As a graduate student, I wanted to be like Cornel West. Sucker that I am, I dreamed that beautiful dream of living a life of the mind like he did, like he does. Not a mind that luxuriates, walled-off, in the ivory tower; rather, a mind that lives out loud. Strangely enough, it was only after being discarded by the academic job market that I actually got to work with West, to savor how out loud his mind really lives. (I’ve gotten to work with West for the duration of the limited collaborative partnership between
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As a graduate student, I wanted to be like Cornel West. Sucker that I am, I dreamed that beautiful dream of living a life of the mind like he did, like he does. Not a mind that luxuriates, walled-off, in the ivory tower; rather, a mind that lives out loud. Strangely enough, it was only after being discarded by the academic job market that I actually got to work with West, to savor how out loud his mind really lives. (I’ve gotten to work with West for the duration of the limited collaborative partnership between The Real News Network, where I now work, and The Tight Rope, the weekly podcast West produces with Tricia Rose.)
Last week we learned that Harvard will not offer West tenure. And I, like much of the academic and nonacademic world, have spent the past few days wondering how this could possibly be so. According to West, the administration did offer a prestigious endowed chairship and a 10-year contract, which includes a pay raise. But the administration has drawn a line in the sand, and that line is tenure. This is not the first time West has sparred with the Harvard administration, and it is certainly not the first time Harvard has refused to give venerable Black scholars and scholars of color the respect and protections they deserve in the form of tenure. I spoke with West about what’s behind Harvard’s denial of tenure, what it says about the state of higher education, and what Harvard can (and needs to) do to change course.
I’m the first person on either side of my family to get a Ph.D. We didn’t know much about the world of academia or what to expect from it. But my family, my friends, my coworkers — they all know you, and they’re just as shocked by this news as I am. What do you think this situation reveals to people outside of higher education about how that world actually operates?
My ridiculous situation at Harvard is a symptom of a much larger crisis in higher education. First, Black scholars and too many others are too often disrespected, devalued, or dismissed. 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. I have been blessed to live a life immersed in the best of the magnificent West family, Shiloh Baptist Church, and the Black Radical Tradition — as well as the best of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and Union Theological Seminary. My vocation consists of a profound commitment to the life of the mind for the empowerment of my fellow human beings and citizens, especially young people. Unfortunately, this particular calling (wedded to a fallible search for veritas) is now too often eclipsed by an obsession with brand and market promotion. This preoccupation with brand too often produces superficial talk about diversity without a genuine commitment to respecting the contributions of Black scholars and others. Furthermore, colleges and universities are reluctant to wrestle with certain taboo issues in a serious way. In my case, my controversial and outspoken views about and critiques of empire, capitalism, white supremacy, male supremacy, and homophobia are tolerated, but any serious engagement around the issues of the Israeli occupation are rendered highly suspect and reduced to anti-Jewish hatred or prejudice. Therefore, so many scholars, including Black ones, are simply scared and afraid to raise their voices about these delicate and difficult issues.
Last Friday, on Twitter, you said, “After being tenured at Yale, Harvard, Princeton & Union Theological Seminary, the recent Harvard denial of a tenure process strikes me as a political decision I reject.” Could you say more about that?
The very fact that I have to think about a tenure process at this point in my calling is a sign of the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of Harvard. I was first tenured 37 years ago at Yale University and have served as University Professor — the highest faculty position — at Harvard and Princeton. Therefore, the only grounds I can conceive of Harvard’s refusal to pursue a tenure process for me are age and politics. Like everyone, I grow old. However, the recent invitation extended to me to give the prestigious Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, Scotland, leads me to conclude that some people believe I have something significant yet to say. In regards to politics, I do not believe that my intense and joyful support of my dear brother Bernie Sanders for president is a cause of any concern on behalf of the powers that be at Harvard. So, I surmise it must be my deep Christian witness based on the idea that an ugly Israeli occupation of precious Palestinians is as wrong as any ugly Palestinian occupation of precious Jews. I would bear any burden or pay any cost in order to stay in contact with the precious humanity of any oppressed people.
Like countless other graduate students, I had lofty dreams of becoming a scholar like you. Then, like countless other graduate students, I started to learn how unattainable that dream is for so many in academia today. The vast majority of us either end up working as underpaid, underprotected, “contingent” faculty (and the majority of non-tenure-track faculty in the U.S., it should be noted, are women), or we’re shuttled out of academia entirely, like I was. By denying you tenure, what message is Harvard sending to all the junior academics out there?
As a jazz man in the life of the mind, I would hope that others would never view me as a model to imitate, but rather as a fallible example of inspiration in order to find one’s own voice and witness with creativity, compassion, and fortitude. The key is this: Any racial, gender, or queer identity as a thinker should be rooted first and foremost in moral integrity and genuine solidarity with other struggling and suffering human beings and creatures. And even successful Black professors must not become too comfortable and complacent. As I revise the words of the great Stephen Sondheim in Act 2 of Into the Woods, wishes may come true but they are never free. There is always a painful cost of one’s calling and difficult burdens to bear of one’s vocation. But the fruits of one’s calling and vocation are love, joy, and touching the hearts, minds, and souls of our precious students.
You’re one of the pre-eminent thinkers and commenters on the topic of neoliberalism: where the ideology of neoliberalism came from, how it wormed its way into and reshaped our minds and our cultural, political, and economic institutions ... including universities. As the paradigm for higher education, especially in the U.S., do you see neoliberalism at work in the decision-making process regarding who still gets tenure and who doesn’t?
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.
Harvard seems intent on pitting your public work against your academic work, as if one is more valuable or “legitimate” than the other. After this latest battle with Harvard, do you think it’s fair to say that the university will simply not make space for scholars or scholarship that are truly public?
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!
Thanks to my dear brother, Jeremy Berry — the visionary creator of The Tight Rope podcast — Professor Tricia Rose and I have weekly opportunities to intervene into public life in the form of serious and substantive discussions about crucial issues of our day. There are always some spaces and pockets within any commodified and bureaucratized site for our commitment to the life of the mind and changing the world, but they seem to be shrinking at the present moment, and the lethal combination of disrespect of Black scholars and others and curtailing robust inquiry about taboo issues must be confronted and transformed. In my own case, I have so often been blessed to have a perennial home at the great Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Like my guardian angel, John Coltrane, I just want to be a force for truth, beauty, and goodness wherever I am before the worms get my body!