Stacey Patton

Senior Enterprise Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Why Kwame Anthony Appiah Is Leaving Princeton For NYU

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In early October, a rumor circulated that New York University was trying to lure Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the nation’s best-known philosophers and a leading thinker on race and society, away from Princeton University, where he has taught for the past 11 years.

Asked about it at the time, Mr. Appiah told The Chronicle in an email, “That could happen in the future, but I don’t have an offer from NYU.”

Mr. Appiah received the official offer letter on Monday, and the university announced yesterday that the scholar, born in London and raised in Ghana, will be joining the NYU faculty in January. Mr. Appiah will hold appointments in the department of philosophy and at NYU’s School of Law. He will spend half the year in New York teaching in those departments; the other half of the year he will teach and lecture at the university’s overseas campuses, principally Abu Dhabi.

“You don’t make a move away from a great university like Princeton unless there’s a really attractive offer,” Mr. Appiah said in a phone interview Tuesday. And Princeton did “generously” match NYU’s offer in an attempt to keep him, he says. But it wasn’t money that drew him.

“NYU has offered me the chance to pursue a new intellectual challenge and to finally have a job in the same town as my spouse,” Henry Finder, The New Yorker’s editorial director. During Mr. Appiah’s time at Princeton the couple has divided their time between New York City and Princeton. Now they will move into a university-owned apartment in Tribeca.

“NYU made me an offer on the pedagogical and intellectual side that I couldn’t refuse,” said Mr. Appiah. “Professionally, the thing that really got me hooked was this challenge of trying to think about how to take advantage of NYU’s global network university and how we teach about global ethics issues.”

Since 2010, when the university started NYU-Abu Dhabi, it has also opened “portal campuses” or academic centers in a dozen cities, including Accra, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Tel Aviv, and Washington, D.C. Mr. Appiah sees a real opportunity for him to use virtual technologies to bring students in different places together in small seminar courses where they can grapple with global issues such as the unequal distribution of wealth, gender, sexual identity, and human rights.

“I could have gone on pretty happy at Princeton doing the things I’ve been doing, but this is a different kind of challenge as a teacher and scholar,” he said. “It’s a new experiment. I’m doing things I haven’t done before. We are going to have to figure out how to teach and research side by side across the world.”

Mr. Appiah has published in philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, political theory, moral philosophy, and African and African-American literary and cultural studies. His prize-winning books include The Ethics of Identity and Cosmopolitanism; with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., he is the editor of Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African-American Experience. And in 2012 he was one of eight scholars to receive the National Humanities Medal from President Obama.

Michael A. Smith, chair of Princeton’s philosophy department, said that he was not surprised to learn that Mr. Appiah is leaving. He saw it coming. But the news has left students and faculty bereft because Mr. Appiah is a popular professor.

“Anthony is an incredible colleague. He’s had a productive time while he’s been here. He’s been wanting to live in New York City with his partner and everyone completely understands that and we wish him the best,” Mr. Smith said. Finding a replacement will be difficult. “It would be completely mistaken to look at the hole that Anthony has left and think you could fill it.”

“NYU couldn’t have chosen a better person to help build an international teaching program with new technology,” he added. “I just wish they’d do it without pinching our fantastic faculty.”

Image: Princeton University

Follow Stacey Patton on Twitter at @SPchronvitae.

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