Cornel West to Retire From Princeton
Ten years after returning to Princeton for his third stint at the University, Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies Cornel West will be retiring and returning to Union Theological Seminary. West, who graduated from Harvard before earning a graduate degree from Princeton in 1980, taught at Union after completing his doctorate at Princeton. Since then, the prominent activist professor has taught at Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris.
West has been in the news more than usual in recent months during the Occupy Wall Street protests, as he has been deeply involved in the movement, and was arrested twice within one week in mid-October. When the news of his departure from Princeton broke, West was traveling around Occupy protests on the West Coast.
The author of 19 books and editor of 13 others, West said Union felt like the proper place for him to finish his teaching career, in more than simply an academic sense. “When I first turned down jobs in philosophy departments and went to Union Seminary [from Princeton], my professors thought this was a bit strange,” he explained, noting that most philosophy PhD students go straight to academia, not to seminary. “I can say now, 35 years later, Union still expresses most fundamentally who I am. Outside of Union, the best place for me to be in the world is Princeton.”
West will retain emeritus status at the University, an idea he said was introduced to him by University President Shirley Tilghman and Dean of the Faculty David Dobkin. When he was given the offer, he “said, ‘that’s incredible. I’d love to do something like that,’” West explained. “It means I’m always part of the Princeton stationery, as it were. I can always come back and teach.”
West said the decision to move came as something of a calling to him. “It’s a question of one’s spiritual vocation, as opposed to one’s professional career,” he said. “My calling has always been fundamentally that of a prophetic Christian, as much as I love and revel in the life of the mind.”
Accordingly, West said his time in New York City would have less of an academic focus. “I’ll be teaching and writing, and doing some intense activism,” he noted. “But also spending a lot of time in jazz clubs and Stephen Sondheim shows. I want to just keep bearing witness.”
He reiterated that Union felt like the appropriate place for him to go at this time, as it was his first employer and a crucial institution for the development of modern liberal theology, but also because of its historical relation to Princeton. He explained that it was founded as a reaction to the teachings of the Princeton Theological Seminary — “There’s a real sense in which my going to Union is going to a kind of Princeton extension,” he said.
Still, members of the University community interviewed for this story said they thought the school, and they individually, would miss West dearly.
“Princeton has greatly benefitted from Cornel’s teaching and his active participation in the intellectual life of our campus,” Tilghman said in a statement. “He has helped Princeton create one of the world’s leading centers for African American studies, and we hope that as an emeritus member of our faculty he will return to campus whenever he can.”
Professor Imani Perry, who studied with West at Harvard before coming to the faculty at Princeton, said in an email that she and the rest of the CAAS faculty learned of the move “a week or two prior to the public announcement.”
She said she was not entirely shocked by the news given West’s expressed fondness for Union, but said it had been a “joy” to work with him. “He is an extremely generous spirit, and that combined with his incredible intellectual power makes him a great colleague.”
Perry added that she had sought West out as a student at Harvard, and that his work as a professor was “in a word amazing.”
“He challenged me intellectually, pushing me to think more rigorously, telling me when he thought I was wrong or my analysis was weak, and yet he was kind in the process. He modeled a seriousness about being an intellectual that inspired me deeply.”
Eddie Glaude, William S. Tod Professor of Religion and African American Studies and Chair of CAAS, was also one of West’s students here at Princeton. He said working with West had a profound effect on his life. “I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for Cornel,” he explained. “I was blessed to be his colleague for 10 years … It’s been amazing to be his colleague and to be his friend."
Glaude said that in addition to his public presence, his mastery of the classroom would be missed by Princetonians who had previously interacted with him in that setting. “Cornel is a master teacher,” he said. “People tend to read him as a public figure, but he is in love with justice, and he is in love with the life of the mind. That has involved, for him, not only a love affair with books, but a love affair with teaching.”
West, for his part, noted that he was very excited to return to Union, but would indeed miss teaching his courses at Princeton. “It’s been, for me, professionally uplifting — Princeton students for me are the best students in the world,” he said. “I’ve had a magnificent time at Princeton. Princeton, to me, is the crème de la crème. The best that I’ve had.”