wrote in a March 3 RealClearEducation article that Harvard had offered West a 10-year contract and a significant raise in salary, but West insisted on tenure even though his position was not eligible for tenure. West has claimed that a faculty committee had recommended that West be considered for a tenured position, but the university denied the recommendation. University Spokesman Jonathan Swain has told The Boston Globe that the committee’s sole jurisdiction was to review West’s reappointment to his current position; the committee told the Crimson that Swain was “technically accurate” but didn’t provide the full context of the report.
Harvard had offered West a 10-year contract and a significant raise in salary, but West insisted on tenure even though his position was not eligible for tenure.
Lubet also noted that West had previously left Harvard in 2002 after then-university president Larry Summers questioned West’s scholarship and wanted to see if the professor had engaged in grade inflation; West had questioned the university’s commitment to affirmative action. West called Summers “the Ariel Sharon of American higher education” at the time.
“With nothing even resembling evidence, West has no doubt that shadowy friends of Israel just had to be responsible for his rebuff by the Harvard administration,” Lubet wrote. “That might make sense only to someone intensely committed to West’s worldview; his conclusion would otherwise be recognized as an unsupported non-sequitur.”
Boston Globe columnist Michael A. Cohen similarly wrote in a March 16 Substack piece, “Many political commentators are critical of the Israeli occupation and its behavior toward Palestinians (and it’s also true that some defenders of Israel have sought to silence criticism of the Jewish state). But then again, not many commentators have, like West, accused then-President Barack Obama of being a ‘war criminal’ because his administration supported Israel. Not many have, during ‘robust’ and ‘respectful’ conversations, accused Israel of ‘state terrorism’ and branded the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, a ‘war criminal’ who seeks not just to promote the occupation of the Palestinian people but their ‘annihilation.’”
West’s colleagues appear to be supportive of him. Harvard Anthropology Professor David Carrasco told the Crimson that the West controversy “seems to be unmasking something troubling in our beloved university. The question is why is it that from one side of the mouth we hear support for African American studies and scholars while the other side of the mouth refuses to address Cornel West’s request and this situation directly.”
Ciarra Jones, a former student of West’s, also wrote in a Medium post that she was “deeply dismayed and outraged by Harvard University’s denial of Professor West’s tenure,” stating that “in Professor West’s classroom I could exist freely as a Black woman without the acute sense of hypervisibility and alienation.”
She later added: “Marginalized faculty are our lifeline. They see us when no one else does and they validate our intelligence and worthiness. Further, they hear us because at one point, they were us. Navigating graduate school as a Black scholar is arduous. We need cheerleaders and confidants. We need affirmation. We need Black faculty like Professor West.”