Dear President Bacow, Provost Garber, Deans Gay, and Bobo,
Harvard Law School’s Black Law Students Association (HBLSA) and the undersigned signatories are writing to condemn the University’s decision to refuse to consider Dr. Cornel West for tenure.
There is no doubt that Dr. West is more than qualified to receive tenure. Dr. West is a preeminent scholar–described by his peers as “sui generis”–that has consistently tackled the complex issues of race in America. He is a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard, and the University of Paris. Prior to leaving Harvard in 2002, Dr. West was a University Professor, Harvard’s highest faculty honor, and the demand for his course was only exceeded by one other course. Dr. West, who is routinely cited, has written 20 books–including the seminal Race Matters– edited 13 and has published a substantial amount of academic articles. The decision not to consider Dr. West for tenure is inexplicable and inconsistent with the University’s expectation as expressed by Dean Bobo that “the expectation is that [Dr. West] will be with [Harvard] for a very long time.” The University’s actions are not only incompatible but do a disservice to all current and future students of the University.
We are deeply concerned by the University’s characterization of Dr. West as “too risky” and “too controversial.” These statements contravene the principle of academic freedom that undergirds the University. As the President said in the first address of the spring semester to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences “We pursue [Harvard’s] mission on the foundation of a set of values, chief among them free speech and academic freedom.” This characterization of Dr. West is not only inaccurate but also falls short of the values and standards established and reiterated time and time again by the University. We call upon the University to hold itself accountable and to follow its own model of academic freedom.
Harvard’s refusal to consider Dr. West for tenure continues a consistent pattern of practice that undermines and devalues the scholarship of Black professors and professors of color. Our call today for the University to revisit its decision is part of a longstanding tradition of HBLSA, Black academics, and academics of color calling upon the University to recognize and value diverse scholarship. In 1992 Derrick Bell, the preeminent scholar on critical race theory and the first Black man to receive tenure at Harvard Law School (“HLS”), left HLS in protest of its refusal to hire a Black woman and the lack of diversity within the faculty. For seven years, the university denied the Latino Law Review the right to use the Harvard name. In 2019, the University refused to grant tenure to Professor Lorgia García Peña, a decision that undermined cross-organizational efforts on campus for an Ethnic Studies program. In addition, more than 100 faculty members called for a comprehensive review of the tenure process to ensure better alignment with the University’s espoused commitments to diversity and inclusion. The refusal to consider Dr. West for tenure raises concerns about the future treatment of Black academics and academics of color in a tenure process that already lacks transparency. The University espouses a commitment to academic freedom and diversity and inclusion, but its actions continue to undermine diverse scholarship.
Dr. Cornel West’s research, publication record, and teaching are exemplary. We are not only disappointed in the refusal to even consider Dr. West for tenure but also are concerned that this denial indicates a lack of commitment to pursuing diversity, inclusivity, and social justice by the University.
The Harvard Black Law Students Association
La Alianza at Harvard Law School
Harvard Law School Lambda
Harvard Law School MELSA
Harvard Muslim Law Students Association
Harvard Law School Chapter of the American Constitution Society
Harvard African Law Association
Harvard Law School Disability Law Students Association
Harvard Asian Pacific American Law Students Association
Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review
Harvard Journal of Sports and Entertainment Law
Harvard Journal of Law and Gender
Harvard Law School Labor and Employment Action Project
Tenant Advocacy Project
First Class at Harvard Law School
Harvard Women’s Law Association
Harvard Legal Aid Bureau
Harvard Human Rights Journal
Harvard South Asian Law Students Association
A full copy of the letter can be found here.