In February, we reported on the farce then playing itself out at Harvard University’s Afro-American studies department. Cornel West—pop philosopher, rap musician, political advisor to the Al-Sharpton-for-president campaign—was in a snit because Harvard’s president, Lawrence H. Summers, had the temerity to suggest that he do some real scholarly work. After all, West was one of only fourteen Harvard faculty members to hold the coveted title of University Professor. He was being paid a small fortune. Shouldn’t he perform like a University Professor? Ah, but that would be to hold Professor West to the same standards as his white colleagues. How unfair.
President Summers was soon made to see his error. A revolt among the black faculty at Harvard along with a couple of front-page stories and a blistering editorial in The New York Times saw to that. Not only did President Summers retract his criticism, he also engaged in some conspicuous public groveling and penance. It was all a “terrible misunderstanding,” he said. He had deep respect for Cornel West and his brilliant work. He was a firm supporter of Afro-American Studies at Harvard. Etc.
A lot of good it did him. When the controversy first broke, Cornel West made ominous noises about folding his tent and decamping to Princeton University. (How many white faculty members do you know who have their pick of the Ivy League?) What wailing and gnashing of teeth there was over the prospect of that defection! Well, now the worst has come to pass. As yet another front-page story in our paper of record reported, Professor West has decided to make good on his threat and go to Princeton. According to the Times, the poor man felt “disrespected” by President Summers: “‘Cornel is very hurt,’ a close associate said. ‘His pride is wounded. He feels he has no choice but to leave if he is to protect his honor.’” Oh dear. President Summers was courteous in defeat. “All of us in the Harvard community are grateful to Cornel West for his significant contribution to Harvard academic life,” he said. “We will miss him, and I wish him every success at Princeton.” For his part, Cornel West described President Summers as “the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.” It was not meant as a compliment.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies department, said that Cornel West’s departure would be “devastating” for Harvard. What’s really devastating, however, is the academic apartheid represented by most Afro-American studies departments. Too often, they are ghettoes of special privilege, pseudo-scholarship, and political grievance-mongering. Everyone knows this, but most college administrators are too terrified of being called racist to do anything about it. Professor Gates lamented that Cornel West’s departure marked “the end of an era” at Harvard. If only he were correct!
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 20 Number 9, on page 2
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