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In Light of Cornel West’s Threatened Departure, Harvard Doctoral Students Call on University to Grant Him Tenure

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Doctoral students from across Harvard’s graduate and professional schools penned a letter in support of Practice of Public Philosophy Cornel R. West ’74, who recently threatened a second departure from the University after he said the administration dismissed his request to be considered for tenure.

Published on Monday, the letter amassed over 150 signatures from doctoral students at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the Graduate School of Education, Harvard Medical School, the Graduate School of Design, and the School of Public Health as of Wednesday night.

In the letter, students wrote that failing to grant tenure to West — “one of the most important intellectuals of our time” — stands as “an urgent matter of equity and parity for the University.”

“The loss of Brother West, a towering intellectual and prophetic voice, on our campus would deal a devastating blow to an already near disenchanted community of color,” the letter reads.

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Mafaz Al-Suwaidan, a doctoral student in Religion and African and African American Studies, said she started the petition shortly after reading a Boston Globe article in which West stated that he had been denied a request to undergo the tenure process.

“I was speaking to some friends and I was like, ‘We can’t just let this happen,’” Al-Suwaidan said. “So I drafted a statement and then I just sent it to a bunch of my colleagues and said, ‘Hey, this is a collaborative process, so everybody feel free to kind of edit, comment, add stuff.’ And a bunch of people did — people I know, people I don’t know.”

In their petition — which limited signatories to doctoral students — the students wrote that their perspectives as both students and instructors shed light on their assessment of West’s credentials.

“As graduate students we stand at a revelatory intersection; we spend a significant amount of time with both the student body and the faculty instructing it,” the letter reads. “We see what happens to both our students and our professors when Dr. West walks into a room.”

“It is not an exaggeration to say that Dr. West’s presence on campus is electrifying,” it continues.

Mark N. Kabban, a doctoral student at HGSE who signed and helped circulate the letter, said granting tenure to West “shouldn’t even be something that is up for question.”

“He was a University Professor before he left Harvard the first time, which is [Harvard’s] most distinguished academic position,” Kabban said. “So we all know that his scholarship corpus is not up for debate by Harvard's own standards.”

“So, I was led to conclude, if formerly Harvard made a decision based on their standards and their values that he was a tenured professor, then this decision has to be a political one,” he added, citing West’s outspoken criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Al-Suwaidan added that it was “really, really concerning” that West noted his political perspectives as a “driving factor” in the University’s decision to deny his request for tenure.

“We’ve heard from other professors who were not granted tenure in the past that they think that similar positions are what put them in a place where they were denied tenure,” she said. “It’s about Dr. West, but it’s also about this broader conversation in terms of the protections that are provided to academics to be able to say what they need to say.”

West — a professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard Divinity School and in the Department of African and African American Studies in the Faculty of Arts of Sciences — said in an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education published Monday that his treatment by the University is symptomatic of “a much larger crisis in higher education.”

“First, Black scholars and too many others are too often disrespected, devalued, or dismissed,” West said. “Second, the fundamental aims of the quest for truth, beauty, and goodness are too often trumped for the pursuit of donor money, public image, and consumer reputation.”

Al-Suwaidan said the doctoral student petition has yet to receive a response from the University or the FAS.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the petition. Swain previously said that the committee considering whether to reappoint West to his current posts did not have authority to conduct a review for tenure.

Doctoral student in Sociology Cresa L. Pugh, another signatory of the letter, said West’s departure from Harvard would mark the loss of “a true intellectual” and one of Harvard’s “greatest assets.”

“Professor West criticizes the darkness of the world around us,” Pugh said. “He challenges the status quo, he challenges Harvard, he is critical of the way in which our liberal institutions are failing the public, and that is something very difficult for people to reconcile.”

“But it’s through that critique that an institution like Harvard can become better,” she added.

Karlene E. Griffiths Sekou, a Ph.D. candidate in Religion who also signed onto the letter, said Harvard might face a “mass exodus of Black scholars” who do not see the University’s atmosphere as being conducive to their scholarship.

“Harvard is choosing not only to be on the wrong side of history, but to say that they are not willing to support this bold, this imaginative, this new possibility of a world of racial equity, of valuing Black lives, and of valuing the historical, present, and future contributions of Black scholarship,” she said.

—Staff writer Meera S. Nair can be reached at meera.nair@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Andy Z. Wang can be reached at andy.wang@thecrimson.com.

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