January 15, 2002


(About Larry Summers, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Cornel West)

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist
The Boston Globe
January 6, 2002

(Expanded slightly from the version that appeared in print.) I had been thinking that Harvard did well to make former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers its new president last summer, and when the news broke recently that Summers had so offended the stars of the university's Afro-American Studies Department that they were thinking of relocating to Princeton, I was sure of it. But now I've got my doubts.

Af-Am is headed by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and includes the philosopher K. Anthony Appiah and sociologist William Julius Wilson. All of them were supposedly miffed at Summers, but it soon became evident that the only faculty member who really had his nose out of joint was Cornel West, the ubiquitous "public intellectual" with the trademark afro and the endless supply of leftist cant.

West is one of the great poseurs of modern academe, a blowhard who loves the pompous gush of his own rhetoric, the author of deadly prose like this passage from his book Keeping Faith:

"Following the model of the black diasporan traditions of music, athletics, and rhetoric, black cultural workers must constitute and sustain discursive and institutional networks that deconstruct earlier modern black strategies for identity-formation, demystify power relations that incorporate class, patriarchal, and homophobic biases, and construct more multivalent and multidimentional responses that articulate the complexity and diversity of black practices in the modern and postmodern world."

The New Republic's Leon Wieseltier, after reading eight of them, once pronounced West's books "monuments to the devastation of a mind by the squalls of theory." The same could be said of his insights into current events. The meaning of Sept. 11, he declared at Harvard, was that "America has been niggerized." As for the US war against Al Qaeda, he dismissed it as nothing but "revenge . . . adolescent and immature."

West keeps busy off-campus, too. He heads the presidential exploratory committee of Al Sharpton, New York's foul race baiter. And he recently recorded a hip-hop CD on which he sounds, to quote one review, "like he's reading his old lectures, which are lathered and slathered in . . . academese and hot-buttered hokum."

Apparently what so provoked West was Summers's demand that he spend less time on such frivolous pursuits and more in serious scholarship. At a meeting in October, Sommers reportedly also urged him to help combat Harvard's rampant grade inflation, singling out "Introduction to Afro-American Studies," West's popular gut course, as a prime example of the problem.

Now, West holds the elite rank of University Professor, one of only 14 Harvard faculty members who do, and Summers no doubt assumed he could speak to someone of his intellectual mettle bluntly and without evasion. But West is not used to being scolded -- especially not by a mere mortal like Summers -- and he took the rebuke very badly.


America has been 'niggerized' by the terrorist attacks." --Cornel West, in a speech at Harvard's Institute of Politics, as quoted by The Harvard Crimson, October 11, 2001

Harvard president rejected by black clique
By Diana West
Washington Times

In a fit of what may be called Ivy Pique, three prized professors from Harvard's Afro-American studies department spent their Christmas holidays very publicly mulling a possible mass exodus in a definite mass huff from dear old Harvard to dear, almost-as-old Princeton. Why? Harvard's new president, Lawrence H. Summers, it seems, needed a quick course in political correction.

Not that anyone involved said so - or much of anything else on the record. Anonymous surrogates kept whispering to the press in Boston and New York, but Mr. Summers wouldn't discuss conversations with faculty members; black studies Chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. wouldn't discuss complaints from department members; black studies professor K. Anthony Appiah wouldn't discuss meetings with Princeton officials; and Cornel West, another black studies professor who recently made a few choice headlines by declaring that America had been "niggerized by the terrorist attacks," wouldn't discuss anything - not his rap CD recorded while on medical leave, not his role in Al Sharpton's presidential exploratory committee, not Harvard's endemic grade inflation, nothing. And certainly not what the New York Times called the "critical moment" in this contretemps - Mr. West's private meeting with Mr. Summers in October at which such sore subjects were reportedly raised, leaving Mr. West feeling "violated." Or so said the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Jesse Jackson? How did he get into this? The short answer is that the good reverend flew in, descending on Cambridge on New Year's Day to push for a "national conference on racial justice" (natch) and to seek "clarity" on Harvard's "diversity policy." This policy - creed, really - is the source of the controversy. As it happens, Harvard's new president of six months has nothing but unqualified support for "diversity," that semantically slippery term for the goals of affirmative action. (According to Harvard's admissions office, the university has never, ever practiced affirmative action.) The question being asked of Mr. Summers was whether his commitment to "diversity" was unqualified enough.

Meanwhile, not to be out-raced, the Rev. Al Sharpton made his own public pitch for "clarification." Al Sharpton suddenly wanted to know whether Harvard had "rebuked" Cornel West - he who claims, according to his own words, an "intellectual lineage . . . through Schopenhauer, Tolstoy, Rilke, Melville, Lorca, Kafka, Celan, Beckett, Soyinka, O'Neill, Kazantzakis, Morrison, and above all, Chekhov" - for joining Mr. Sharpton's proto-presidential campaign. If so, Mr. Sharpton told the Boston Globe, this could not only keep professors across the nation from supporting his candidacy for fear of repercussions, but it could also drive Mr. Sharpton to file suit against Harvard as an "aggrieved party."

