Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

April 24, 2002:
A controversial professor returns to Princeton

By Wes Tooke '98

The Cornel West road show is returning to the Princeton campus after an eight year sabbatical, and the outspoken professor appears to have added a whole new set of layers to his act. For example, in the last week alone he has managed to:

1) Refer to the president of Harvard as "Brother Summers."

2) Call the aforementioned president of Harvard the "Ariel Sharon of American higher educationš" a bull in a china shop, and as a bully, in a very delicate and dangerous situation.

3) Complain that Brother Summers didn't send him a get-well card until two months after his recent surgery for prostate cancer.

4) Tell the New York Times that he thinks of his rap CD in Nietzschean terms as "danceable education"

5) Explain to a New York Times reporter, "Professors do not have supervisors, brother. Professors are free agents to do their work, because there is a trust in their judgment about how they go about doing that work.

6) Refer to a New York Times reporter as "brother.

7) Be arrested for "failure to obey an officer's orders" at a peace rally near the State Department in Washington.

The hallowed electronic halls of Princeton's online community have been predictably aflutter with complaints about Brother West. Criticisms leveled at the new Class of 1943 University Professor of Religion include that when it comes to grades he is aware of only one letter in the alphabet (think A as in Apple) and that recording danceable education CDs and campaigning for Brother Reverend Al Sharpton don't qualify as serious academic work.

The particularly petulant details of West's acrimonious departure from Harvard have also caused concern, especially since few of the critics seem ready to believe that Sister Tilghman is any more capable of controlling Brother West than Father Summers.

All of those criticisms, of course, were phrased in the sweaty, nervous language of upper-middle class white people who are terrified that someone might think they're being racist. Which is both hilarious and another reason why Cornel West is a perfect fit for Princeton.

Just by his presence, he makes people think about race, and that is a medicine that the university desperately needs. Princeton has enough professors who are writing the definitive work on 17th-century agricultural techniques; we have room for someone who will engage his students. And that is exactly what West will do as a professor.

He's intelligent, entertaining, and everyone in his class will remember his course in 30 years, long after the world has forgotten that they may have received an inflated grade.

Dr. West will also help Princeton in the one area that the university's incredible endowment and seemingly limitless resources can't touch - its reputation in the minds of many prospective minority students as being a tough place to spend four years. Princeton has some serious image problems to confront, starting with a basketball team that looks like Hickory High circa the 1950s, a social system based on archaic, lily-white eating clubs, and a reputation for embracing diversity that runs the gamut from corduroys to chinos.

Maybe it's only a first step, but building a serious African-American studies department is a good place to start. In addition to West, Princeton has recently hired philosopher K. Anthony Appiah and Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Those three men, especially when coupled with Toni Morrison, may give Princeton the critical mass to attract even more scholars. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for example, who originally recruited West to Harvard, may follow his colleague back to Princeton.

But no matter how any of those moves turn out, I don't understand how having a brilliant, fiery, outspoken, black man on campus as a role model can be anything other than a good thing for the student body. Not to mention us local columnists. Fire away, Dr. West.

You can reach Wes at cwtooke@princeton.edu