Ethnic Studies' Future

News Feature

In order to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley students must fulfill a requirement in American cultures.

A student may take a course in any department that deals comparatively with any three of the five major ethnic groups in the United States--Euro-Americans, Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans.

"We want students to be exposed to the experiences of various racial groups," says Berkeley Professor LingChi Wang, head of the school's Asian-American studies program. "It's a way of engaging students in talking about race."

Extensive ethnic studies programs at other schools upset student advocates of ethnic studies at Harvard, who see a dearth of this sort of programming in the College's curriculum.

"We need courses particularly focused on ethnic studies. It simply isn't addressed in most courses," says Irene C. Cheng '97, president of the Asian American Association and a member of the Ethnic Studies Action Committee (ESAC).

Students at Harvard have been pushing for permanent--but elective--ethnic studies courses for nearly 20 years.

Coalitions of groups have faded in and out. ESAC and the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC) of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations are currently the best organized advocates of an ethnic studies curriculum.

Over the years, students have organized protests at Junior Parents' Weekend and hunger strikes on the steps of Widener Library.

And last spring, the AAC, presented a 300-page proposal to Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles and the Committee on Ethnic Studies chaired by Thomson Professor of Government Jorge I. Dominguez, asking for increased Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) commitment to ethnic studies.

But despite the hope of student advocates that "we have conquered that hurdle," debate at Harvard still focuses on the question of whether ethnic studies is a viable discipline.

Knowles says he defines ethnic studi very broadly, as "the study of race and ethnicity in the United States and worldwide."

Students, however, say that ethnic studies must be viewed much more specifically, as Asian American studies, Native American studies and American Latino studies.

"Ethnic studies is not the same thing as area studies," says Evelyn Hu-deHart, professor of history and director of the Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race in America (CSERA) at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

"The origin of area studies is tied to colonialism and imperialism. We developed [area studies] for the colonial and later imperial powers to understand these native societies," she adds.

Currently, students interested in studying ethnic studies at Harvard can consult a 50-page brochure available from the Office of the Dean For Undergraduate Education, University Hall 17.

Of the 90 courses listed in the brochure "Ethnic Studies at Harvard" which are not given under the guise of the Afro-American studies department, only 25 meet the standards of ethnic studies established by Harvard's student advocates and programs at other schools.

By contrast, Berkeley currently has more than 100 courses outside the university's ethnic studies program which meet the American cultures requirement.

In response to the perceived lack of ethnic studies programming at the College, the AAC and ESAC are working together to plan an ethnic studies conference on November 11. Speakers will include Wang and Hu-deHart. The student groups also plan to invite administrators and the members of the Committee on Ethnic Studies.

"We want to open up a dialogue with faculty and open up a dialogue with students," says Jennifer Ching '96, president of ESAC. "We want to give faculty and administrators a chance to talk to the scholars."

Despite students' efforts, some Harvard faculty members still say they believe that ethnic studies is not a viable and established academic field.

"It is an interdisciplinary field of interest, not a coherent discipline. It has no methodology," says Winthrop Professor of History Stephen A. Thernstrom, a member of the Committee on Ethnic Studies. "If a body of scholarship emerged that made it seem there really is a discipline here [then a separate program might be appropriate], but I don't see it at present."

Rather than creating a separate ethnic studies program, Harvard administrators seem committed to maintaining the current interdisciplinary approach to ethnic studies, incorporating the study of race and ethnicity in the United States into existing departments.

Assistant Professor of Government Michael Jones-Correa says he thinks Harvard is already adequately addressing ethnic studies in the curriculum.

"It's not the case that ethnic studies is being ignored by professors....If you look at courses being offered in government, sociology and anthropology, you'll find in each of those departments some courses that deal with and address issues of ethnicity, race and multi-culturalism," he says. "It's very clearly the case that Harvard is not being negligent."

But Wang says such an approach to ethnic studies is not adequate.

"I think that if the integrationist approach has been successful, there would be no need for ethnic studies. But ethnic studies came into being precisely because of the failure of the integrationist approach," he says.

Hu-deHart argues that it is ridiculous for Harvard to resist creating an ethnic studies program when it has a nearly 30-year-old program in Afro-American studies, which she considers to be a sub-field of ethnic studies.

"From the outside we see these big names [in Afro-American studies], absolutely well-known people and outstanding scholars," Hu-deHart says. "But the deans and Professor Dominguez are still arguing. 'Is ethnic studies a discipline? Is it for real?"'

"You must have already acknowledged that if there's a department of Afro-American studies," she says. "[The other ethnic studies programs] are all patterned after Afro-American studies."

Isolating Afro-Am

But Harvard administrators are careful to distinguish between Afro-Am and other areas of ethnic studies.

In an August letter to the AAC, Knowles and Dominguez wrote, "Our faculty do not favor limiting the study of ethnicity to a handful of groups whose own self-definition has been changing over time and will no doubt continue to do so. Nor is there a good reason to limit, or to privilege, the study of some ethnic groups at the expense of others."

Dominguez says that Harvard's Afro-American studies program is not an example of limited ethnic studies, because the department is based on a racial, rather than an ethnic, category.

