The Coalition for a Diverse Harvard hosted an online panel for Harvard alumni last Wednesday to advocate for the immediate establishment of an Ethnic Studies department at Harvard.
The event, titled “What the Hell is Ethnic Studies? And Why Should Every Alum Care in This Moment?”, featured Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition activists Alondra Ponce ’21, Raquel C. Rivera ’23, and Ajay V. Singh ’21 alongside guest speakers University of Southern California professor and author Viet Thanh Nguyen, San Francisco State University associate professor Jason Ferreira, UCLA professor and filmmaker Renee E. Tajima-Pena ’80, and Harvard History Professor Philip J. Deloria.
Citing the 48-year-long history of activism calling for an Ethnic Studies department at Harvard, the students criticized the University for not having made sufficient progress. Harvard announced a faculty search for four Ethnic Studies professors in 2019, but has since suspended the search due to the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 70 universities offer ethnic studies departments, and many others provide greater faculty and financial support to their respective departments than Harvard does, Singh said.
He added that he believes Harvard’s 11 Ethnic Studies courses pale in comparison to the 49 courses offered by Yale University’s “Ethnicity, Race, and Migration” program during the 2020-21 academic year.
Raphael W. Bostic ’87, a Coalition-endorsed candidate for Overseer of the Harvard Alumni Association, said he thinks academics often communicate a general disrespect for Ethnic Studies.
“I think that what we've seen in our field and across the board is that studies around ethnicity are not respected. And that's a real problem, because it's really shutting out the experiences and the realities of so many people,” Bostic said during the meeting.
In addition to an established Ethnic Studies department at Harvard, HESC detailed its other demands, including the reversal of former Romance Languages and Literatures Professor Lorgia García-Peña’s tenure decision, the abolishment of the President’s ad hoc committee in tenure cases, and the creation of physical spaces for research and multicultural purposes run by HESC.
The University received intense backlash — demonstrated through sit-ins, rallies, and letters to administrators with thousands of signatures — after denying tenure on Nov. 27 to García-Peña, who specialized in Latinx studies.
Citing the Overseer and Elected Director positions on the Harvard Alumni Association, Coalition Board member Jane Sujen Bock wrote in an email that she sees endorsing candidates with an “explicit and active commitment to Ethnic Studies” as another integral part of the Coalition’s efforts. This year, the Coalition endorsed five candidates for Overseer and six for Director.
“They are not merely paying lip service to the idea of Ethnic Studies, but have a real understanding of the field, a desire to know more and a deep commitment to advocating for it at Harvard,” Bock wrote.
At the end of the event, three Coalition-endorsed candidates for Overseer of the Harvard Alumni Association shared their experiences with and conclusions on Ethnic Studies.
Bostic said he views Ethnic Studies as more than just studying issues of power, but rather as a window to understanding the burdens people of different ethnicities bear.
“Whatever ethnicity you have in this country, you carry extra burdens and that impacts how you interact with society, how you contribute to society and the things that are possible,” Bostic said. “That has real implications for our society and is really important for us to study.”
Like Bock, endorsed candidate David H. Eun ’89 discussed the influence of the Overseer position, and said he views the campaign for Ethnic Studies as a change that must happen with the support of people at levels of the University.
“I don't think Ethnic Studies should be something just for ethnic minorities and students of color,” Eun said. “Having those who are actually part of the power structure exposed, integrated, conversant and knowledgeable about Ethnic Studies is also part of the solution. And so I think it's something that I will passionately embrace."
Endorsed candidate Diego A. Rodriguez singled out Harvard dedicating a “committed budget” to Ethnic Studies as the solution to hiring a core faculty team and establishing the department.
“That's the way to transform this clear vision, which we all share here, into a reality, which will shape the lives of all hearts, all Harvard students for the better,” he said.
Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Rachael Dane declined to comment on the criticisms from the panel and HESC's demands.
Clarification: August 24, 2020
This article has been updated to clarify the distinction between the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard and the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition.
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