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Princeton professor emeritus Cornel West GS ’80 launches longshot presidential run

Cornel West
Amid a national reckoning with racial injustice, Cornel West GS ’80 has been a leading voice.
Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

In a campaign launch video posted to Twitter on Monday, Professor Emeritus Cornel West GS ’80 announced that he is running for president under the obscure People’s Party as a means to use the office as a “vehicle to pursue that truth and justice — what I’ve been trying to do all of my life.”

West, one of the nation’s most prominent left-wing intellectuals, served on the Princeton faculty for 16 years. During his time at the University, West served as the director of the Program in African American Studies, in addition to being a professor in the Department of Religion and the Center for African American Studies. He currently teaches at the Union Theological Seminary.


Of the major candidates running for president, West is the first with a Princeton affiliation, though former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who served as an ex officio member of the Board of Trustees while governor, also announced his presidential campaign this week.

In his announcement video, West highlights quality of life for all Americans as a key principle and touches on several of his campaign’s key issues, including access to good jobs and wages, housing, abortion, healthcare, climate change, and combating the “destruction of American democracy.”

“We’re not talking about hating anybody, we’re talking about loving, we’re talking about affirming, we’re talking about empowering those who have been pushed to the margins,” West says.

West endorsed Bernie Sanders in both the 2016 and 2020 election cycles and has criticized presidents on both sides of the aisle. In his campaign video, he called former President Donald Trump a “neo-fascist” and President Joe Biden a “milquetoast neoliberal.”

A long shot to begin with, West may have trouble even getting on the ballot. The People’s Party, founded in 2017, is on the ballot in only one state, Florida, and has been characterized by internal feuding and an allegation of sexual harassment against a party founder.

West first arrived at Princeton in 1973 as a graduate student, completing his master’s and doctorate degree in 1975 and 1980 respectively, both in philosophy. In 1979, he published his first book, titled “Black Theology and Marxist Thought.” West’s later work includes “Race Matters” (1993), which became a best-seller and cemented West’s place as one of the most prominent thinkers about race in the United States.


On campus, West supported student protestors from the Black Justice League (BJL) when they staged a sit-in in Nassau Hall in November 2015. The BJL’s original demands included the creation of affinity housing and spaces for Black students, cultural competency training for faculty, an undergraduate distribution requirement dedicated to the history of marginalized people, and the removal of the name of Woodrow Wilson Class of 1879 from what is now the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and First College. The sit-in lasted 33 hours and concluded with a revised set of demands signed by University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83.

West took to Facebook to share the BJL’s petition and call for students who participated in the protest to be granted amnesty from disciplinary action. 

“We especially focus on anti-Black racism students experience at Princeton and we also reject the ugly threats to Black students at Princeton,” West wrote. He also called organizers of the protest while it was going on.

West has maintained a relationship with Professor Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program, one of the most prominent conservative professors on campus. The two have appeared together in public frequently and West has described George as “a very dear brother.” Politically opposed, George also differed from West on the BJL, criticizing the group’s tactics.

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In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, David Hafetz ’94, one of West’s thesis students described West as a “celebrity professor” and credits West with sparking a curiosity about religion after he took one of West’s courses, “Religion and Its Modern Critics,” in his freshman year.

“He lit a match to my brain ... a part of it I didn’t know was there. [It was] one of the most intellectually engaging and inspiring experiences I had at Princeton,” Hafetz said. 

Hafetz noted that he never intended to become a religion major, but said that in part due to West, he “wanted to go deeper ... and he really made me feel that urge intellectually.” 

Jacques Smith ’93, who was one of West’s thesis students and took one of his courses in the Program of African American Studies, remembers him as a “great lecturer.” 

Smith described their interactions as “fantastic” as he credits West with providing him “encouragement and direction.” 

“Just to be able to sit across from him one-on-one and discuss my ideas and academics or what I was trying to do, it felt like a privilege,“ Smith additionally wrote. 

When Hafetz got West as his thesis advisor, Hafetz compared it to winning the “lottery” and described their regular meetings — he remembered West’s office as stacked with books everywhere and West smoking cigars — as the “perfect capstone experience.”

“He had real compassion and a real sense of humanness,” Hafetz said.

Though they both admit they haven’t followed West closely since the publication of “Race Matters” and graduating from Princeton, both Hafetz and Smith believe West could add an interesting perspective to the upcoming election.

“I think it’s great to have different voices and ideas in the conversation and the debate right now. So I think from that perspective, he could really enrich what’s happening in the run-up to the election,” Hafetz said. 

“While it’s encouraging, fascinating, to see somebody as progressive as he is throw his hat into the political ring, it’s a very different place than the world was 30 years ago as my advisor,” Smith said. 

Hafetz also said that he didn’t think West would want to serve as a spoiler favoring the Republicans.

"If things don’t look promising for him in the lead-up to the general election, I also imagine he would have the wisdom to pull out to help avoid a disaster,” Hafetz wrote.

West has also served as a member of the faculty at other Ivy League institutions, including Harvard and Yale. West was at Yale for three years before leaving in 1987 after being arrested on Yale’s campus for taking part in a student protest for a clerical labor union and divestment from apartheid South Africa. 

West was on the faculty at Harvard from 1994 to 2002, leaving following a public dispute with its then-president, Lawrence Summers. West returned to the school in 2016 until his resignation in 2021, after a dispute about tenure. West blamed the conflict in part on opposition to his public support of the Palestinian cause and his criticism of Israel.

“This kind of narcissistic academic professionalism, cowardly deference to the anti-Palestinian prejudices of the Harvard administration, and indifference to my Mother’s death constitute an intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of deep depths,” West said in his resignation letter.

West may have gotten into various disputes with his previous institutions, but this time around, with his presidential run, he says he wants to fight for Americans and urges people to participate and be involved.

“Do we have what it takes? We shall see. But some of us are going to go down fighting. Go down swinging with style and a smile,” West says shortly before his campaign video concludes.

Justus Wilhoit is an assistant News editor for The Daily Princetonian.

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