West Heads South // A petulant professor leaves Boston for Morningside Heights

“Smartness is not some kind of value that I put a whole lot of weight on. There are smart Nazis and smart xenophobes and smart patriarch[als] and so forth.”

Those words were spoken to New York Magazine’s Lisa Miller in 2012 by Cornel West, the famed firebrand professor of African-American studies, who has been back in the news of late. He is reputed by many to be a brilliant, creative intellectual with a command of the Western canon and a prodigious memory. A bright fellow, in other words…like the Nazis, xenophobes and patriarchal people whose smarts he (quite rightly) chooses not to greatly value.

The reason for this very public progressive’s recent newsworthiness is that he is leaving his position at Harvard University in a huff over not having been granted tenure. He will be rejoining the faculty at Union Theological Seminary, where he taught more than four decades ago.

Academic tenure means that those so honored cannot have their employment terminated other than in extraordinary circumstances. Behind that effective guarantee of lifelong employment is a desire to bolster academic freedom by affording tenured scholars free rein to embrace and promote whatever views they like without fear of repercussion.

Ironically, Mr. West was in fact a tenured professor at Harvard decades ago, but he left in 2002—in his first Harvard tantrum—after a public fight with the university’s president at the time, Lawrence Summers. Mr. Summers took Mr. West to task for having missed several weeks of teaching in order to do political campaigning and for otherwise abusing his tenure freedom.

By 2017, though, apparently calmed down, Mr. West returned to a nontenured position at Harvard, where he had been teaching until his most recent hissy fit.

The professor’s outbursts of indignation, say his critics, are born of a strong sense of self-importance. In interviews with those who know him, wrote Ms. Miller, “more than one person compared West to a precocious child clamoring to be seen. ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ ”

In a March 14 interview in Haaretz, the peripatetic professor said he believes that what lay behind Harvard’s reluctance to offer him tenure for a second time was his view of Israel.

In what would likely stupify many Jewish students on university campuses, Mr. West asserted, “You could hardly get a faculty member to raise a public voice being critical of Israeli occupation… There’s this fear among the faculty and among the staff.”

He himself, though, has fearlessly compared the IDF to Hamas and characterized the BDS movement, widely seen as crossing the line from pro-Palestinian to anti-Semitic, “as very similar to the boycott vis-à-vis South African apartheid.”

“As soon you mention BDS in the United States,” Mr. West explained, “oftentimes hatred and contempt come up rather than love and justice.” Well, yes.

It’s not only fellow academicians whom Mr. West has accused of the crime of supporting Israel. Although the professor was an early and enthusiastic promoter of Barack Obama’s candidacy for president, he sharply soured on Mr. Obama when the new president neglected to invite Mr. West to his inauguration in 2009. He lambasted Mr. Obama for a litany of sins, including being a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface,” a “brown-faced Clinton,” the “black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs.” And notably, a “war criminal,” because of Mr. Obama’s support for Israel.

And to add insult to insult, Mr. West accused Mr. Obama of feeling “most comfortable with upper-middle-class white and Jewish men.” The horror!

Mr. West also has a history of embracing actual knaves. He has a longtime friendship with Jeremiah Wright, and once, challenged to concede that Louis Farrakhan is racist (an assertion basically on a par with the pope being Catholic), he opted for an academic obfuscation, responding that the pestiferous pastor is in fact merely “a xenophobic spokesperson when it comes to dealing with Jewish humanity.” Ah, but of course.

Professor West is entitled to attribute Harvard’s reluctance to offer him tenure to its provosts’ racism, Zionism or any other bugaboo he chooses.

But he might wish to at least ponder the possibility that they may simply be repulsed by his demeanor, vindictiveness and turpitude. And if he feels that his supposed intellectual prowess should trump all that, well, perhaps Harvard is simply in agreement with him about the need not to “put a whole lot of weight” on “smartness.” 


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