Cornel West.JUSTIN SAGLIO FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE/FILE

Cornel West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 2, 1953, and was brought up in Sacramento, California, where he finished high school. After graduating high school in 1970, he entered Harvard College, studying philosophy with Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell. West graduated from Harvard with a cum laude in Ancient languages and culture in 1973. He attributes his exposure to a larger spectrum of ideas to Harvard, which he owes to his instructors and the Black Panther Party ( BPP  

Because of his Christian faith, West claims he could not join the BPP and instead worked in local breakfast, prison, and church programs. After finishing his undergraduate studies at Harvard, West attended Princeton University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1980, becoming the first African American to have had such an achievement.

West was significantly influenced by Richard Rorty’s neopragmatism at Princeton. Following West’s graduation, Rorty remained a close friend and collaborator for many years. Years later, he joined Harvard University.

Cornel West at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, in January 2018. Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons

Professor West, a progressive activist, resigned from the University of Harvard after his term ended. On Monday, the professor posted a letter on his Twitter account accusing Harvard University of spiritual rot. In the letter, West said the disarray of the University curriculum saddened him; the disappointment of gifted yet respectful faculty and the confusion of former students appear larger.

Professor West’s resignation came after he claimed that Harvard University deprived him of a chance to receive tenure, the appointment that makes it challenging to remove professors. The Harvard Theology School and Harvard University both declined to comment on the matter.

As a way to defying tradition, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a prize-winning media personality, and professor, was selected to be in a tenure-track position at the University of North Carolina earlier this year. After facing uproar, UNC changed its decision and granted her tenure, but the ensuing division resulted in her being fired. West’s resignation came despite broader worries about how universities treat Black academics.

Following a public conflict with then-President Lawrence Summers, West left Harvard for the second time in 2002 but returned in 2017. West cited many political, institutional, and personal grievances as reasons for his departure from the university in his resignation letter last week. Professor West said the ghost of Jim Crow still exists in the shape of superficial diversity.

West expressed sympathy for the Palestinian cause. The professor said the type of arrogant educational professionalism, cowardly adherence to the Harvard administration’s anti-Palestinian prejudices…reflect a profound intellectual and moral bankruptcy. 

West and the Union of theology announced in March that he would be returning to Union as a faculty member. West said he was thrilled to be back at the Union, to an institution with outstanding professors and moral fortitude. That provides a chance to continue working with students ready to put their religion into practice while striving for justice and pursuing truth.

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