Black scholars threaten to defect over simmering race dispute at Harvard

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The Independent US

Several prominent scholars from Harvard University's Afro-American studies department are threatening to move to its rival, Princeton, because of a simmering and racially charged dispute over the institution's policy on accepting students from ethnic minorities.

Among those understood to be considering an offer from Princeton to defect is the chairman of the department, Henry Louis Gates Jr, and Cornell West. Both men are considered to be the top authorities on black-related studies in the United States.

And an intervention by the Rev Jesse Jackson has ensured the affair's return to the headlines, just as an embarrassed Harvard was trying to play it down. Mr Jackson has asked for a meeting with the president of Harvard University, Lawrence Summers, to discuss the issue.

Mr Summers, who served as Treasury Secretary to President Bill Clinton, has been accused by the professors of failing sufficiently to articulate the university's commitment to affirmative action, whereby space is guaranteed in the student body for applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds, including African Americans.

Moreover, Professor West – one of only 14 in the entire Harvard faculty to be designated a "University Professor" – apparently felt bruised after a meeting with Mr Summers in October. Mr Summers allegedly implied that Professor West, who recorded a hip-hop CD last year and is a regular television pundit, had lost his higher academic bearings.

At the same meeting, Mr Summers, who was chosen to be president of Harvard in March, also encouraged Professor West to help reverse a trend towards generous grading at Harvard. Recent statistics show that one in two grades awarded by Harvard, the most prestigious of the Ivy League universities, is an A or A-minus.

Charles Ogletree, who is representing the professors, said: "It's critical the president makes an unequivocal public statement in support of affirmative action. That would be encouraging for those scholars who came to Harvard and were recruited because this was going to be the premier institution of black intellectual inquiry."

The university said the meeting in October had led to a "huge misunderstanding". A spokesman noted that in his inauguration address, Mr Summers said that accepting "men and women of all faiths, all races, all classes, all states, all nations'' has enabled Harvard to "offer a better education to better students who make us a better university".

Mr Jackson said he had asked for a meeting to clear up the argument. The university indicated that Mr Summers would see Mr Jackson but gave no date. "I know Dr Summers to be a good and decent man," Mr Jackson said. "I have high personal regard for him, and I hope this sore is not allowed to fester."

Professor West's rap album was released last summer. Called Sketches of My Culture, it combines hip-hop anthems with the spoken word. "I don't fool myself and think I'm a hip-hopper or nothing," he said at the time. "The black musical tradition is the most precious tradition, and just to be a small part of it is a great honour."

Separately, Harvard confirmed last night that e-mails sent out to prospective students last month saying whether they had been rejected or accepted had failed to arrive. The culprit, however, seemed to be America Online, which had identified the e-mails as unwanted messages known as "spam", and bounced them back to the university.