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Aug 07, 2013 12:04 PM EDT

Cornel West Explains Controversial Relationship with Former Harvard President Larry Summers, 'Legendary Gangster With a High IQ'

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Larry Summers, former president of Harvard University and current nominee for chairman of the Federal Reserve, has once again come under scrutiny for his actions as one of the most prominent figures in academia, the Huffington Post reported.

In 2005, the New York Times reported comments Summers made in regard to women not being as fit to teach math and science as men are. Later that year, the Boston Globe reported a vote of no confidence, among anonymous faculty members, in Summers' ability to lead the university.

Former Harvard professor Cornel West told the Huffington Post Summers clashed with members of the Department of African and African American studies. West, one of the department and school's most prominent figures at the time, said the problem with Summers lasted throughout his tenure from 2001 to 2006.

"To put it bluntly, Summers has always struck me as a legendary gangster with a high IQ, in service of the well-to-do. That was my experience the first time I ever encountered him in his office," West told The Huffington Post. "What's interesting is I've noticed in a number of the newspaper pieces, they make more of his comment about women than they do his relation to black folk at Harvard. As you know, it really started with black folks."

The Globe reported in 2001 that Summers could have made a statement by applying affirmative action to his faculty, but did not. Beyond that, some critics felt he was abrasive toward several faculty members.

"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,'" the Globe reported.

In 2001, West was a Harvard "university professor," and reported directly to Summers, an honor given to 14 of 2,200 faculty members. According to the Globe's report, Summers criticized West for recording a rap album, for supporting Rev. Al Sharpton's possible presidential campaign and for writing books unlikely to be reviewed in academic journals.

"The meeting between Cornel and Larry was, to put it mildly, a disaster," said Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was the head of the African and African American Studies department.

While Gates remained, West and philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah left Harvard for Princeton. Gates also said he considers Summers a friend and supports his campaign for chairman of the Federal Reserve.

"There's no question that at that time, he [Summers] was skeptical about the intellectual legitimacy and academic legitimacy of African American Studies ... But I've gotten to know Larry, and I know his attitudes about the field of African American Studies have changed dramatically since that time," Gates told the Huffington Post.

Gates said he remained at the school to help make the African American program the best in the nation, but understood why West chose to leave.

"Given their personality differences and given the depth of their intellect, a conflict was inevitable," he said of West and Summers. "I just regret that I couldn't have helped to prevent the conflict boiling over and could find no way to heal the split. And I think it was a great loss for Harvard for Cornel West to leave."

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