By David Abel | Globe Staff | 12/22/2001
Over the past decade, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. has risen to stardom in academia and beyond by turning Harvard University's listless Afro-American studies department into a group so studded with star faculty that he fondly dubbed them his "Dream Team."
Now, six months after Lawrence H. Summers took over as president of Harvard, Gates and at least two other nationally known members of his department - Cornel West and Anthony Appiah - are considering leaving for Princeton University, according to senior black faculty members.
The reason is a falling out with Summers, who they say has acted abrasively toward many members of the faculty and criticized West for acting in ways unbecoming of a Harvard professor.
This week, West abruptly announced he would take a leave of absence, his second leave in two academic years.
In a phone interview yesterday, Summers said he didn't intend any offense. "It's a very unfortunate misunderstanding if my views have been perceived in other ways," he said.
According to interviews with more than a dozen faculty, staff, and administration officials, complaints about Summers began surfacing when he declined to make a strong statement in support of affirmative action at a meeting this summer with members of the Afro-American studies department.
After the semester began, other senior black professors began complaining that the new president had acted like "a bull in a china shop" and that he spoke dismissively of some professors, calling their ideas "stupid."
Others complained that Summers did not speak out in support of diversity and that he has not emphasized its importance as clearly as Harvard's recently retired president, Neil L. Rudenstine, who helped bring Gates to Harvard and build his team.
Gates declined to talk about the complaints from members of his faculty. Of his own plans, he said only: "I do not have an offer from Princeton."
He also said the departure of any members of the department would be a blow.
"It would be devastating to Harvard and the department of Afro-American studies, which Cornel and Anthony Appiah have helped to build brick by brick, for them to leave and go anywhere," said Gates, who took over as chairman in 1991, when the department consisted of only one white male professor and a small number of students.
This week, Gates and Appiah visited Princeton and met with the provost and other campus leaders, several sources at Harvard said. West, who spent years teaching at Princeton before Gates persuaded him to come to Harvard in 1994, did not make the trip, but has spoken to officials there, too, senior black faculty members said.
Reached on a cell phone yesterday, Appiah, a nationally respected philosopher who co-edited "Perseus Africana Encyclopedia" with Gates, said he preferred not to comment about his meetings. But of West's meeting with Summers, he said: "I don't think university presidents should lecture faculty on their political positions. If he did it, he shouldn't have."
In the meeting, according to senior faculty members who spoke with the Globe, Summers rebuked West for recording a rap CD, for leading a political committee for the Rev. Al Sharpton's possible presidential campaign, and for writing books more likely to be reviewed in The New York Times than in academic journals. He also reportedly criticized West for allowing grade inflation in his introductory course on black studies. Grade inflation has been a contentious issue this year at Harvard, which recently reported that nearly half of all grades given are A's.
West declined to be interviewed, and Summers - who insisted he supports affirmative action - said he wouldn't discuss a private conversation with a member of the faculty.
He said he believes "professors should be free to engage in any type of political activity they choose, that grade inflation is a general issue in the university that should be considered by faculty members in all departments with no specific focus, that many mediums of intellectual expression are appropriate and not for the university to judge, and that . . . public intellectual debate on many issues, including race, is a great strength of Harvard."
After hanging up, a senior administration official called the Globe and released this statement: "Summers views this very seriously and as a huge misunderstanding and is working extremely hard to keep each of these faculty members at Harvard."
The official added that Summers will "make certain that Harvard responds very aggressively to Princeton's challenge."
A spokesman for West - one of the first black scholars to be named a university professor, Harvard's highest faculty post and a designation held by only 14 of its 2,200 faculty members - also declined to speak about the specifics of the meeting between West and Summers. But he said the professor, who's scheduled to have surgery for prostate cancer next month, isn't taking a leave merely for health reasons.
"It would be a shame and a miscarriage of justice if for any reason Cornel were no longer at Harvard," said Charles J. Ogletree, a professor of law at Harvard who called West "my client in these matters." West is "a nationally respected scholar and a phenomenal teacher. . . . We hope that this is a place he will decide to spend the rest of his academic life."
Neither Ogletree nor other senior black faculty would say whether it's likely that West or other professors in the Afro-American studies department would choose to leave, but they acknowledged that the tensions have reached a boiling point.
Several faculty and staff members also said that word has gotten out and several universities have been calling senior black professors at Harvard and asking them to consider visiting their campuses. "If Harvard lets these people leave, and they don't make an all-out effort to keep them, I would really have to think about whether to stay," said one senior black professor.
Another senior black faculty member said: "People are willing to give a new president a grace period, but if in that time he acts like a bull in a china shop, it makes people very worried. It appears as if he has deliberately set himself on a collision course with faculty members."
Still, with the right statements and actions, other faculty members said Summers could keep the Dream Team at Harvard. Since Gates took over in 1991, the department has grown to 16 professors and has been immensely popular with students. West, the best-selling author of "Race Matters," teaches an introductory Afro-American studies course that's one of the most popular on campus, with more than 600 students enrolled this semester.
If Summers and the department can't come to terms, some faculty members might start brushing up their resumes.
"It is highly disturbing that things are so amiss here," said Randall Kennedy, a law professor. "That colleagues of mine may feel impelled to leave, it certainly raises anxieties."
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.
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