The Forty-Year Fight

Student activists hope to establish an ethnic-studies academic program at the College.

Juhwan Seo, founder of the Ethnic Studies Coalition at Harvard, received the Ames Award at the College’s Class Day Exercises last week for promoting ethnic studies within the history and literature concentration. The award is given to seniors who have shown heroic character and energy in helping others and whose substantial contributions may not have been acknowledged.Photograph by Jim Harrison

“I thought every college had an ethnic-studies program,” says Itzel Vasquez-Rodriguez ’17. She dreamed of pursuing Chicano studies in college, and says she was “shocked to learn that Harvard not only doesn’t have Chicano studies, they don’t even have an ethnic-studies department!” She applied and enrolled nevertheless—and began advocating for academic opportunities in her dream field. Perhaps her efforts could make it an option for future students.

Ethnic studies traces its history to a five-month-long protest by San Francisco State University (SFSU) students in 1968. These protests led to the establishment of such programs at most schools in the UC system, and eventually in the rest of the country. Gary Okihiro, a professor who founded Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race (CSER) in 1999 defines ethnic studies as the study of “power and how it articulates around the axes of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nation.”

Columbia now allows undergraduates to pursue ethnic studies through the CSER, specializing in a specific ethnicity or “comparative ethnicity.” Yale has an Ethnicity, Rights, and Migration department, established in 1997. But compared to other schools, Harvard lags in support for ethnic studies.

The most recent student-led efforts to put ethnic studies at Harvard on an equal footing with peer institutions began in November 2016, when the Ethnic Studies Coalition (ESC) circulated a petition outlining the goals of its campaign: an ethnic-studies department, a national research center, and designated tenured and tenure-track ethnic-studies faculty positions. Both Vasquez-Rodriguez and Juhwan Seo ’17, the founder of ESC, stress the importance of hiring more faculty. They note that Harvard does offer a secondary field in Ethnicity, Migration, Rights—and regard that as an important starting point—but they believe the University needs to expand its academic opportunities for interested students. EMR alone, they say, is not sufficient.

A History of Activism 

Just as SFSU’s Black Student Union helped establish that institution’s ethnic-studies department, Harvard’s African and African American studies department was created in response to pressure from black student organizations. In 1968, the black student organization Afro called for more academic opportunities related to black studies. Shortly thereafter, the Ad Hoc Committee of Black Students formed to work with the administration to realize these goals. In April 1969, after continuing student activism, the new department was formed.

After this major success, the fight for ethnic studies continued, this time with a focus on Latinx (a gender-neutral term for Latin American heritage) studies. According to a 2015 article in the Harvard Political Review, there have been 25 attempts to establish such a program at Harvard since 1972. In 2002 faculty also proposed the establishment of a Latino Studies Center—which then-University president Lawrence Summers rejected.

In 2009, Harvard established an Ethnic Studies Committee, which in 2012 changed its name to “Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights.” Students could pursue a secondary in ethnic studies, but eight years after the committee’s founding, that effort has not grown to the point where students can pursue a concentration in ethnic studies. In a 2015 interview with the Harvard Political Review, EMR administrative director Tessa Lowinske Desmond acknowledged that the secondary is not its own discipline, but a space that “incubates fields so that they can grow to become their own.” 

The past academic year brought a new wave of student activism. In November, the ESC gathered more than a thousand signatures on its petition. Then, in April, the committee on degrees in history and literature announced that its concentrators could specialize in an ethnic-studies track. ESC founder Seo told The Harvard Crimson at the time that this track was “the first step in the right direction and there’s a lot more to be done.”

Why Ethnic Studies?

Throughout its history, the campaign for ethnic studies has drawn criticism from administration and students alike. In a 1995 Crimson editorial, the newspaper’s staff argued that ethnic studies is not an academic discipline in its own right. Vasquez-Rodriguez believes this claim arose from a misunderstanding. “Ethnic studies is its own discipline,” she says, “complete with theoretical backgrounds, scholars, and methodologies.” She points to Okihiro’s formulation of the field as uniquely focused on “axes of power, centered around the experiences of people (especially minorities) in the United States.” “Ethnic studies is not a conglomeration of classes about race and/or ethnicity,” as the Crimson staff argued nearly a quarter-century ago, she says, and consequently cannot be studied properly through other concentrations. Furthermore, she points out, ethnic studies often connects the humanities and social sciences, and thus cannot be fully pursued through the existing social-studies concentration.

Other critics claim that ethnic studies will promote self-segregation. Seo says that this argument originates in another misunderstanding of the discipline. Ethnic studies “is not a topical discipline,” he explains: students would not focus on only one ethnicity. Instead, he says, it is one that can “offer a new lens, or perspective, or framework to understand anything in the world.”

Supporters like Vasquez-Rodriguez believe it is important to promote this discipline at Harvard because, she says, “every student should have the right to study vetted, legitimate fields of knowledge.” That is what has motivated her participation in ESC. Seo says it is critical to understand race and ethnicity in a nuanced manner, but believes Harvard is not contributing to this understanding because it does not hire faculty members who focus on ethnic studies. Future leaders who emerge from the ranks of Harvard students, he argues, must have an understanding of race and ethnicity. The ethnic-studies campaign is about “making sure Harvard College students get the education they deserve and that is necessary for them to be effective leaders.”

Though Vasquez-Rodriguez and Seo have graduated, they remain confident that their dream is attainable. She hopes that EMR, history and literature, and American studies will all work together to continue making progress toward this shared goal. He thinks that EMR could also partner with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences’ American studies program and the Warren Center for American History, both of which already engage in study of the lives of minorities in the United States. And both hope that undergraduates in ESC will continue talking with the administration. The goal: establishing an ethnic-studies department. 

Alisha Ukani ’20 is this magazine’s 2017 Daniel Steiner Undergraduate Editorial Fellow.

Read more articles by Alisha Ukani
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