Who is Dr Cornel West? Prof calls out Harvard's 'spiritual rot' in candid resignation letter

In his resignation letter, Dr Cornel West referred to numerous instances of 'the decadence in our market-driven universities'

                            Who is Dr Cornel West? Prof calls out Harvard's 'spiritual rot' in candid resignation letter
Honoree Dr. Cornel West, winner of the Award for Education, onstage during the BET Honors at the Warner Theater on January 12, 2008, in Washington, DC.

A resignation letter by Dr Cornel West, a Harvard professor, is currently taking Twitter by storm. The philosopher and noted racial justice warrior published his controversial resignation letter on social media on July 12, slamming the famous university for "spiritual rot" and said it was in "decline and decay". West left Harvard in March 2021, under a cloud of controversy about which we now know more.

West's resignation is the latest setback for the embattled university, which like many across the US is in the midst of a major cultural war. In April, the university was slammed for its take on anti-Asian culture, saying "You may wish that you weren’t Asian," in a since-deleted tweet. In 2020, the university agreed to pay back the $8.6 million it received in paycheck protection funds, after a tweet by then-President Donald Trump. Around the same time, a law professor was widely panned for saying homeschooling is "dangerous".


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As American politics gets increasingly fractured, universities like Harvard are being carefully scrutinized, with each and every action either being slammed by the right or left. West has for a long time threatened to quit Harvard, where he is a philosophy professor. He then followed through on those threats, leading to the university being slammed. If you are wondering who West is, here's everything we know about him.

Cornel West attends a march to denounce police brutality in Washington Square Park October 24, 2015 in New York City. (Kena Betancur/Getty Images)


Who is Dr. Cornel West?

A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, West grew up in California and was politically active from a very young age. Inspired by the Black Panther Party, West routinely marched in civil rights demonstrations and organized protests in his youth. In 1970, he joined Harvard and graduated three years later with a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern languages and literature. He then went on to study philosophy at Princeton, another university where he would later teach. 

After obtaining a doctoral degree in 1980, West turned to teaching at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. At the same time, he continued his political activism. In the spring of 1987, he was arrested for the first time. In 2002, West famously left Harvard for Princeton after a widely publicized dispute with then-President Lawrence Summers. He returned to Harvard in 2016, as a non-tenured professor. He remained as Professor Emeritus at Princeton, where he still continues to teach.

Over the years, West's political activism has only drawn more eyeballs. He was arrested in 2011 during an Occupy Wall Street protest in Harlem. Then, in 2014, he was arrested in Ferguson, Missouri, after protesting the shooting of Michael Brown. He was arrested again in 2015 at the St Louis courthouse on the first anniversary of Brown's shootings. Apart from his protest work, West has also served as an advisor to the Presidential election campaigns of Bill Bradley (2000), and Al Sharpton (2004). In 2008, he threw his weight behind Barack Obama, before slamming him in 2009 as "a war president with a peace prize". In 2016 and 2020, he supported Bernie Sanders.

West is also a published author, having penned several notable books like 'The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought', 'Race Matters', and 'The Future of American Progressivism'. Beyond that, he's also famously appeared in the Matrix trilogy, as well as numerous other documentaries. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders and Cornel West walk onstage together during a campaign event at the Whittemore Center Arena on February 10, 2020, in Durham, New Hampshire. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

West slams Harvard's 'narcissistic academic professionalism'

Ever since his high-profile exit from Harvard in 2002, West and the university appear to have been at loggerheads. In his resignation letter, he referred to numerous instances of "the decadence in our market-driven universities." He said, "the disarray of a scattered curriculum, the disenchantment of talented yet differential faculty, and the disorientation of precious students looms large." He then said, "when I arrived four years ago... I hoped and prayed I could still end my career with some semblance of intellectual intensity and personal respect. Oh how wrong I was!"



West's gripes with Harvard appear to stem from several experiences at the university. For one, he was repeatedly denied tenure, which he said was because "my academic achievements and student teachings meant far less than their (the Harvard administration) political prejudices." He also slammed his salary, noting it was less than what he earned during his previous stint at Harvard. West went on to note that he did not receive a summer salary, and got "the lowest possible increase every year." He also claimed Harvard promised him a year-long sabbatical, but he was allowed to take only one semester off. 

West further alleged the staff at Harvard of racism, which he called "the shadow of Jim Crow". In one example, he said he received only two public notices when the news of his mother's death appeared in the university newsletter. "Any ordinary announcement about a lecture, award or professional advancement receives about twenty replies!" he noted. He dubbed the "narcissistic academic professionalism, and indifference to my mother's death" as an "intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy". 

He ends the explosive letter by saying "a serious commitment to Vertias requires resignation - with precious memories but absolutely no regrets!" The letter quickly went viral on social media, prompting a range of responses. "Cornel West really just started with “This summer is a scorcher!” And then proceeded to drop then mic," one person tweeted. Another said, "What is happening in academia? The stench of racism is rotting and raining down from every mountaintop..... Speak truth to power. #CornelWest."




A law professor tweeted, "If Cornel West can't get no respect in academia, what chance we have smh?!" Another replied, "Jeez. Losing an academic as brilliant as Cornel West under these circumstances is inexcusable and disheartening. Do better, Harvard. You should be representative of the best in academia."




Harvard is yet to respond to West's allegations. In March, it was reported West left Harvard after his latest attempt to get tenure failed. "It’s time to go. I can only take so much disrespect," West said to The Bay State Banner. "I’ve got work to do, and don’t have time for pettiness." He then returned to the Union Theological Seminary, where he began his teaching career at 23. The attempt to get tenure failed, despite a coalition of students and campus organizations working together to create a petition, that eventually received 1,800 signatures pushing for West to receive tenure.