The nation’s most visible Black intellectual, Dr. Cornel Ronald West is leaving his endowed professorship at Princeton University in July to become a professor of philosophy and Christian practices at Union Theological Seminary — an institution where he first began his teaching career as an assistant professor some 35 years ago.
It’s not West’s first departure from Princeton.
He was wooed away in 1994 by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., after directing its African American Studies department, but returned eight years later as the Class of 1943 University Professor following a public disagreement with then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers who questioned his scholarship and his commitment to undergraduate education.
West, 58, could not be reached for comment, but in an interview with Diverse, Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., chairman of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies, says that West’s decision to retire from Princeton signals a shift in how he views the next stage of his intellectual and activist work.
“Of course this is a devastating loss for us, but it’s a wonderful moment in his life,” says Glaude, who added that West will hold the status of professor emeritus, keeping the best-selling author and sought-after speaker on college campuses “forever connected to our university.”
Glaude first met West in 1991 while a graduate student at Temple University. The two struck up such a close friendship and mentoring relationship in the years that followed that Glaude invited West to be his son’s godfather.
“Anybody who knows me knows that his imprimatur is all over me,” says Glaude, who adds that despite West’s celebrity persona and his hectic travel schedule, his commitment to the classroom and his students never waned.
“Cornel is a master teacher,” says Glaude. “His presence in the classroom, and his mentoring of undergraduate and graduate students is exceptional. He helped us all to understand what it means to be an intellectual. He was not just a name, but a crucial feature and contributor to what we do here.”
In recent months, West has been sharply criticized by civil rights activists and other intellectuals for his strong rebuke of President Barack Obama.
Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, a former colleague of West at Princeton, has been one of those critics. But she also has been an admirer of West and says that his decision to make Union Theological Seminary his academic home makes sense in so many ways.
“[Union Theological Seminary] is a serious academic institution with a clear sense of a mission to impact the world. That is Dr. West,” says Harris-Perry who left Princeton earlier this year to direct the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South at Tulane University. She also teaches in the school’s political science department. “It’s also located in a city that has a student base and is a thriving diverse community which will contribute to the political work that Dr. West does. This is a great hire for them.”
West burst onto the national scene in 1993 with his classic Race Matters. He is the author of 19 other books and has edited 13 others.
But he has evolved into a pop culture icon, having appeared in movies such as “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions,” and collaborating on albums with rapper Talib Kweli and funk singer Bootsy Collins. He and Tavis Smiley co-host a weekly radio talk-show called “Smiley & West.”
“Union is a place where Cornel West’s view of the world is in our life blood. Historically, Union has inspired strong public voices which speak to our nation’s ills and ideals — be they protests against war, poverty, racism, sexism, or other societal scourges,” says the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president, Union Theological Seminary. “Some call Cornel West this generation’s Reinhold Niebuhr (a legendary Union professor), but I think he’s in a class by himself. Cornel is, quite simply, the leading public theologian of our age.”