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A Harvard Black Studies Star Heads to Princeton

Posted in

4/13/2002
By By JACQUES STEINBERG with PAM BELLUCK





PRINCETON, N.J., April 12 - Cornel West, the prominent professor of Afro-American studies at Harvard, is leaving for Princeton nearly four months after he began sparring publicly with Harvard's new president, Lawrence H. Summers, over the quality of Dr. West's scholarship and the depth of the university's commitment to affirmative action.

The announcement by Princeton this afternoon that it was hiring Dr. West, a religion professor whose fiery lectures have routinely drawn more than 500 students to his courses each semester, caps a protracted drama that had pitted one
of the world's foremost academic institutions against one of its best-known teachers, in a dispute that was unusually raw and, at times, racially charged.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., who in the 1990's built the Afro-American studies department at Harvard into an academic powerhouse by luring Dr. West away from Princeton and by recruiting other stars like the legal scholar Lani Guinier and the sociologist William Julius Wilson, said today that Dr. West's departure was "devastating for Harvard," particularly when coupled with the defection to Princeton earlier this year of the philosopher K. Anthony Appiah.

"It's the end of an era," said Professor Gates, who himself is considering an offer from Princeton. "You can't lose Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, or Kobe and Shaq, and no
one notices."

Dr. West did not return several phone calls today. His chief spokesman, Prof. Charles J. Ogletree of Harvard's law school, would say little other than "a tremendous loss for Harvard" is "a remarkable gain for Princeton."

Among Dr. West's assertions in recent months had been that Mr. Summers, a former Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, was not fully committed to aggressively recruiting black teachers and students to Harvard, which Mr. Summers has denied.

By most accounts, though, the dispute was largely personal.The tensions between the two men had first flared in a private meeting last fall in which Mr. Summers encouraged Dr. West to embark on a new work of serious scholarship that would befit his stature as one of only 14 professors awarded Harvard's elite designation "university professor." The meeting took place after Dr. West had gained new attention for recording a rap CD and supporting the the presidential campaigns of Bill Bradley and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

Professor West, who in recent years had also written or edited more than a dozen books, many on scholarly subjects, left the meeting feeling as if he had been treated with disrespect, and never fully got over the slight, several friends and colleagues said today.

"Cornel is very hurt," a close associate said. "His pride is wounded. He feels he has no choice but to leave if he is to protect his honor.

"It's clear there's only one reason he's going to
Princeton," the associate added. "It's Larry."

Those in Mr. Summers's camp and in Dr. West's say that in recent weeks the president had called repeatedly in a bid to patch up the relationship, something that he had first tried in January. Dr. West did not respond to those calls, nor was he swayed by a drive that collected more than 1,000 signatures from Harvard students and others for a petition urging him to stay.

In a telephone interview today, Mr. Summers said: "All of us in the Harvard community are grateful to Cornel West for his significant contribution to Harvard academic life, as
well as the great inspiration he provided to Harvard students. We will miss him, and I wish him every success at Princeton."

Officials at Harvard and Princeton said Dr. West's decision had not hinged primarily on money. As a university professor at Harvard, he was believed to be earning at least $200,000 annually, among the highest salaries on the faculty. Princeton officials said that they believed he would be paid the same amount in his new post, if not slightly less.

The return of Dr. West, 48, to the Prince