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In resignation letter, Cornel West says Harvard constitutes ‘intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy’

Cornel West released the text of a June 30 letter outlining his reasons for leaving Harvard.

Cornel West at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, in January 2018. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Scholar and progressive activist Cornel West, who earlier this year announced he would be resigning from Harvard University’s divinity school, released a June 30 letter to the school’s dean outlining his reasons for leaving and accusing the administration of “narcissistic academic professionalism.”

In sending the letter out on social media, West said, “Let us bear witness against this spiritual rot!”

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West, who takes up a tenured position at Union Theological Seminary in New York this month,  threatened to leave Harvard in February, when the school denied his request to be considered for tenure, according to media reports. His departure for Union was announced in March.

He said in his letter that when he arrived at Harvard four years ago, he earned a salary that was less than what he had received in a previous stint at Harvard nearly two decades earlier. He left that post in 2002 after disagreements with then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers. (West has been a tenured professor at Yale and Princeton.)

“With a few glorious and glaring exceptions, the shadow of Jim Crow was cast in its new glittering form expressed in the language of superficial diversity,” West wrote in the letter about the current culture at Harvard.

He said his courses were listed as Afro-American Religious Studies, including those on existentialism, American democracy and the conduct of life. West said he was promised a year’s sabbatical but could only take one semester in practice.

The divinity school had no comment on West’s letter, said Jonathan Beasley, a spokesman for the school.

Amid all of this, West said he delivered two convocation addresses and one commencement speech in four years. He said he also taught extra courses, including five courses in one year.

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In the letter, West repeated claims previously made on Twitter that he believed his public criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians played a role in the university denying his tenure request. He wrote that “ … to witness a faculty enthusiastically support a candidate for tenure then timidly defer to a rejection based on the Harvard administration’s hostility to the Palestinian cause was disgusting.”

West said he was also disappointed in the way the school reacted to news of his mother’s death.

“When the announcement of the death of my beloved Mother appeared in the regular newsletter, I received two public replies,” he wrote. “ … Any ordinary announcement about a lecture, award or professional advancement receives about twenty replies!

“This kind of narcissistic academic professionalism, cowardly deference to the anti-Palestinian prejudices of the Harvard administration, and indifference to my Mother’s death constitute an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of deep depths,” West said.