The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Monday, April 15, 2002  


"Cornel West, the black studies scholar, said today that he had decided to leave Harvard for Princeton largely because Princeton had made a far more enthusiastic and heartfelt pitch to snare him than Harvard had in trying to retain him."

And so begins one of the strangest articles to appear in the New York Times in recent memory.

It's not about the money, we have been told time and again. Now we learn definitively that it's about West's feelings. And let us tell you, this is one sensitive guy.

West tells Times reporters Pam Belluck and Jacques Steinberg that his departure from Harvard and to Princeton was the result of a series of slights by Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers, culminating, in the Times's words, "in the president's failure to send [West] a get-well message until only a few weeks ago, nearly three months after he had undergone surgery for prostate cancer."

Princeton, on the other hand, proved to be a veritable bastion of compassion. "By contrast, Dr. West said, the new Princeton president, Shirley M. Tilghman, and the new Princeton provost, Amy Gutmann, had been calling him almost weekly during his convalescence."

As touching as this shameless lobbying -- er, we mean, caring concern -- appears, the entire situation is even more pathetic than even this.

Dr. West in his infinite wisdom observes: "Larry Summers strikes me as the Ariel Sharon of American higher education. He struck me very much as a bull in a china shop, and as a bully, in a very delicate and dangerous situation."

Now, The Rittenhouse Review is no fan of Ariel Sharon, as recent posts have made abundantly clear. But the comparison is as grotesque as it is pathetic.

What exactly, was "delicate" and "dangerous" about Summers suggesting West write a book of some substance or chancing that this delicate flower might trade the comfort and prestige of Harvard for the ease and esteem of Princeton? One man -- Sharon -- is pursuing a strategy that he believes is in the best interest of the security of his country. The other -- West -- is playing one Ivy League school off another seeking the best interest of, well, West himself. Surely the number of people affected by West's move can be counted on two hands: Henry Louis Gates Jr., Lani Guinier, K. Anthony Appia, Toni Morrison, Shirley Tilghman, and Amy Gutmann.

Summers, having been informed of West's remarks, said -- with abundant graciousness and admirable restraint -- that he did not think it would be constructive to respond further to West's outburts.

West, like Harvard's other university professors, reported directly to Summers, not to a dean or a department head. But West, in a stunning departure from professionalism, told the Times that he did not consider Summers to be his boss. "Professors do not have supervisors, brother [sic - Presumably West was here speaking to Steinberg and not Belluck]. Professors are free agents to do their work, because there is a trust in their judgment about how they go about doing that work," West said, in what is surely the most generous definition of academic freedom we have ever heard.

To the new president and provost of Princeton University, we say, "Ladies, you can't say you didn't know what you were getting into."

To the alumni and friends of Princeton, we say, "Hit the phones, withdraw your pledges to the annual campaign, and tell them why."

ADDENDUM: Herewith TRR issues a correction. In a previous post, TRR referred to West's recent studio recording as "a trashy rap CD." According to the Times, West apparently prefers "the Nietzschian phrase [sic] 'danceable education.' " Your guess is as good as ours.

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