Posted on January 2, 2020

Denying a Professor Tenure, Harvard Sparks a Debate Over Ethnic Studies

Kate Taylor, New York Times, January 2, 2020

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 García 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!”

Ms. 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.


The students have not been alone in voicing concern over the decision to deny tenure to Dr. García 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.

Dr. García Peña declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Harvard.


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 percent 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 percent are underrepresented minorities.


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.

Dr. García 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, Dr. García Peña wrote that ethnic studies programs make universities “a little less racist, a little less white.”


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 Dr. García 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.


Dr. García Peña’s supporters have also cited two troubling incidents from last year. In September, Dr. García 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 Dr. García 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 Dr. García 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.