History Department Lacks Latin American Professors

After two unsuccessful searches to replace Harvard’s two endowed professorships in Latin American history, the history department will, for the second consecutive year, rely on visiting faculty to fill the two positions.

While the history department awaits clearance from the University to launch another search in the spring, undergraduates hoping to write Latin American history theses and graduate students in the field continue to find creative ways to pursue their course of study.

“No one feels worse about the absence of Latin American history professors than the history department,” said James T. Kloppenberg, the department’s chair. “We went from having three titans in the field to having nobody.”

Until a few years ago, three eminent professors defined Harvard’s Latin American history program. John H. Coatsworth left Harvard for Columbia in 2008, and John Womack Jr. ’59 and Kenneth R. Maxwell—experts on Mexican and Brazilian history, respectively—both retired in 2007.

The department began its search for replacement faculty as soon as Womack and Maxwell decided to retire and has offered appointments to two applicants, Kloppenberg said.

Both chose to remain in their current academic positions due to reasons involving a spouse and a partner.

Over the past few years, visiting professors have been teaching the department’s Latin American history course offerings.

Peer institutions, including Yale, Princeton, Brown, and Stanford, all have between one to three full professors of Latin American history.

Some faculty and students expressed concerns that the failure to fill these vacancies suggests a lower priority for Latin American history than other more traditional fields of study, such as American and European history, at Harvard.

Maxwell said he could not imagine the University allowing a similar lapse in filling tenured positions in the more traditional historical fields.

“It’s really incredible to have let that [strong Latin American] tradition die,” he said. “It’s an amazing gap, and it needs to be filled speedily, I think.”

Maxwell added the hiring delay also affects the graduate student admissions in Latin American history. To his knowledge, he said Harvard’s history department has not accepted one graduate student studying Latin American history since he and his colleagues left.

“We haven’t admitted any [graduate] students because we don’t have any senior faculty in place in Latin America,” Kloppenberg said. “We wouldn’t think of admitting a student without the proper faculty. Students continue to apply, but we just can’t take them.”

For undergraduate history concentrators, studying Latin American history is a matter of being persistent and creative, according to Marcelo Cerullo ’10, whose Hoopes Prize-winning thesis tracked the development of the Brazilian coffee industry in the late 19th century.

Over the course of his career, Cerullo said he took courses related to Latin America in other departments—such as Professor Steven R. Levitsky’s popular class on Latin American comparative politics—as well as the occasional history offering with a visiting professor.

“I don’t think you’re fighting a much steeper uphill battle than anyone else—motivated students will find interesting courses to take,” he added. “Maybe because I was forced to be creative in coming up with courses to take, I learned a lot of other things I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. I don’t feel that I received a lesser education, or a more incomplete education.”

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at


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