During Visitas, hundreds of newly accepted students pour into lecture halls for a chance to experience a preview of the opportunities that await upon their official arrival on campus. I noticed one of the most popular options for course shadowing throughout the weekend was unmistakably Introduction to African American studies, taught by Professor Cornel R. West ’74. However, both pre-frosh and current students will no longer have the chance to sit starry-eyed listening to one of West’s renowned lectures, as he recently announced that he will be leaving Harvard due to the University’s refusal to consider him for tenure.
For Black students, access to scholars like Professor West stands as an unprecedented opportunity in their educational journey. Most public and private institutions across the U.S fail to incorporate meaningful opportunities to explore Black histories and narratives into their syllabi, leaving young Black students without ways to locate themselves in history that go beyond normative discussions of U.S chattel slavery. This denial stifles the formation of our consciousness and self-identification.
As the professor of African and African American Studies 10: “Introduction to African American Studies”, a hallmark course for many Black students, West and his scholarship guided an immeasurable amount of traditionally marginalized students towards their first critical awakenings. From AAAS 10 to the various other courses West teaches across Harvard, the encounters and reckonings fostered within his classrooms were tools for students to carry into our daily struggles as we carve our way towards liberation.
Harvard, an institution birthed from settler colonialism and a contributor to the historical and present-day enslavement of Black people, understands the impact of West and his legacy on campus — which is precisely why I believe they decided not to grant him the opportunity to be considered for tenure. From owning slaves to perpetuating scientific racism to investing in private prisons, Harvard and its community’s ties to abusing Black people are deep-seated and unquestionable. As an outspoken and unapologetic force against white supremacy and advocate for human rights at home and abroad, West placed himself in immediate opposition to the systems of oppression that Harvard has demonstrated a dedication to preserving.
Despite its repeated verbal commitments to racial justice, Harvard denying tenure consideration to West and tenure to professor Lorgia García Peña (a pioneer in Harvard’s fight for Ethnic Studies) demonstrates that Harvard does not aim to inspire and empower future generations of activists and academics who are devoted to shifting the face of academia beyond just physical representation.
West’s denial of tenure consideration is the most recent chapter within a larger story of discrimination and gatekeeping within academia. Non-white scholars are disproportionately denied tenure at elite institutions. However, Harvard's decision in conversation with West’s laundry list of accomplishments and public prominence sends a resounding message: Regardless of distinction, any Black scholar who threatens to challenge the racist, colonial and capitalist status quo is not welcome.
The production of Black-centered knowledge is not a priority for Harvard because it promises to deconstruct the very white supremacist tables at which they have denied us a seat. By centering decolonization and the deconstruction of power, West invited us to pursue a “veritas'' that transcended academia’s pervasive and intentional whiteness and neoliberalism. Offering West tenure would equate to Harvard consenting to the dismantling of its own structural racism.
While West’s departure from campus will leave Black students feeling particularly isolated and underrepresented, his absence will be felt across many other communities on campus. As an ally to third-world struggles outside of the Black community, West knows that all marginalized people are directly connected in a united struggle against global forces of exploitation and oppression. In denying West tenure consideration, Harvard is attempting to incrementally disarm and discourage students from their individual and collective mobilization by robbing us of a supportive pillar and indispensable mentor.
Yet, even in his departure from campus, West continues to exemplify and stimulate resistance.
Though West’s departure has left many frustrated with the University, the continued organizing around his treatment by Harvard, condemning Harvard’s lack of meaningful measures for racial justice, maintains his spirit on campus. A petition calling for Harvard to reverse its decision surrounding West, change its process for tenure consideration, and commit to an Ethnic Studies department received over a thousand signatures. Now, student-led efforts persist in calls for retroactive justice for West, demonstrating that even though Harvard is withholding change, students remain hungry for it.
This year, as students attend Visitas virtually, Professor West’s absence will speak louder than his presence. West’s choice to leave Harvard is a lesson in self-respect to prospective students, teaching them to seek out institutions that respect, uplift, and recognize them and leave behind those that do not.
Marissa J. Joseph ’23, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Kirkland House.
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