(AP) -- Cornel West has no shortage of battles in his path.
First, the Harvard University professor of African-American studies is fighting cancer.
Secondly, he is fighting for his reputation in the wake of a very public dispute with a new university president -- a spat that has rocked Harvard's hallowed halls with talk of racial insensitivity and inflated egos, and questions of where black activism fits into major university agendas.
Prior to the flap, West was best known as the intellectual front man for community-based empowerment efforts like the Million Man March, confabs on hip-hop music and national youth gang summits.
But now, as controversy swirls, some are asking: Just who is Cornel West?
"Cornel is foremost a philosopher," said University of Maryland political scientist Ronald Walters, who first met West during the planning of the Million Man March in 1995.
"He has one of the quickest minds among scholars I know and puts together unique perspectives on issues," Walters said.
From existentialism to urban realism
In class and in conversation, West may intertwine the themes of Danish existentialist Soren Kierkegaard and the ideas of Martin Luther King Jr.; religion and love; racism, homophobia and prostate cancer.
His ease with ideas, his rat-a-tat-tat delivery and his impish grin have propelled the Oklahoma-born, Sacramento-raised grandson of a Baptist minister to his position as perhaps the best-known black scholar in America.
But for now, West is focusing on his cancer, which he terms aggressive. He plans to take a leave from Harvard for surgery.
"Issues of respect and mutual civility are very important issues but when you look at life and death, they are dwarfed by trying to stay alive," West said during an interview televised Sunday on C-Span2.
For years, West has juggled the academic world and the world beyond. Classroom reasoning should be applied to gritty urban realities: Sensitive race issues like whether reparations should be paid to black America for slavery have to be confronted by whites and blacks before any true healing can occur, he has said.
"Why are black men 7 percent of the population and 50 percent of the jail population ...? It is a national crisis for me," West told C-Span. He declined AP interview requests.
West has also sought to make his thought more accessible to a younger set.
West has tackled racial issues in his books, and is known as the intellectual front man for efforts like the Million Man March and national youth gang summits.
That is why he produced a rap CD praising past generations of African American leaders, titled "Sketches of My Culture."
Efforts like this -- "danceable education," West termed the CD -- set him apart from other black scholars.
Where black academics like Harvard's Orlando Patterson or Lawrence Bobo are more grounded in statistical analysis and surveys, West is primarily a thinker who uses his life experiences and interpretation of other works for a more impassioned, seat-of-the-pants style of professorship. That has brought him criticism.
"Cornel's work tends to be 1,000 miles wide and about two inches deep," opined Adolph Reed Jr., political science professor at the New School for Social Research in a recent article.
West, part of a small circle of top black academics -- including Walters, Harvard's African-American studies chairman Henry Louis Gates Jr., Columbia University's Manning Marable and Asa G. Hilliard at Georgia State University -- broke out with his 1993 book "Race Matters." The essays, taking on a subject that West said much of white America tries to avoid, became a best seller.
"A lot of people, professors who are also activist, have been around, wanting to be in the limelight, trying to push their work and they haven't broken through like Cornel," Walters said, adding that the delight of some in West's recent travails amounts to "sour grapes."
In recent years, West took center stage at numerous black empowerment events. Rather than joining traditional marches and NAACP gatherings, West mixed with more dissident elements of the civil rights struggle, such as Benjamin Chavis Muhammad and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
They were organizing outside the mainstream -- for instance, bringing together gang members at national summits to end street violence. Their work with West lent the scholar powerful acceptance among many in the streets.
A public spat
Reaction behind the ivy-covered walls was another matter.
When Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary and one-time Harvard professor, took over the school's presidency last year, he brought change.
In a private meeting last year, Summers reportedly questioned West's activities, such as making the rap CD, advising activist Al Sharpton in his possible bid for the presidency in 2004 and allegedly giving undeserving students easy A's in his classes.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a friend of West's, charged that Summers had not made sufficient public statements committing the school to diversity. Summers issued a statement soon afterward that Harvard remained committed to outreach efforts.
At the end of last week, the storm seemed to have blown over when West and Summers met Thursday and a university spokesman said the pair had "ended the conversation with a feeling of mutual respect."
However, West said in a National Public Radio interview Monday that he felt "attacked and insulted."
West did little to end speculation that he might leave Harvard and take other professors with him for a return to Princeton University where he was professor of religion and led the Afro-American Studies Department until 1994.
Some see the Harvard contretemps as overblown.
"Summers has been looking carefully at the entire faculty of different schools here and is asking hard questions of many people," said Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard University history professor who has debated West on affirmative action.
"It's appropriate. I don't think African-American studies or any department should be sacrosanct. No department at Harvard should be beyond having questions raised about it," he said.
Werner Sollors, a Harvard English literature professor in the African-American studies department, said that no matter how the battle over West turns out, he hopes what is widely acknowledged as the nation's finest black studies department remains intact.
"The department has contributed enormously to the life of the university," Sollors said. "Diversification of the faculty here and at other schools has been facilitated by African American studies."