Academic freedom and what the loss of Cornel West means for an institution

Cornel West

Cornel West is a very well-known African-American scholar. In fact, he should be better described as a scholar-activist, one of a rare breed of people in the world today. His advocacy of a wide variety of global issues, including that of Palestine, is well known. In fact the author of this piece first met Dr. West at a rally for Palestine in Washington DC, before having the privilege of being in his presence in an academic setting.

Dr. West is indeed a public intellectual, one of the few, among an elite club one might say, that counts giants like Noam Chomsky, Slavo Zizek, Richard Wolf and the late Richard Levins among its ranks. He has been seemingly everywhere, tackling issues of injustice in many forms: Palestine, of course, but racism and poverty as well, and more recently broaching issues of caste, and discrimination of global minorities such as the Roma.

What is unique about Dr. West is that to all his critiques and analyses he brings a historical perspective and a profound manner of comprehension, undergirded by spiritual certitude and love. He celebrates and continually wonders at the bottomless and undaunted spirit of black people to face oppression, who often responded to the oppression with expressions of love and art. It is this resilience and attitude that mark the balck experience that West tries to bring to his own pronouncements. His manner is not scathing, bruising or retaliatory, but all-embracing, with a willingness to understand opposing views; yet he is always firm in his denouncement of injustice.

He has had his share of perceived failures on public platforms. This was especially when he seemed to go out on a limb and tried to intervene in complex issues of poverty and economic exploitation, as was the case of his efforts with TV host Tavis Smiley to gauge the effects of Barack Obama’s economic policies.

But it is his vast knowledge and scholarship, especially on issues of black history and culture – intertwined as they are – and his willingness to speak out against many injustices, that make him an invaluable figure speaking truth to power. As more and more intellectuals and activists are cowed down around the world, and digital activism in the form of op-eds and petitions has become the standard way to express dissent, a Cornel West who attends public meetings and rallies in person and is not afraid to express his mind, is an increasing rarity.

It is also worthwhile to mention that he is a deeply invested teacher as well, one who teaches with infinite love and patience, never following a script. His classes are generally open to all, those registered for the class and those not, and often a lot of people from the wider community attend his lectures, listening in awe. He is almost cross between a preacher, a blues musician and a freestyle-poet as he tries to convey and unravel the meaning of something at hand, say, the writings of black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois.

To cause a scholar of Dr. West’s eminence to feel constrained to leave is a matter of great shame for any institution, even for one which brims with overconfidence but is largely resting on its laurels, like Harvard University. Dr. West has himself suggested that it is time for such all-powerful institutions to reflect on their place and role in society. In matter of fact, it is because of scholars like Dr. West who act as outreach departments of elite, closeted spaces like these universities, that the universities have any social relevance at all.

It also goes to show how such so-called top educational institutions are intricately enmeshed with money power and oppressive ideologies. If a well-regarded university does not allow its members space for conversation, contrarian views, and diversity of opinion, what fine values does it really stand for – and can it claim to inculcate in its students?

The hounding of professors for their views is a blight on educational institutions the world over. Specifically, those supporting the Palestine cause have suffered hostile reactions very often, as was the case with Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois.

In India, several academics are incarcerated on various flimsy charges of allying with groups that the state considers unlawful. Some scholars, from supposedly innocuous departments such as Sanskrit, have been hounded by extremist elements just because their activities and utterances seemed to support minority causes. More recently, several well-known academics in India have resigned from private educational institutions citing constraints on their academic freedoms.

On the issue of Palestine, several Israeli historians such as Illan Pappe and Shlomo Sand have written incisively about the background to the conflict. Intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein have been analysing the conflict for years now, using hard facts and historical information.

Cornel West’s support for Palestine comes more from a place of empathy and solidarity for Palestinians than from some crusade to denigrate Israel. Dr. West does not dabble in international politics in his academics but keeps himself focused on issues concerning what he calls the “prophetic tradition” in black history and how it shapes the black character. He brings rare passion, charisma and scholarship to his teaching on areas of the black experience in the US and many of its principal interlocutors.

Though rooted in the black spiritual tradition, West nevertheless is able to transcend sectarian boundaries when offering penetrating analyses of oppression and exploitation. It is this capacity for solidarity that makes his message for justice resonate with a broad swathe of people who have experienced some form of oppression. Not to mention that West endeavors to avoid any rancor or ill-will in his opinions.

It is undisguised hubris on the part of Harvard University to think that they can afford to lose someone like Dr. West. Its students love him and have been firmly behind him. The African-American community in the area has also been pleased to host a black scholar of note among them, for Dr. West makes it a point to attend various community events.

It is scholars like Cornel West who make elite, ivory-tower institutions relevant to the society they are in. Otherwise, no one in the community at large has any “use” for a so-called top-notch university in their midst. It is ironical that it is the practice of such top educational institutions to “buy” or poach top-ranking scholars from other institutions so that their own faculty profile is enhanced. Losing someone like Dr. West, whom Harvard re-instated with a certain sigh of relief just 5 years ago in 2016, is a serious loss and a major embarassment for the university.

Aviral Anand is a writer based in Delhi-NCR.



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