Princeton University professor Cornel West speaks during a town-hall style debate against Malik Zulu Shabazz at the National Press Club in northwest D.C. on Feb. 21. (Travis Riddick/The Washington Informer)
Princeton University professor Cornel West speaks during a town-hall style debate against Malik Zulu Shabazz at the National Press Club in northwest D.C. on Feb. 21. (Travis Riddick/The Washington Informer)

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Dr. Cornel West is a brilliant, loquacious scholar who typifies what it is to be a “public intellectual.” That is, a noted specialist in a particular field who has become well-known to the general public for a willingness to comment on current affairs. West is a philosopher whose keen observations help illuminate the racial landscape in this country. He also often stands out when he himself becomes the subject of the conversation, not just someone sharing his wisdom about the subject at hand.

His progressive, Marxist-leaning, Christian witness on world affairs is refreshing. But his judgment was called into question in 2009 when he and journalist Tavis Smiley needlessly got salty with new President Barack Obama. While there were — and are remaining — reasons to criticize Obama, Dr. West fell out because he could not procure a personal favor from the president, whose election he supported, and because he got the cold shoulder once at a public event. Those are not sufficient reasons for having a beef with any president, because the validity of one’s serious critiques thus appear to be petty.

Despite the words of caution rumored to have been said by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History Month, and the second person to earn a doctorate from the place — “Harvard has ruined more good Negroes than bad whisky” — West graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and still appears to be a relatively cool dude. But his alma mater just doesn’t seem to be sufficiently respectful of him.

While the world is his stage, professionally he rotates — like musical chairs — between Harvard University, Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary. Earlier this month, he complained that hidebound Harvard would not offer him tenure, or a permanent teaching assignment — kinda like a civil service job for mortals — so he jumped ship again and announced he was rotating back to Union Theological Seminary.

For just a moment I wondered why wouldn’t he really stick his thumb in their eye and take a position at a historically Black college or university (HBCU), like Howard University in Washington — the Mecca of Black colleges? It turns out he has regularly been a Charter Day speaker at Howard’s Rankin Memorial Chapel, commemorating the school’s founding in March 1867.

Invariably on those occasions he has been asked about taking a post at The Hilltop and his answer, according to one of the most distinguished and popular professors with whom I’m acquainted there, has always been the same, and easy to understand. Even though a Black university could probably meet his salary requirements, being at a Black school would mean too much work.

On one occasion, West explained, that at Harvard or Princeton or one of those spots, he had six (count them, six) graduate assistants — not a likely prospect at an HBCU. That would mean he would have to teach his own classes and grade all his student’s assignments. He would be tethered to the campus. Uh-uh.

And then there is the internal morale among the loyal Black staff who’ve kept the lights on at HBCUs all the time West was the darling of the elite schools. Now, never mind that he might be in trouble for taking a stand on an issue that even I might cheer — he claims that Harvard is vexed with him because he has spoken out against Israel’s apartheid treatment of the Palestinian population under its authority — imagine how Black faculty might feel if he finally turns to a Black school after he’s been dumped by a white school. It would look like he believes the canard that many Black institutions constantly wrestle with: The White Man has colder ice.

The last time West fell out with Harvard was more than a decade ago when he bumped heads with then-university President Larry Summers, an economist who served as a top-shelf adviser in both the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations. So no, no pity for him at any HBCU.

I’m acquainted with several prestigious scholars at Howard, Morgan State, Jackson State and some at white schools including Georgetown, American, Houston and Harvard Law, as well as others in the corporate world and I recognize that these tenure and salary and publishing questions are delicate subjects, and that’s putting it mildly.

I’m also happy that he reports that after intense public outrage over its initial decision to deny him a tenure tract, the school has reconsidered and would like him to remain. But I’m also glad he’s kept his pride intact, deciding it’s time to move on from Harvard. And finally, I’m glad that neither he nor any HBCU has had to deal with the delicate question of Dr. Cornell West at a Black school.

Askia Muhammad

Askia Muhammad

WPFW News Director Askia Muhammad is also a poet, and a photojournalist. He is Senior Editor for The Final Call newspaper and he writes a weekly column in The Washington Informer.

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