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A group of students calling themselves the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition at the university’s Widener Library. Via The New York Times
A group of students calling themselves the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition at the university’s Widener Library. Via The New York Times

Latino students accuse Harvard of using "diversity" as a marketing tool

Harvard's denial of tenure to a Hispanic professor opens the debate on the lack of attention to ethnic studies. A university for the elite or an elitist…

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They don't retain talent, even if they do defend the race quota in admissions. This is what Latino, Asian and African-American students say after Harvard University refused to grant tenure to Hispanic professor Lorgia Garcia Peña, one of the few professors at the institution who specializes in Caribbean and Latino studies, in a center where only 12% of tenured professors are minorities, according to NYT.

Last month, students demonstrated by occupying the institution's admissions building and filing a letter demanding transparency in the tenure process for professors and the creation of an ethnic studies department, accusing Harvard of using them as a symbol of diversity when it doesn't invest enough in academic areas that address their history and experiences.

The news further shakes the foundation of the university, which is still struggling with a lawsuit challenging its admissions policy.

“We need more than just letting us in,” said Laura Veira-Ramirez, 21, an undocumented Colombian student who worked part-time at the admissions office. 

“We need resources once we get to campus, and part of those resources is an ethnic studies program,” she concluded.

A really diverse university?

While the Harvard president refuses to explain to academics across the country who have expressed dismay over the university's refusal to grant tenure to Dr. Garcia Peña, Harvard faculty do not understand this refusal either and are calling for a review of the process to discover whether there is further evidence of this lack of diversity in the professorship. 

Something that, according to the data, seems to be true...

Only 81 of 2,490 Harvard professors are Hispanic, according to Harvard's Fact Book, while a report on diversity last year noted that 8 percent of nearly 1,000 tenured professors are minorities, including blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.  

12% of Harvard's tenured professors are from underrepresented minorities, according to the NYT

The less diverse the professors, the fewer courses on ethnic studies... And vice versa.

While the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Claudine Gay, assured NYT that she intended to increase the supply of ethnic studies and even create a department for the specialty, they need to recruit professors first—which they've been trying to do since the summer. She also said she would review the tenure process.

As if she had predicted the scandal, Garcia Peña herself published an article last year where she wrote that ethnic studies programs make universities "a little less racist, a little less white."

"They provide students with space to think and write about important issues," she added. "They also provide support for students of color who are made to feel like second-class citizens elsewhere."

The struggle for the creation of an ethnic studies program at Harvard is not new. In 2017 they succeeded in creating an ethnic studies course in history and literature - another minor existed since 2009 - but now they are demanding a full department and specialization

It is a controversy shared by other colleges, such as Yale, where last March 13 professors withdrew from the Ethnic, Race, and Migration program due to lack of support until the university agreed to devote more resources to it. And in 2016, at Dartmouth, a professor of Asian American studies was denied tenure, causing a major stir over the treatment of teachers who specialize in race, gender, and sexuality. 

Ethnic studies programs make universities "a little less racist, a little less white," García Peña wrote.

Regarding Dr. Garcia Peña, Robert Reid-Pharr, a professor in the departments of Women's Studies, Gender and Sexuality, and African and African American Studies, told NYT: 

"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.”

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