Black Studies Feud at Harvard Results in an Angry Exit
A bitter feud between Harvard and some members of its prestigious department of African American studies continued Tuesday as departing professor Cornel West lashed out at university President Lawrence Summers as “the Ariel Sharon” of American education.
West’s decision to go to Princeton University, leaving a group of scholars known as “the dream team” of black studies, followed the exit of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, who in January also headed for Princeton. Department chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. is mulling a similar move.
The tension began brewing last fall, when West and others in his department questioned Summers’ support of affirmative action at Harvard and elsewhere. Summers in turn questioned the scholarship value of a rap CD cut by West.
In an interview this week in the New York Times, West also characterized Summers as “very much as a bull in a china shop, and as a bully, in a very delicate and dangerous situation.”
Harvard spokesman Joe Wrinn said Tuesday that he would not comment on the remarks. West did not return calls to his office.
West, who is one of only 17 Harvard faculty members to hold the distinguished title of university professor, is recovering from prostate cancer and has been on leave.
West has said that he felt “dishonored” when Summers questioned the scholarship value of his rap CD and when he objected to West’s involvement in an exploratory presidential bid launched by the Rev. Al Sharpton, an activist in New York.
The defections of West and Appiah were a blow both to Harvard and to its black studies department. Appiah cited personal reasons for his departure. But West, who taught religion at Princeton and led the African American studies department there until 1994, blamed conflict with Summers, a former Treasury secretary who last year became head of the nation’s oldest university.
In a statement last week, Summers said: “All of us in the Harvard community are grateful to Cornel West for his significant contributions to Harvard’s academic life, especially the great inspiration he provided to so many students. We will miss him and I wish him every success at Princeton.”
But West on Tuesday continued his criticism of the Harvard president, saying that “Larry Summers strikes me as the Ariel Sharon of higher education.” Sharon, the hawkish Israeli prime minister, was blamed for the massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps two decades ago.
West also complained in the interview that Summers did not send a get-well message until two months after his prostate cancer surgery.
He has carried the feud into a forthcoming article in Vanity Fair. West was incensed at accusations from Harvard officials that he missed three weeks of class to pursue political activities.
“Miss three weeks and sneak around and act like I’m there when I’m not there?” West told the magazine. “That’s the biggest attack on my integrity, man.”
West won prominence with his 1993 book, “Race Matters.” He also worked on the Million Man March and national youth gang summits.