Cornel West spoke of love, solidarity and spirituality Thursday as the inaugural speaker of the UB Department of Surgery’s “Beyond the Knife” lecture series. The Harvard professor did not touch on his recent threat to depart from his position at the university.
West, 67, is a well-known activists and political authors in the U.S. West has served as a Harvard professor of law, divinity and African American studies since 2017, according to The Boston Globe.
On Thursday, West told The Boston Globe that his request for tenure at Harvard had been denied and said he is considering cutting ties with the university.
West says that after being tenured at several prestigious universities, "the recent Harvard denial of a tenure process strikes me as a political decision I reject. Nothing stands in the way of my profound love for and solidarity with oppressed people,” West said in a statement on Friday.
West claims that his request for tenure was denied for being too “controversial” of a figure.
“What I’m told is it’s too risky. And these are quotes. It’s too fraught. And I’m too controversial,” West said.
West has drawn criticism in the past for his left-wing critique of Democratic figures such as Barack Obama. In a recent speech for an event hosted by the Western New York Peace Center, West rebuked then President-elect Joe Biden’s “neoliberal” policies. West serves as an honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and appeared at rallies supporting Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.
However, West’s spat with the Harvard administration did not arise during his Thursday lecture. Instead, West tackled topics such as systemic racism, recent social movements and their relation to health care.
“Slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, white supremacist lies about Black people all try to tell us we’re less. Less in intelligence, less worthy of access to education, less worthy of access to healthcare. That’s the barbaric dimension of our precious and fragile experiment with democracy,” West said. “Brother Martin used to tell us that the worst form of inequality is the very fact that we are the richest nation in the history of the world and still have so many people of all colors, disproportionately black and brown, who don’t have access to high-quality healthcare.”
West’s speech kicked off a soon-to-be-annual lecture series hosted by the Department of Surgery. The department’s initiative, formed in response to the death of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic, seeks to mitigate racism and inequality in healthcare, according to Steven Schwaitzberg, president of UBMD.
The event was free and open to the public. Over 1,200 people signed up to watch the event live. A recording was made available on the UB Health Sciences YouTube channel.
West also took aim at the alleged mistrust of the COVID-19 vaccination process among some Black communities.
“We’ve got to realize that Black people are not stupid. They’ve got a history of insights and they’ve got memories of violation,” West said. “We’ve got to unflinchingly and candidly confront those insights and those memories and convince them that out of deep care for them that this vaccine is going to be a force for good in their lives.”
West concluded his speech by answering questions from a panel of three residents and medical students from the Jacobs School of Medicine. West praised the UB students’ discipline in the field.
“I think of what you all do as being like jazz musicians. You have to be so disciplined, you do your homework, you’re sharp. Yet at the same time you have cultivated the capacity to listen and learn,” West said.
Brendan Kelly is the assistant news editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bpkelly5