"It was very carefully chosen wording," he says. "[In the letter] we're talking about ethnicity. Ethnicity is much more malleable than race."

Jones-Correa says that it would perhaps have been better to establish an inclusive ethnic studies program, rather than an Afro-American studies program, 25 years ago, as Berkeley did. But he also says it is possible to make a distinction between Afro-American studies and other areas of ethnic studies.

"It is a very distinct history. [African-Americans are] not quite like other ethnic groups or immigrant groups," Jones-Correa says. "I don't think that having Afro-Am here means that every group should advocate its own separate program."

Thernstrom, though, says he's not sure even Afro-American studies is worthy of an independent department.

"My own view is that I feel that Afro-American studies could really be dealt with adequately without a department, that an interdisciplinary committee would be perfectly serviceable and appropriate," he says.

Model Programs

Berkeley's ethnic studies department, with its five undergraduate programs, is 26 years old. It began in 1969 after a 10-week student strike nearly paralyzed the university, Wang says.

"The faculty agreed reluctantly to establish a department of ethnic studies," Wang says. "Over the last 26 years, it has not been easy for [ethnic studies faculty]. We have been treated as the intellectual fringe."

Nevertheless, nearly every Asian American student at Berkeley will elect to take at least one course in Asian American studies during their undergraduate careers, he says.

"We are turning students away by the hundreds," he adds.

And just last week, the University of Colorado at Boulder approved the creation of an ethnic studies department. Until now, students have been able to major in ethnic studies, with a concentration in "Afro-American studies, American Indian studies, Asian American studies or Chicano/Latino studies."

In the last two years, Stanford, Brown and Princeton have all made commitments to ethnic studies. After a student hunger strike in 1994, Stanford now has committees working on the creation of three programs: Asian American studies, Chicano studies and the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity. Asian American and Chicano studies programs will be voted on during this academic year.

"I think it's very forward looking," says Stanford's Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano. "We very consciously chose to go [toward] this comparative framework. We just need to work comparatively and globally."

Students, regardless of their particular concentration, will be required to take comparative courses in their first and senior years.

Yarbro- Bejarano says she hopes the program will be in place by next fall.

"There's a lot of support, but you can't ever predict what will happen," she says. "I'm very optimistic."

Princeton is developing a comparative ethnic studies program in its certificate program in American studies, according to Dean of the College Nancy Weiss Malkiel. In a program similar to a minor, Princeton students can earn certificates in subjects outside their meiors.

"We have a determination to develop under the aegis of our program in American studies work in the comparative study of the history and culture and perspectives of the peoples of America, broadly defined," Malkiel says.

Princeton currently has no plan to develop a degree program or a program in any of the specific fields of ethnic studies.

In the spring of 1994, a Brown University committee recommended the creation of an undergraduate concentration in ethnic studies. It is not yet clear if there will be one concentration or individual concentrations in each of the subfields.

According to Brown spokesperson Tracie Sweeney, by the end of this year, Brown should have a committee to advise independent ethnic studies concentrations and be developing a two-course introductory program.

By the end of the 1998-99 academic year, Brown should have an undergraduate concentration in ethnic studies.

Ethnic Studies' Future at Harvard

Although Harvard's student activists admit they would like to have an undergraduate concentration, they are reluctant to advocate, a course of action beyond that proposed in their spring proposal to Knowles.

That report calls for four endowed professorships, one each in Asian American studies, American Latino studies, Native American studies and comparative ethnic studies.

"Basically [we want] a program that acknowledges the legitimacy of ethnic studies as its own discipline," says Julie C. Kim '97, co-chair of the AAC. "The question of whether there should be specific departments, I don't think it's a useful question."

Kim and AAC co-chair Veronica S. Jung '97 have suggested that the funds for those professorships come out of Capital Campaign funds Knowles is unwilling to commit these funds.

"It would be irresponsible of me to do anything else than to put resources in departments where the need is greatest," Knowles says.

In their letter responding to the AAC's proposal, Knowles and Dominguez acknowledge that FAS hopes to raise enough money for 40 new professorships. Those teaching positions have not yet been assigned to departments. The letter does say that FAS is willing to accept donations aimed specifically at the teaching and research on issues of race and ethnicity.

"This letter was the first time the dean made any connection regarding the future." Dominguez says. "It was never clear that Harvard was ready to use funds in this way."

Berkeley's Wang argues that Harvard, as a top-notch research university, should have at least nine professorships in ethnic studies, there in each of the major fields of Asian American studies, Native American studies and American Latino studies.

In arguing for tenured professorships, Harvard student supporters of ethnic studies say their main concern is the creation of permanent courses in ethnic studies. At their last meeting with Dean of Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell, the AAC presented a preliminary proposal for an ethnic studies course in the general education curriculum.

"At this point, getting involved in the politics of departmentalization is missing the point of where we are," Jung says. "It's a shield behind which the administrators can bypass the fact that there aren't permanent courses."

More than 25 years after the University of California founded a comprehensive ethnic studies program, students say Harvard is lagging and that administrators are hiding behind...CrimsonAnne Marie L. TaberJULIE C. KIM '97