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Cornel West returns to Union Theological Seminary after Harvard tenure dispute

(RNS) — Cornel West is rejoining the faculty of Union Theological Seminary, where he started his teaching career more than 40 years ago, the New York seminary said Monday (March 8).

This move comes after West had threatened to leave Harvard University, which he said denied his request to be considered for tenure, according to media reports. This is West’s second departure from Harvard, where he taught in the law school, divinity school and Department of African and African American Studies, The Boston Globe reported.

“I am honored to return back home to Union, to a place with brilliant faculty and moral tenacity and that provides an opportunity to continue to work with students who are eager to put their faith into practice while striving for justice and seeking of truth,” West said in the seminary’s announcement.

The Rev. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary, in the statement said that West “breathes the values that Union aims to instill in all of the future leaders, scholars, ministers, and activists we educate.”


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“His esteemed legacy of engaging the most pressing problems facing our world — including racism, poverty, sexism, and so much more — is an inspiration to all, and illustrates the power of faith to create profound change,” Jones said.

West was granted the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair, named in honor of a German theologian who attended the seminary in 1930, Union said.

“Bonhoeffer’s time in New York had a significant impact on his faith, leading him to dedicate his life to theology and to resisting the threat of Christian nationalism,” Union said.

West previously held the status of ‘University Professor,’ which was considered Harvard’s highest faculty rank, before he left in 2002 after a “high-profile spat” with then-University president Lawrence H. “Larry” Summers, The Harvard Crimson reported.

West returned as a “Professor of the Practice” in 2017, a position that does not carry tenure, according to The Harvard Crimson.

Harvard’s Undergraduate Council in late February voted to support a petition to “reopen pathways for Professor West’s tenure and further commit to advancing racial justice in substantive ways,” The Harvard Crimson reported.

In a recent interview with Truthout, West said he hopes his situation with Harvard will serve as a reminder that “… you have to be willing to speak the truth — to the powerful and the powerless.”

“When Harvard treats me in this way, that’s a sign of its spiritual and intellectual bankruptcy,” West added.

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