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Cornel West (right), with Henry Louis Gates Jr., lectured Harvard University doctoral students in September 2001.
Cornel West (right), with Henry Louis Gates Jr., lectured Harvard University doctoral students in September 2001. (Globe File)

Some seek a scholar's return

His Harvard peers hope to woo West

With Harvard University president Lawrence H. Summers about to exit, some professors are planning an effort to woo back celebrity scholar Cornel West, who decamped to Princeton after Summers assailed his scholarship and teaching.

``Nothing could please me more" than West's return, said Henry Louis Gates Jr., the outgoing chairman of the school's department of African and African American studies. ``Cornel West is the man."

Gates, interviewed yesterday, said many of his colleagues in the department felt the same way. He declined to comment on whether he believed that West was interested, saying they have not had formal talks. West did not respond to a call last week, and an assistant said he was traveling yesterday and unreachable.

Perhaps no other event at Harvard could serve as a greater symbolic rebuke of Summers than a decision to rehire West, a scholar of religion and political philosophy. Summers's dispute with West in 2001 produced the first major controversy of his presidency, giving him a reputation among campus critics as a bully whose approach to leadership favored attack over persuasion. Conversely, his champions saw it as evidence of a refreshing boldness lacking among most college presidents.

West's departure was a blow to African-American studies at Harvard. Enrollment plummeted in the introductory class he had taught. The departures of four other professors, three of them renowned scholars, for a variety of reasons over the last four years contributed to a sense that the ``dream team" that Gates built had fallen apart.

Bringing West back would require the approval of either Derek Bok, who next month will become interim president, or Bok's successor.

The African and African American studies department has been hiring large numbers of respected but lesser-known scholars. It remains strong, professor Ingrid Monson said yesterday, ``but none of us are as electric in the classroom as Cornel West."

``I think everyone of us, when we learned president Summers was leaving, had this on our mind," added Monson, who is chairwoman of the music department as well as a professor in African and African-American studies. ``I called Skip [Gates] immediately and asked, `Have you talked to Cornel?' "

West has left no doubt that he returned to Princeton, where he had taught previously, because of Summers. In his 2004 book, ``Democracy Matters," he described the fateful encounter in October 2001.

Summers began the meeting by using an obscenity to ask West to help him cause problems for an outspoken conservative professor, Harvey Mansfield, West said. Then the president complained that West had missed three weeks of classes to work on Bill Bradley's presidential campaign in 2000, that he was contributing to grade inflation, and that his rap CD was an embarrassment to Harvard. He also said West needed to do more scholarly work.

West denied all the accusations, saying he had missed one class in his entire time at Harvard, that his grades would hold up next to those in any other department, and that he had written 16 books, including scholarly work.

Summers, West wrote in this book, ``messed with the wrong Negro."

Summers has never publicly offered his version of the episode, but has said he tried to reach out to West before the professor left Harvard. A Summers spokesman did not return a call yesterday.

Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a professor at Harvard Law School and a friend of West, said he would welcome him back, but expressed skepticism that he would leave Princeton. ``He loves Princeton," Ogletree said. ``He's got wonderful colleagues and a supportive president, and an environment where his teaching and his scholarship are consistently respected."

The fact that Gates wants to poach West from Princeton suggests he is not planning to leave Harvard, despite regular rumors to that effect. Gates said he intends to stay in Cambridge and continue making documentary films on African-American history.

While he is stepping down at the end of the month as department chair after 15 years, he will remain director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. A new department chairman has not been named.

Gates said he expects that in the fall, the faculty will discuss the idea of recruiting West with Bok and Jeremy Knowles, who will become interim dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Bok did not return a call yesterday, and Knowles said he didn't know anything about it.

Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.

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