It's enough to make you pity a poor Harvard president, almost. How could this have happened? Mr. Summers, not one to see college applicants through color-blind glasses, supports "diversity" and says so - or his spokesman does - at every opportunity. This, apparently, has been insufficient. "It's absolutely critical that the president make an unequivocal public statement in support of affirmative action. That would be encouraging for those scholars . . . recruited because this was going to be the premier institution of black intellectual inquiry," said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard Law School professor best known for leading the legal effort to extract reparations for slavery, to the New York Times. (Oops: Since Harvard says it doesn't practice affirmative action, didn't the law prof mean to call for a presidential statement supporting "diversity"?) Mr. Ogletree, magnanimous thing, has since signalled a willingness to work with Mr. Summers to "make Harvard a pre-eminent university."

Maybe that won't be necessary. Mr. Summers has decided to begin the year right - at least, more correctly - by publicly restating his diversity creed. In a written statement, Mr. Summers announced his intentions "to create an ever more open and inclusive environment," by drawing on "the widest possible range of talents" to promote "ever greater opportunity for all" because "diversity contributes to educational excellence." (Mr. Summers also took the opportunity to underscore Harvard's desire "to see the current [Afro-Am] faculty stay at Harvard," promising to "compete vigorously" - ka-ching, ka-ching? - "to make this an attractive environment.")

Looks like he finally made the grade. The statement "meets the objectives that many people had set forth," Mr. Ogletree told the Harvard Crimson. "It's strong, it's clear, it's unequivocal." Even Mr. Jackson called Mr. Summers' statement "positive," while Mr. Appiah now says his Princeton visit was purely social. No word as yet from Messrs. Gates, West and Sharpton, but it does look as if Harvard is heading for, if not a happy ending, at least an ending.

Not so fast. According to yesterday's Boston Globe, there's trouble ahead: "Now, echoing some top scholars in Harvard's Afro-American studies department, many Latino professors are questioning Summers' commitment to diversity, and some say they are considering jobs at other universities. . ." (Italics added.)

Can't wait to hear what Harvard has to say about that.

Diana West is an editorial writer and columnist for The Washington Times.


Published on Thursday, October 11, 2001
West Shifts Hip Hop Talk's Focus to Attacks

(HARVARD) Crimson Staff Writer

Rapping with Cornel Fletcher University Professor CORNEL WEST speaks at the Arco Forum yesterday in a talk entitled "Reflections on Hip Hop Culture."

After a year on sabbatical, Fletcher University Professor Cornel R. West '74 spoke to a packed crowd of upwards of 800 at the Kennedy School's ARCO Forum yesterday.

West's speech, organized by the W.E.B. DuBois Institute of Afro-American Research and the Institute of Politics, was originally suppossed to focus on hip hop culture. However, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, West said he thought it more appropriate to focus on America's reaction to the attacks.

West drew parallels between last month's events and the African-American experience.

"America has been 'niggerized'" by the terrorist attacks," West said, comparing current national anxieties to African-Americans' long history of coping with terror and death.

Although West apologized for spending less time than anticipated on hip hop culture, he was able to incorporate music throughout his speech by splicing in tracks from a compact disc he recorded last spring.

The disc, produced by Danny Goldberg for Artemis Records, contains recordings of West speaking in his trademark style, deemed "preacher-like" by some, over a background of blues, jazz, and rap tracks.

Describing hip-hop as "rooted in struggle," West talked about black music's unique ability to "caress our bruises" in this "moment of deep sadness and sorrow."

West drew some of his strongest crowd reaction when he expressed a slight indignation over politicians' sudden infatuation with spending in the wake of the attacks.

"Sounds an awful lot like reparations to me," West said to shouts of "Amen!" from the crowd. "I didn't think America was into reparations."

While pledging his wholehearted support for aid to the victims of terrorism, West told the audience that victims of "institutional forms of terrorism" such as slavery have been suffering long before Sept. 11. He warned that "the first casualty of war is always veritas," and that America should safeguard against "anti-Arab racism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Muslim" sentiments.

A few students said they were disappointed about West's shift in focus away from the original topic of hip-hop culture.

"Overall, though, I was amazed by [the speech's] breadth and the issues it covered," said Toussaint Losier '03.

West also paid tribute last night to his older brother, Clifton, who was present in the audience. Citing his willingness to "take a bullet in the heart and the brain" for his brother, West introduced Clifton as an expert with an inside take on the hip hop industry, as he runs his own production and recording company.