Harvard Advocates’ Four Decade​ Fight For An Ethnic Studies Program

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Harvard Graduation

By Ann Thuy Nguyen, AsAmNews Intern

Earlier this month, AsAmNews reported that three student and alumni groups have sent letters to the Harvard University’s President Lawrence S. Bacow, pushing for a dedicated ethnic studies program following the departure of two-tenure track ethnic studies professors. The letters were part of an ongoing effort that has lasted over four decades.

The groups — the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance, and the Coalition For A Diverse Harvard — are one of many Harvard affiliates who have been a part of the four-decade-long push to establish a formal ethnic studies department at the university.

The first proposal for a formalized ethnic studies program at Harvard was submitted by then-history professor Jack (John) Womack in 1972. The Crimson, Harvard’s student newspaper, reported that Harvard affiliates have submitted 12 formal proposals in total and circulated petitions calling for an ethnic studies department since that first proposal — including one petition in 2016 which received over 1,000 signatures. 

Even 47 years after Womack’s first proposal, the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) only offers one secondary major in Ethnicity, Migration, Rights or Latina/o Studies, and a secondary concentration in the History and Literature, which the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition described as “poorly supported” and “under-resourced” in an open letter sent to the university president in June 2018.

The letter also mentioned that the lack of ethnic studies scholarship puts the renowned institution behind other prestigious universities like Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Brown. 

“Harvard lags behind its peer institutions because it does not invest in the field that is producing the most crucial scholarship for understanding the racialization of people of color in the United States and beyond,” the letter reads.

In recent years, Harvard has experienced changes in its administration, including the promotion of Claudine Gay to FAS Dean in 2018. Gay, whose academic discipline focuses on African American studies, government, and racial ethnic politics, said last year that she believed the strengthening of future programs begins at faculty recruitment.

Yet with the loss of two esteemed ethnic studies professors, ethnic studies advocates, like Harvard undergraduate student Alice Cheng, wants to convey the importance of a formalized institutional structure for potential hires.

Cheng is a co-coordinator of the Task Force on Asian and Pacific Studies (TAPAS), situated under the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition. She told AsAmNews that the organization wanted to emphasize the need for a pathway for both professors and students to fully participate in this area of study.

“Professors and faculty should have some kind of structure to be hired into that somehow provides to them a scholarly community, in order to hold them at Harvard and have the resources to thrive,” said Cheng.

She also said that the program would allow scholarly pursuits for prospective ethnic studies students.

“A program allows for resources to be dedicated to look at people of color and center those experiences, instead of dedicating a day or a week to it,” said Cheng. “For students who are interested in studying ethnic studies, without having a program for it, things are decentralized.” 

She added that “those who want to pursue a path in ethnic studies scholarship aren’t able to necessarily do so because there is no pathway.”

After meeting with Dean Gay, Cheng said that she and other students remain hopeful that they will one day succeed.

“There is hope in terms of establishing some of kind of structure for ethnic studies in the future, although we aren’t really sure how many years it will take,” said Cheng.

“We are wary and cautious because it’s a constant excuse that it will take a few years to get this done,” she emphasized. “It’s been 47 years now and there’s still no solid structure or way for people to pursue ethnic studies.”

In light of Harvard’s landmark affirmative action trial, based the allegations of Asian Americans discrimination in their admissions process, Cheng spoke on the growing need to identify solutions for academic diversity.

“Now that the trial is over, we don’t want Harvard to just move on but instead want them to actually address issues affecting its student of color, one of which is the demand for ethnic studies.”

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