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Cornel West resigns from Harvard citing 'anti-Palestinian prejudices'

In a scathing letter posted on Twitter, the scholar and activist accused Harvard of being in 'decay' and 'spiritual rot'
Cornell West finished his PhD at Princeton University in 1980 and was subsequently awarded tenure at Yale and then later at Harvard.
Cornell West finished his PhD at Princeton University in 1980 and was subsequently awarded tenure at Yale and then later at Harvard (AFP)
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Washington

US activist, philosopher, and academic Cornel West has announced his resignation from Harvard University's Divinity School, citing the institution's "deference to anti-Palestinian prejudices" as one of his reasons for doing so.

In a resignation letter dated 30 June and published on Twitter late on Monday, West said he faced discrimination during his time at the university, including being given a lower salary than when he was first given a tenured position at Harvard, and also being rejected for tenure.

He tweeted that the university's "market-driven" nature had led to "spiritual rot".

In the letter, West said 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".

"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."

In February, the 68-year-old scholar said that he was certain his criticism of Israel was one of the principal reasons for him being denied tenure at Harvard. He said on the TightRope podcast that speaking about Israel's occupation of Palestine "is a taboo issue among certain circles in high places".

West has been a regular fixture in the call for Harvard to disinvest from companies he describes as "complict in the Israeli occupation". 

According to the Harvard Crimson newspaper, the university has invested close to $200m in companies "tied to the Israeli occupation of Palestine".

Jonathan Beasley, a spokesman for the Harvard Divinity School, told Middle East Eye in an email that the "School has no comment on Dr. West's letter."

'Shadow of Jim Crow'

West finished his PhD at Princeton University in 1980 and was subsequently awarded tenure at Yale and then later at Harvard, rising to the level of university professor, considered the university's highest honour.

He left Harvard in 2002 after a spat with the then-university president Lawrence H Summers. He returned to Harvard in 2017 after being offered an untenured position as a professor of the "practice of public philosophy".

West says he took the position because it was all Harvard was offering at the time, but earlier this year he had requested tenure based on a "positive five-year review".

Cornel West: Palestine is a 'taboo issue among certain circles in high places'
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In American universities, tenure is an indefinite appointment at the institution, and scholars consider it a safeguard for academic freedom.

Harvard had initially denied the request to issue tenure to West, according to the professor, however it later had offered him a tenured position after public pressure.

Still, West instead returned to the Union Theological Seminary, where he first taught more than 40 years ago, telling the Harvard Crimson newspaper in March that the fact of the reversal coming only after external pressure only solidified his decision to leave.

"How sad it is to see our beloved Harvard Divinity School in such decline and decay," West wrote in the letter.

"The disarray of a scattered curriculum, the disenchantment of talented yet deferential faculty, and the disorientation of previous students loom large.

"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."