Dear BI Career Consultants:
In light of the recent challenge to the academic integrity of endowed Harvard professor, Dr. Cornel West, what can other African American professors do to prevent the same from
happening to them?
The recent public discourse between the highly regarded Harvard professor Dr. Cornel West and Harvard President Dr. Lawrence Summers has, in my mind, brought to focus the importance of tenure at our colleges and universities. West has built an outstanding academic and scholarly record that only a few in the academy obtain. His ideas, books, scholarly articles, lectures and other creative works have influenced the thinking and, in some cases, actions of people inside and outside of the academic world. Certainly some of his ideas are controversial, but many ideas of leading scholars are controversial. When these ideas differ with influential and/or powerful groups or individuals, there is often an effort to silence, mute or discredit the academic. The tenure system preserves the scholar’s academic freedom and allows him or her to “think out of the box.” Our society benefits from this outward thinking. It is essential in supporting our democratic ideals.
The academic integrity of a university professor is acquired and maintained by his or her continued scholarly work. Professional peers constantly review and critique work that is submitted for publication or presentation (in the case of artistic scholars). When the professor’s ideas are challenged from a political front rather from an academic front, his or her academic integrity is not challenged. However, the political challenges change the dynamic of the discourse and begin impinging on his or her academic freedom. Professor West and President Summers’ differences stem more from the political side than from the academic side since Summers’ academic strength (economics) is in a considerably different field than West’s (African American studies).
West is protected by his tenured position to continue making significant scholarly contributions to contemporary thought. In spite of the fact that Harvard’s president takes issue with aspects of West’s current work he is still recognized as a leading scholar. He has departed Harvard and will continue his work at another prestigious university — Princeton.
It is imperative for African American faculty to do the important scholarship in their field that produces recognition of their insightful creative work. These efforts lead to earned tenure and a protection from the political forces, often arising from local campus sources, which could stifle their contributions. Faculty members can confront unwarranted political challenges when their academic credentials are strong and validated. However, as with any political struggle, one must make careful strategic moves that befit the local environment.
Dr. Melvin R. Ramey
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
University of California, Davis
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