During some time away from Harvard University, famed African American Studies Professor Cornel West cut a hip-hop album. His boss, President Lawrence Summers, dubbed West’s behavior “unbecoming of a Harvard professor.” Brooke and Bob discuss the implications of an academic spat.
Cornel West's CD
January 5, 2002
BOB GARFIELD: Maybe it's because Harvard is widely deemed America's premier institution of higher learning or maybe because Harvard graduates are, shall we say, well-represented in the media elite, but the sort of ordinary academic controversies that routinely swirl at other campuses, when they happen at Harvard, tend to make news. This week a dustup between the Afro-American Studies Department and the university's president landed in most major newspapers and on the front page of the New York Times. By week's end, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton both were promising to intervene in the situation as if America's first university had suddenly become the site of an ugly hate crime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:The main players in this tempest were Harvard President Lawrence Summers and university Professor Cornel West who you may recognize from his best-selling book Race Matters, from his many talk show appearances or from his latest disc -- hit it, professor. [MUSIC UNDER]
CORNEL WEST: AND RHYTHM AND BLUES MELLOW THE SHARING OF SOOTHING SWEET [...?...]
BOB GARFIELD: Yes, Cornel West cut a hip hop CD bringing a little ebony to the ivory tower. Now from what we've heard off the album, we don't think the man should quit his day job. But we were a bit surprised by President Summers' reaction as reported in the Boston Globe that West acted quote "in ways unbecoming of a Harvard professor."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:It wasn't just the CD which West produced in his year away from the university. Summers reportedly objected to grade inflation in West's courses and he also took issue with West's heading the Al Sharpton Presidential Exploratory Committee.
BOB GARFIELD:Yeah, shuttling between academia and politics -- how could Summers countenance that? Or should I say -- how could Secretary Summers countenance that? His last job was with the U.S. Department of Treasury. As for grade inflation, that like master's tea at Dunster House is a Harvard Institution. So the question really is can a rap CD constitute serious scholarship? Give it up for my tenured homey. [MUSIC UNDER]
CORNEL WEST: THE OLDER GENERATION MUST BEQUEATH AND TRANSMIT THE BEST OF THE OLD TO THE NEW FOR THE YOUNGER GENERATION WILL MEET THE CHALLENGE.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: West's supporters immediately charged Summers with being uncommitted to diversity and affirmative action, and Summers replied by saying his commitment to diversity is unshakable, and by Thursday things had begun to calm down. But I suggest that Lawrence Summers does lack commitment to diversity -- diversity of expression. [R&B STYLE MUSIC] Would a Harvard professor be begrudged for pursuing a passion for, say, chamber music. Even if Professor West wrote a book about the use of popular music to influence the thought patterns of American youth, he'd be applauded!
BOB GARFIELD:But because he actually recorded an album of rap, jazz and soul music in an attempt to influence the thought patterns of America's youth, he was criticized. Not that we expect music history to be especially kind to Professor West. Some of the songs do have a sort of William Shatner-sings-Lucy-in-the-Sky-with-Diamonds quality to them. But at least he tried, and if that's "unbecoming" I don't know what this world is "becoming" to. Mmmmmm--- Sorry about the syntax. I-- went to Penn State.
MAN: ...ON EARTH SOMETIMES--
MAN: HEY, BROTHER -- YOU THINK ABOUT ANY TIME REVEREND WEST-- HOW LOVED WE WERE, MAN HEY THAT'S WHAT I'M TELLING YOU--
MAN: WOOO! YEAH!! CHORUS: [SINGING] REMEMBER [DURING] THOSE '70S DIDN'T CARE WHAT LIFE WOULD BRING PLAYING HIDE AND SEEK EVERY DAY WHEN I THINK OF...