Assuming one can trust West’s account, Summers opened their encounter with a particularly crass effort to pander to his reputation as a faculty radical. According to West, Summers attempted to solicit help in harassing the only open conservative remaining on the Harvard faculty, Harvey Mansfield.
To break the ice, he told me I was just the man to help him undermine Professor Harvey Mansfield. In describing his desire to upset Mansfield, Summers used a language that he thought I’d find familiar.
“Help me fuck him up,” he said.
West refused, telling Summers that “despite the intensity and intellectual ferocity that marked my debates with Mansfield, . . . I considered Mansfield my brother.” When this surreal moment of somewhat dubious factuality was concluded, Summers got down to business, complaining that West had canceled three weeks of classes (a charge West denies) in order to work as political adviser to Sen. Bill Bradley’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Summers added, “I also don’t understand why in the world you would then go on to support another presidential candidate who didn’t even have a remote chance of winning. . . . No one respects him.” This was a reference to Al Sharpton, whose campaign West joined in the same capacity when Bradley dropped out of the race.
Summers then turned to West’s scholarly work, or lack thereof, telling him he needed to “write an important book on a philosophical tradition to establish your authority and secure your place as a scholar.” Summers was quite specific. West needed to produce work that was noted in “peer-reviewed” scholarly journals and not just in popular magazines such as Time and The New York Review of Books. Finally, Summers was distressed that his professor had spent the previous year composing a rap album called Sketches of My Culture, which featured West himself as the rapper. Here Summers’s comment was particularly blunt: “Professor West, you have to cease making rap albums which are an embarrassment to Harvard.”
It was a quixotic attempt to uphold an academic standard that had long ago been shredded when West was elevated to an elite faculty such as Harvard’s (let alone to University Professor). But Cornel West was used to riding the waves of racial grievance to unearned successes. For 30 years the race card had trumped all standards, to West’s benefit, and he was not about to be intimidated, not even by a powerful university president and former secretary of the Treasury:
“Professor Summers, when you say ‘an embarrassment to Harvard,’ which Harvard are you talking about?”
“The Harvard I have been hired to lead.”
“But your Harvard, Professor Summers, is not my Harvard. And I’m as much Harvard as you are. Look, we all know that Harvard has a white supremacist legacy, a male supremacist legacy, an anti-Semitic legacy, a homophobic legacy. We also know that Harvard has a legacy that’s critical of those legacies. That’s the Harvard I relate to.”
If the dispute had been over an affirmative-action sinecure rather than the academic duties of a faculty member at one of the world’s preeminent research institutions, West’s argument may have had some purchase. Instead, it only exposed the subversive agendas of the tenured Left, in particular its determination to make the university into a political instrument promoting its own worldview. It also revealed the lack of allegiance that faculty radicals such as West had to the institutions that employed them, and, for that matter, to their country. For progressives such as West, just as there are two Harvards, there are two Americas — an America whose reality was “imperialist,” “racist,” and “white supremacist,” with which they are at war, and an America whose “legacy” is their fantasy of a multicultural redemption from the sinful present, the only America they are prepared to defend.
On leaving Summers’s office, West laid plans to turn his back on Harvard and accept the invitation that had been already tendered by the president of Princeton. As for Harvard’s president, West announced that Larry Summers had “a problem with black people,” and further: “Larry Summers is the Ariel Sharon of American higher education.” This was a snickering reference to the prime minister of Israel who had been demonized by Palestinian terrorists and their sympathizers in the American Left. “The man’s arrogant, he’s an ineffective leader,” West said of his boss, “and when it comes to these sorts of delicate situations, he’s a bull in the china shop.”