Ending months of speculation in the national media and in academia, Princeton University announced Friday that Harvard University Afro-American studies professor Cornel West would join its faculty this fall.
But while Harvard and Princeton have waged a high-profile battle over West and the other celebrities of African-American studies, Yale has decided to stay on the sidelines, Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said.
“We’ve been building a different way,” Brodhead said. “We’ve been building not so much by trying to hire superstars as by trying to hire new talent in the field. The superstars of today were the young talent of yesterday, and the young talent of today will be the superstars of tomorrow.”
Yale’s African American Studies Department hired junior professors Naomi Pabst of Harvard and Alondra Nelson of New York University this January.
At Harvard, tensions began to build between Harvard President Lawrence Summers and Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department months ago. During a fall meeting, Summers reportedly questioned West’s academic contributions and criticized West for focusing too much of his energy on external matters, like a rap recording and political campaigns.
Harvard lost philosophy professor K. Anthony Appiah to Princeton already, although Appiah said he left to be closer to his home in New York City. And Harvard Afro-American Studies chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73 said he is also considering a move to Princeton.
Brandon Gayle, the president of Harvard’s Black Students Association, said he will be meeting with Gates this week to talk about the professor’s decision, which Gayle said he believes will come this fall.
The turmoil at Harvard comes as Princeton is working to strengthen its program in African-American studies.
“It looks as if Princeton’s throwing a lot of money and resources in trying to build up its African-American studies, which says a lot for a school with a country-club atmosphere like Princeton,” Yale political science professor William Foltz said.
West, who earned his doctorate at Princeton in 1980 and taught there from 1988 to 1994, said in a press statement that he was eager to return to his alma mater. West also taught at the Yale Divinity School from 1984 to 1987.
“I am excited to return to the greatest center for humanistic studies in the country,” West said. “I look forward to being a part of President [Shirley] Tilghman’s vision that promotes high quality intellectual conversation mediated with respect.”
Summers told The Harvard Crimson last Tuesday that he had been making several attempts to prevent West from leaving for Princeton.
But with the appointment finalized after Princeton’s board of trustees formally approved West’s appointment Saturday, Summers told The New York Times that the Harvard community would miss West and his academic contributions.
“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,” Summers said. “We will miss him, and I wish him every success at Princeton.”
Summers was not the only one trying to keep West in Cambridge; a petition signed by 1,200 Harvard students, alumni and faculty members urged West to stay.