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Why Some Harvard Students Say An Ethnic Studies Department Is Needed Now04:22
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Harvard University students and faculty members rallied last week to protest the tenure denial of Prof. Lorgia García Peña and to demand the school create an ethnic studies department. (Quincy Walters/WBUR)
Harvard University students and faculty members rallied last week to protest the tenure denial of Prof. Lorgia García Peña and to demand the school create an ethnic studies department. (Quincy Walters/WBUR)

Students and faculty rallied in Harvard yard last week, banging on buckets, yelling: "What do we want? Ethnic Studies," and "If we don't get it, shut it down."

Despite the chants, the students said they feel the Ivy League school hasn't listened to their decades-old demand: create an ethnic studies department at Harvard University.

Sophomore Farah Afify, who usually considers herself an optimist, said she doesn't anticipate the school will have a department up and running by the time she graduates.

"We've fought for 48 years for this," Afify said. "And we know we're not going to get it until we make some demands of this university."

The Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, comprised of students and faculty, wants a department that would offer undergraduate concentrations in Native American and indigenous studies, Latinx studies, Asian American studies, and Arab and Muslim studies. They want graduate-level options, too.

Senior Liren Ma said such a department is urgently needed to respond to the ills of our time.

"You know Trump, but everything else that's going on," he said. "Really makes me think about all my classmates at Harvard who, if they had a little bit more exposure to some of the things you learn at ethnic studies class, maybe in 10, 20, 30 years they won't repeat the same mistakes people from Harvard 10, 20, 30 years ago made and are continuing to make in the positions of power that they've been given now."

Ma said he tells his friends to go to another school if they want to have reliable ethnic studies curricula.

Students can take ethnic studies courses at Harvard. They're mostly offered through the school's history and literature concentration.

Liana Chow, a junior, said she's had to cobble together her own curriculum.

"Any given semester, we might be browsing the course catalog and wondering 'will there be any Asian American classes this semester?' Sometimes there are and sometimes there aren't," she said. "My first semester here, there were no Asian American studies classes."

Harvard has denied multiple requests from WBUR to comment on the coalition's demand for Ethnic Studies. In the past week, however, Claudine Gay, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, wrote an email saying that the school's efforta to create the department are at a "delicate stage." To move forward with an Ethnic Studies program, she wrote, the school wants to hire four scholars in that area. Gay said they'd need to be "field-defining" choices. And the school then expects those professors to spearhead an effort toward creating a department.

But Chow fears the search could take years.

"My first semester here, there were no Asian American studies classes."

Liana Chow

"This faculty search still is not putting any sort of program in place," Chow said. "So we are hoping to see more structural support for keeping faculty members here."

The call for an ethnic studies department intensified just before Thanksgiving, when Harvard denied tenure to Lorgia García Peña, who's been teaching Latinx studies at the school since 2013.

García Peña is on Harvard's search committee, looking for professors to start the ethnic studies program. Members of the Ethnic Studies Coalition called the decision "hypocritical."

For many activists, the current fight for an ethnic studies department carries more than a passing resemblance to previous battles with the administration.

Suzanne Lynn, who returned to the school earlier this year when student activists from 1969 met with activists of today, remembered the fight to get an African American studies program at Harvard. And she's hopeful about the potential expansion of more departments centered around identity.

"In the last 50 years, our understanding of this country and its history have been transformed by these relatively new areas of study," she said.

Students in the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition say the school's African American studies department is one of the strongest in the country. And that gives them hope for Harvard's promised ethnic studies program.

This segment aired on December 13, 2019.

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Quincy Walters Twitter Reporter
Quincy Walters is a general assignment reporter for WBUR.

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