Dr. Cornel West—one of the nation’s most prolific scholars—is leaving Harvard University again. This time, he is heading back to Union Theological Seminary in New York City, for the fourth time.
His departure from Harvard comes amid the university’s recent refusal to grant him tenure, although West had previously been tenured there as well as at two other Ivy League institutions—Yale and Princeton.
West, 67, a prominent philosopher and Black intellectual, began his teaching career at Union Theological Seminary as a young 23-year-old. At Union, he will hold the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair.
“We are thrilled to welcome Dr. West back home to Union, where he started his teaching career, at this time of momentous challenge and opportunity,” said Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of the seminary. “Dr. West lives and breathes the values that Union aims to instill in all of the future leaders, scholars, ministers, and activists we educate. 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.”
The prestigious chair that West will hold is named in honor of the renowned German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who attended Union from 1930-31. Bonhoeffer’s time in New York had a significant impact on his faith and led him to dedicate his life to combatting the Nazi regime.
According to Union officials, he was imprisoned and ultimately executed for his bravery “and has stood for decades as a symbol of what it means to embrace moral clarity and ethical existence, regardless of the cost. That is that vision and legacy that Dr. West exemplifies and will carry forth.”
Bonhoeffer’s writings on ethics and the beloved community has positioned him as one of the “best theologians globally and someone who is read around the world,” said Jones, in an interview with Diverse. She said with the rise of Christian nationalism, it is “particularly fortuitous” that West is returning to a chair named after him.
News that Harvard refused to tenure West, who returned to a non-tenured position in 2017, sparked outrage across academe. Prominent professors weighed in on social media and students at the university organized numerous petitions. Though Harvard reportedly offered West an endowed professorship and a raise, the philosopher and author of the best-seller Race Matters said that he saw the tenure denial as retribution for his outspokenness on social justice issues, including the unfair treatment of Palestinians.
In 2002, West exited Harvard amid a public spat with Harvard’s then president Dr. Lawrence Summers who questioned his scholarship and his visibility on campus. He returned to Princeton University, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1980 and served for many years as a professor. He retired from Princeton in 2011 to join the faculty at Union.
“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 truth,” said West.
Jones, who has been president of the seminary for the past 13 years, said that she is excited about the reunion.
“We are absolutely thrilled,” said Jones. “We think of union as Cornel’s home and that connection is there because he embodies everything we stand for and remain committed to.”