January 02, 2020

Denying Professor Tenure, Harvard Sparks a Debate Over Ethnic Studies
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- The news spread quickly, angering Latino students and others at Harvard: One of the few professors who specialized in Latino and Caribbean studies and devoted time to mentoring students of color had been denied tenure.The students sprang into action, occupying an administration building last month and also disrupting a faculty meeting. They submitted a letter to administrators demanding transparency about the tenure process and the creation of an ethnic studies department. And on the day in December that early admissions decisions were to be released, black, Latino and Asian students protested in the admissions office, accusing the university of using them as tokens in its professed commitment to diversity, while failing to invest in academic areas critical to their lives.It is an unsettled moment at Harvard. The university is still fighting a lawsuit challenging its use of race-based affirmative action in admissions; a district court judge ruled in Harvard's favor in October, but the plaintiffs are appealing.But at the very moment that Harvard is defending its use of race in admissions, citing diversity as a key component of the education it provides, students of color are saying that once they are on campus, Harvard devalues their history and experiences and fails to retain professors who support them.Several students who testified during the legal challenge to Harvard's admissions policies, saying it was important for the school to be able to consider race in admissions, are now among those criticizing the decision to deny tenure to the professor, Lorgia Garcia Peña.One of them, Catherine Ho, 20, a junior, took part in the December protest at the admissions office, where students held signs with messages like "After You Admit Us, Don't Forget Us!" and "Want Diversity? Teach Our Histories!"Ho, who is Vietnamese-American, accused Harvard of using her and other students who testified to burnish its image at the trial and afterward, while refusing to listen to what they said they needed in terms of resources once they got to campus."I am tired of Harvard using my story without giving me ethnic studies so I can fully understand what my story even means," Ho said during the protest, to cheers from the other students. She added, "Harvard, stop using our stories when you won't listen to us."Another student, Laura Veira-Ramirez, 21, a senior, was one of several who worked part-time in the admissions office, doing outreach to minority applicants or those who came from poor backgrounds or would be the first in their families to go to college.Lately, she said, she and other students had felt uncomfortable about reassuring those prospective students that they would feel welcome at Harvard."We need more than just letting us in," said Veira-Ramirez, who came to the United States from Colombia, without legal permission, when she was 3 years old. Veira-Ramirez has protection from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that protected young unauthorized immigrants."We need resources once we get to campus," she said, "and part of those resources is an ethnic studies program."The students have not been alone in voicing concern over the decision to deny tenure to Garcia Peña. Scholars from around the country have written to Harvard's president expressing dismay with the decision, and Harvard faculty have demanded a review of the tenure process, with an eye to whether it is undermining the university's effort to diversify its faculty.Garcia Peña declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Harvard.Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard's president, has declined to discuss the reasons for denying Garcia Peña tenure, citing the confidentiality of the process. The dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay, has said that she wants to increase offerings in ethnic studies but believes that hiring more faculty must come first, before creating a new major. Last June, she announced that Harvard would hire three to four new faculty working in ethnic studies; the search is still ongoing. Gay also said in response to the faculty concerns that she would conduct a review of the tenure process.Just 81 of Harvard's 2,490 faculty members identify as Hispanic, according to Harvard's Fact Book; the university would not say how many of those are tenured. According to a 2019 report on faculty diversity, 8% of the roughly 1,000 tenured faculty are underrepresented minorities, which includes people who are black, Latino and Native American. Of the tenure-track faculty, 12% are underrepresented minorities.The controversy echoes recent conflicts at other schools. At Yale last March, 13 professors withdrew from the university's Ethnicity, Race and Migration program, citing a lack of support; the professors later rejoined the program after the university agreed to increase its resources. At Dartmouth, an English professor who specialized in Asian-American studies was denied tenure in 2016, setting off an uproar among students and faculty about the college's failure to attract and retain faculty of color and the treatment of faculty who specialized in the studies of race, gender and sexuality.A spokeswoman for Dartmouth, Diana Lawrence, said, "Although we cannot comment on confidential tenure matters, Dartmouth is committed to inclusivity and diversity and has been steadily increasing its recruitment and retention of faculty and staff of color."Efforts to create an ethnic studies program at Harvard go back several decades. Undergraduates now have two ways to pursue ethnic studies: Students majoring in history and literature can focus on the subject, and students can minor in ethnicity, migration, rights. The ethnic studies track in history and literature was created in 2017, the minor in 2009. The students who are protesting now want a full-fledged department and the opportunity to major in ethnic studies.Garcia Peña has been involved in both of the existing programs, as well as the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures' program in Latinx studies. (Latinx is a gender-neutral term for people of Latin American heritage, used commonly in academia.)In an online article published last year, Garcia Peña wrote that ethnic studies programs make universities "a little less racist, a little less white.""They provide students with spaces for thinking and writing about important questions," she wrote. "They also provide support for students of color who are made to feel in every other course, like second class citizens who are reminded that they don't belong."In December, a group of Harvard faculty and administrators who teach in Asian American, Latino and Native American studies or run the existing programs that support ethnic studies released a letter about Garcia Peña's tenure denial that was suffused with a sense of frustration with what they said was the continual institutional resistance faced by their fields.They said that the denial of tenure to Garcia Peña had "severe repercussions" on their efforts to recruit and retain top faculty in their disciplines."While we understand that receiving tenure at Harvard is never assured," they wrote, "questions about the fairness of the promotion process for faculty in fields long misunderstood and dismissed at the university will inevitably arise until they are afforded the respect and resources given to other areas of study."The tenure process at Harvard is shrouded in secrecy. Garcia Peña's colleagues in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures voted unanimously to recommend her for tenure. Bacow then consulted a committee of experts from within and outside Harvard who remain anonymous, before denying Garcia Peña tenure.Faculty and students have questioned whether the process was fair, citing Garcia Peña's academic accomplishments, which include a book about the construction of Dominican racial and national identity. Some argued that the decision reflects an institutional lack of respect for work in ethnic studies, as well as a failure to reward the work of mentoring and supporting students.Robert Reid-Pharr, a professor in the departments of Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality and African and African American Studies, said, "We need to ask, not just in her but in all cases, how it is that certain faculty members -- particularly people of color, particularly women -- are being asked to do all sorts of extra work, but that work is not necessarily properly judged, or remunerated for that matter."Garcia Peña's supporters have also cited two troubling incidents from last year. In September, Garcia Peña found a hateful note tacked to her office door that attacked her race and gender. And in October, several students of color in one of her classes were questioned by Harvard University police officers when they were putting up an art project in Harvard Yard, an activity for which Garcia Peña had received permission.Cornel R. West, who holds a joint appointment between Harvard Divinity School and the Department of African and African American Studies, said that many students believed that the decision to deny tenure for Garcia Peña was driven by racism and sexism. He said he did not think that was the case, at least without clear evidence, but he did think that the decision was wrong."She belongs at Harvard, period," he said.Veira-Ramirez, the senior who participated in the admissions office protest, said that Garcia Peña was focused on helping students like her feel at home at one of the country's most elite universities."She wanted us to take up space at Harvard," she said. She recalled that, last fall, she had gone to the first meeting of one of Garcia Peña's classes and found the room packed, with people sitting on the floor and standing against the walls.Garcia Peña's response was telling, Veira-Ramirez said."She said, 'This room is not big enough, because Harvard doesn't think that we can fill a room for Latinx studies.'"This article originally appeared in The New York Times.(C) 2020 The New York Times Company
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