Search for Harvard Ethnic Studies Faculty Suspended Indefinitely Due to Pandemic


UPDATED: April 24, 2020, 9:43 p.m.

Harvard has indefinitely suspended its search for faculty specializing in ethnic studies due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay wrote in an email to the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, a student and alumni group demanding the University establish an ethnic studies program.

Gay wrote in the March 26 email that she made the “very difficult, and frankly heart-breaking, decision” to suspend the search after the search committee unanimously agreed that candidates would no longer be able to best present their work, and that Harvard affiliates would be less able to engage with them after the University’s transition to online classes and remote work.

“I can’t even begin to describe how disheartening it is to have seen this effort begin to bear its first fruits, only to have meaningful progress put on an indefinite timeline,” Gay wrote. “But we also know that the attention of faculty, both those advancing this work here and those who are candidates in this process, is necessarily dedicated elsewhere.”


Gay announced in June 2019 that she would hire three to four senior faculty who specialize in Asian American, Latinx, and Muslim studies by the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. Two candidates had already visited Harvard to give talks and meet with faculty and students, and nine more were scheduled to visit later in the spring semester, according to Gay’s letter.

Though she has not set a timeline for the resumption of the faculty search, Gay assured the coalition that the FAS is still continuing its work to advance ethnic studies at Harvard.

“Conversations among the faculty continue,” she wrote. “But the formal search process is not continuing at this time and it’s not clear, at this moment of profound uncertainty and instability, when this search will be restarted in earnest.”

HESC declined to comment on or provide a copy of the email.

Gay’s initial announcement of the faculty search came months after students and alumni protested the departure of two tenure-track faculty specializing in Asian American studies. The University’s November decision to deny tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña — who studies race and ethnicity — reinvigorated calls for an ethnic studies concentration. Harvard affiliates have lobbied for a formalized ethnic studies program for nearly five decades.

Gay wrote she is personally disappointed by the suspension of the search. Upon taking office as FAS Dean in 2018, Gay said recruiting ethnic studies faculty would be a top priority during her tenure. In December 2019, she declared an “institutional commitment” to the field of ethnic studies and said she was “hopeful” the faculty search would kickstart an effort to develop an ethnic studies concentration.

“This effort has been one of my highest priorities as dean, an effort that advances work that I’ve been committed to throughout my career, made possible through an unprecedented level of investment from FAS,” she wrote.

The timeline for hiring those faculty is now unclear. University President Lawrence S. Bacow announced an immediate University-wide salary and hiring freeze, among other budget cuts, Monday. Gay followed by announcing FAS-specific budget cuts, including the suspension of nearly all faculty searches, on Wednesday.

Gay wrote in her letter to the coalition that Harvard’s ethnic studies job candidates may face a higher burden than other faculty at their current universities to sustain a sense of community during the pandemic.

“Out of respect for the candidates and the process, we had no choice but to suspend until the people and process have the time and attention they need and deserve,” Gay wrote.

—Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

—Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.