Students Debate Ethnic Studies

Students and faculty members called for students to take action to make Harvard devote more resources to ethnic studies at a panel last night entitled "The Future of Ethnic Studies at Harvard."

The panel, which included three faculty members and two students, was designed to "couple discussion between faculty and students about how to cultivate interest in ethnic studies," said Peggy T. Lim '00, executive editor of Diversity and Distinction, a monthly campus publication.

Diversity and Distinction sponsored the event with the Multicultural Issues Forum.

Panelists and audience members discussed the state of ethnic studies at Harvard and what they could do to improve Harvard's offerings.

Currently, Harvard's efforts center around an ad hoc committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences called the Committee on Ethnic Studies (CES) which distributes information, organizes discussion forums and manages a program of visiting professors.

But panelists said more should be done.

"Harvard should be ashamed of not having an ethnic studies concentration," said Doris Sommer, a professor of Romance languages and literatures. "If you want to study America, you have to study ethnic studies.... You have to study this country as it is right now."

Advocates of a new ethnic studies concentration seek an interdisciplinary program that would study ethnicity through fields ranging from economics to literature.

Trying to obtain such an education under current Harvard circumstances just isn't possib1e, according to panelist Tri M. Phuong '02.

"Current programs can't be redesigned to allow enough depth," he said.

Phuong and several audience members described the frustration of trying to integrate what they learn in electives dealing with ethnicity without a unifying concentration.

"Harvard is a multi-university...it lacks a certain coordination," said Leo Ou-fan Lee, Professor of East Asian languages and civilizations. "There are a multiplicity of disciplines and they're really not talking to each other."

Right now, Sommer said that the CES has funds that can be allotted to professors who are interested in developing new courses on ethnic studies.

But the panel told an audience of about 50 people that in order to get more resources for the discipline, students must demonstrate significant interest.

"We want you to tell your professors about this," Sommer said. "The push has to come from you."

Phuong said that student apathy toward ethnic studies is due to the fact that the subject "doesn't elicit a sense of urgency."

But according to Harvard Business School student Daniel Vasquez, the issue is too important to ignore.

"You really have to press your professors, the administration, all the way from Rudenstine on down," he said. "You guys [have] got to get pissed off. It's the students who really carry the torch."

Being a Harvard student allows students to make their opinions on the issue heard on a national level, added panelist Linda Schlossberg, a lecturer on women's studies.

"Don't underestimate what that Harvard label can do for you," she said. "Anything you do will make the national news."

After the forum concluded, clusters of students broke off into smaller discussions.

William L. Everson '02, director of public relations for the Asian American Brotherhood, said that the panel was instrumental in demonstrating what kind of initiative the students themselves need to take.

"The student body has to be motivated to take a proactive stance in making a change for the better," he said.

Organizers of the forum said they were optimistic that the panel would spur future ethnic studies activism.

"I really hope it generates something," said Tracy J. McNeal '02, assistant executive editor of Diversity and Distinction. "It was small but people here looked interested, enthused and dedicated. We'll see where it goes."