CURIOUS

 

   
Can Cornel West & Harvard President Rap in Sync?  

There is too much cacophony in the rapping routines coming out of Harvard these days. In the last few months Cornel West, the prominent African-American professor of Religion and Politics at Harvard—who has recently issued a quite remarkable rap album—and the president of Harvard . Although he is satisfied that fences have been mended with the president of Harvard, Cornel West is still considering leaving Harvard and going to Princeton University, mainly because of an episodic meeting in which the president of Harvard, Lawrence H. Summers, who became president of the university last year, appeared to disrespect him. In that uncomfortable meeting in October, Mr. Summers had, among other things, questioned Cornel West about whether he had missed classes to campaign for Bill Bradley in the 2000 presidential campaign. He also pointed out that Cornel West’s resent work, including a CD of African-American music, was not scholarly enough.

Although the possibility that Cornel West—and perhaps other members of the Afro-American Studies Department here—would leave, was spurred by this meeting that had Cornel West and his colleagues quite unsettled, the tension with Mr. Summers began a few weeks prior to the October meeting, when Mr. Summers told Henry Louis Gates Jr., that he had heard rumors that Dr. West had missed classes to campaign for Mr. Bradley. Dr. Gates told Mr. Summers that these rumors were not true, and repeated that in two other messages over the next few days.

Several of Cornel West’s colleagues, including the department chairman, and Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor, have also been contacted by Princeton, which is seeking to turn its African-American studies program into a full department that, like Harvard’s would award bachelor’s degrees. Associates of those professors have said in recent days that they were not only disturbed about Dr. West’s encounter with Mr. Summers, but have also been concerned about whether Mr. Summers shares their commitment to affirmative action and diversity on campus. Last Wednesday, Mr. Summers issued a statement expressing his commitment to diversity and to the Afro-American studies department.

In interviews Mr. Summers said he did not discuss conversations with faculty members. But an aide to Mr. Summers characterized the meeting as a "terrible misunderstanding." Dr. West in a New York Times Interview, early this month, that even though the conversation had ended in a spirit of "mutual respect," he was still considering leaving, because "once you’re unsettled you begin to think about other places." He also said he would not make up his mind until at least next month, after he has surgery for prostate cancer, and that his decision would be based on whether his colleagues in the Afro-American studies Department decide to stay, as well as on which university’s vision he decides is most in tune with his, including on affirmative action and diversity.

"You just want that atmosphere of robust inquiry and unfettered dialogue," he said. "Princeton, it’s not nirvana or utopia, but it’s a magnificent place for intellectual study, a sense of moving into the unknown, of taking intellectual risks." Dr. West taught at Princeton from 1988 to 1994.

The rift was resolved, both sides say, when Mr. Summers met Dr. West on Thursday, January 3, and said that he regretted any misunderstanding or miscommunication. Dr. West said he was hurt that Mr. Summers mentioned the rumors in October. He also bridled at questions on his scholarship, saying Mr. Summers mentioned books by Dr. West that mainstream newspapers had reviewed but had not mentioned that many of his 19 books were academic. Mr. Summers’s defenders have said that he was within his purview to raise such issues, but that he might not have been diplomatic enough.

"He has every right to talk about what kind of work I’m doing," Dr. West said, "but when it comes to an assessment of my work, he hadn’t read one word I’d written. He hadn’t listened to a note of my CD." Further, he questioned whether Mr. Summers, a treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, was motivated by partisanship when he brought up Mr. Bradley’s campaign.

"The chilling question is, would he have raised the issue of my three weeks away if I was working for the Gore campaign, or the Nader campaign, or the Sharpton campaign," Dr. West said according to the New York Times article.

Although the meeting was not hostile, Dr. West said that when he left, "I planned to resign on the spot… Anybody who has a conversation like that with the president of a university, you don’t stay," he said. "When you’re disrespected like that, you don’t stay at a place." What stopped him from making a sudden decision, he said, was his attachment to his colleagues in his department. He added that he was especially upset that the publicity had led critics, mainly conservatives, to question his scholarship, and that of his colleagues, and that the October meeting had "authorized vicious attacks on my integrity and my work based on my politics… As a black man in this society," Dr. West said, "once the albatross is around your neck, it’s hard to shake off."

Mr. Summer’s aides said that he would fight to keep Dr. West and the others and that talks were continuing, including discussions that would match Princeton offers, and that Dr. Summers has made it clear that collectively and individually he holds the Afro-American studies department in high regard."

Dissed Rapper Professor is Begged not to Leave Harvard rapping cacophony in the hallowed halls of Harvard Harvard president raps back to Cornel West , Dr. West said the others still considered leaving a possibility.