Cornel West *80, one of Princeton’s most prominent faculty members — and a major draw for students — is leaving the University.
West, a provocative figure known for his advocacy for liberal causes — and frequent sharp tongue — will rejoin the faculty at Union Theological Seminary in New York, where he began his career in 1977.
“It’s a devastating loss for Princeton,” said Eddie S. Glaude Jr. *97, the head of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies, which West helped to create and grow, drawing other well-known scholars. “We’re losing a master teacher. His office hours are legendary — they last well into the night.”
Enrollment in West’s introductory African-American Studies course topped 400. A freshman seminar on “Great Books,” co-taught with conservative activist Robert George, was also popular. More than 100 students applied for 15 slots in his freshman seminar on how great thinkers have responded to the problem of evil. West is on leave this year.
Unlike his angry departure from Harvard in 2002, when he returned to Princeton after teaching here from 1988 to 1994, there is no ill will this time. President Shirley Tilghman said she hopes he will visit campus often.
“Princeton has greatly benefitted from Cornel’s teaching and his active participation in the intellectual life of our campus,” she said. ”He has helped Princeton create one of the world’s leading centers for African American studies, and we hope that as an emeritus member of our faculty he will return to campus whenever he can. We wish him every success as he now returns to Union where he first served as a faculty member.”
West has also been on the faculty at Yale and the University of Paris. He has written 19 books, including Race Matters and the memoir Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud. He is also known for his spoken word, hip-hop CDs.
West’s recent criticism of President Barack Obama, whom he accused of catering to “Wall Street oligarchs,” has garnered press attention, as have his recent arrests at protests stemming from the Occupy Wall Street movement.
In the classroom, West is known for grappling with issues like truth and justice, and for lacing discussions of Plato and Socrates with references to jazz and stand-up comedy.
“Cornel models an excitement around the life of the mind that is just infectious,” Glaude said. “He engages ideas in a way that I can’t put in words. I was one of his students, and he modeled for me what it means to be excited about ideas.”