Harvard's double-mindedness

Give Cornell West his tenure

I disagree with practically everything Cornell West says and believes, but I admire his directness in calling out Harvard for its double-mindedness.

West is a leftist, Black activist, self-identified Christian, socialist, philosopher, educator, and generally a very engaging guy. He also believes that Israel should be pushed into the sea, and that Zionism is a threat to humanity. West eloquently coats the bloodthirsty logical conclusions of his utopia-mongering in words like love, respect, and “deep Christian witness.”

A longtime fixture at Harvard University, West is upset that he’s been denied tenure, despite telling us he was offered a 10-year contract with a raise. He’s 67 years old, so that contract would take him to the end of his career, and likely West could stay at Harvard as a University Professor for the rest of his life. But he wants tenure, because it means respect.

In practical terms, tenure doesn’t buy anything for a man like Cornell West. Really, unless one is a career professor and not a public figure, there’s no benefit other than the title itself.

Apparently, tenure is just for the sake of academic freedom, and has no real benefit for the institution, except a one-way service to professors (probably satisfying more applicants). Am I right? Then, a university must prefer not to offer tenured positions at all, as HR has more freedom with non-tenured positions.

West doesn’t care about academic freedom, and Harvard has no interest in muzzling him. This is really all about public relations, donor relations, and money. Harvard doesn’t care what West preaches, in regards to Jews, Israel, or any other topic, because many in that academic neoliberal orbit agree with him. However, as West claims, Harvard is very interested in distancing itself from West when it needs to.

A tenured position puts Harvard in the awkward position of having to bend over backwards and grab its own ankles to get rid of a professor who says something that might anger people with money. Or as West correctly points out, Jews (and their money). I am Jewish by heritage, and believe that West’s view of rich, powerful Jews and Zionists manipulating world events and opinion for the benefit of Israel, to the detriment of oppressed Palestinians to be both personally insulting and factually execrable. But Harvard is even worse, because many of the top faculty and administration officials would privately agree with West, but they also want the money coming from wealthy Jewish families.

Harvard’s tenure process is something akin to admission to Hogwarts in its opaque and black-ball-in-a-bag clubbiness. Step 8 in the “tenure track” is called “Presidential Review.”

Presidential Review: The President makes the final decision regarding all tenure appointments. To help in making this decision, the President or Provost often presides over an ad hoc committee that reviews your case for promotion. External ad hoc committee members and departmental “witnesses” are relied on for their expertise in the field.

Basically, candidates for tenure are required to submit their life’s work to the university, which then convenes a secret star chamber, with the president making the final decision. In West’s case, president Lawrence Bacow decided to decline tenure. Of course, Bacow is a Jew, the son of a Holocaust survivor mother and a father who immigrated to escape pogroms.

I think West’s threat to leave Harvard is a stunt, but a real one, because he’s done it before. In 2002, West left his alma mater to teach at Princeton, then Union Theological Seminary, before returning in 2017. Back then, his spat was with Harvard president Lawrence Summers, who just happens to also be a Jew. (Do we see a pattern here?)

West sees a pattern. In an interview published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, he told interviewer Maxmillian Alvarez:

The wholesale commodification and bureaucratization of higher education makes it difficult to put the focus where it belongs. Harvard’s own William James rightly highlighted the role of higher education as a critical counterweight to the pervasive greed, conformity, and callousness in American life. Harvard — like many other places — has too often succumbed to hubris and hypocrisy, arrogance and pettiness. Combating racist treatment is a crucial litmus test; robust and respectful free dialogue on taboo issues is another. In the past three years at Harvard, five major Black scholars have left and two brilliant scholars critical of the U.S. empire and Israeli occupation — a Black Dominican woman and a Jewish Israeli woman — have been denied tenure. I see a pattern here.

West is correct about the hubris and hypocrisy, arrogance and pettiness. Cornell West is a product of Harvard. He’s one of their sons, and they own him, but don’t love him as much as some of their other sons and daughters.

I want to make it clear that big money and prestigious professorships (without tenure or through the back door) at Harvard can never replace genuine respect. So, a free Black man like me has no place at Harvard, and Harvard does not deserve those few free spirits still there. Yet Harvard can change if it chooses to do so!

Harvard needs to repent of its double-mindedness, and embrace the man who is so popular with (especially Black) students, the man who just can’t get along with many Jews. But the university wants that money, and the Jew-hater too. As the Bible says, you can’t serve two masters. Harvard needs to step up and own West. Give the man tenure, or disclaim him in full.