Harvard's Latino Problem

This weekend’s 15th Annual Latino Law Policy and Business Conference celebrated the rise of Latinos in the U.S. and Latin America, but also revealed Harvard’s most glaring weakness: After forty years, a Latino Studies Center is still missing on campus.

Among the topics discussed at the Conference, which featured former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, was a session focused on the possibility of a Latino Studies Center at Harvard and hosted by the Harvard Latino Student Alliance, a university-wide student organization. The session is part of a wider HLSA campaign that aims to establish a Latino Studies Center at Harvard University.

The motivation is simple: If you were a Colombian student or professor, would you go to the Argentine Center for support? If you were Ghanaian, would you get a degree in Nigerian Studies? Why should a U.S. Latino restrict themselves to issues and studies about Latin America? It essentially neglects their experience north of the border and ignores the fact that Latinos have a range of identities that include aspects of their countries of origin and the United States.

Since 1994, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies has been a great resource to students on campus. But the Center’s leadership also recognizes that their charter, focused on Latin America, cannot provide adequate coverage of the “U.S.” part of the Latino identity. In fact, in our Spring 2011 efforts to establish HLSA, the Rockefeller Center was unable to serve as our sponsoring entity because of this very issue. Fortunately, our application to become a university-wide organization received the support of Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership, which has been an incredible resource and partner and is a key reason why HLSA exists today.

If the proposition is so clear, then why doesn’t Harvard already have a Latino Studies Center? For nearly forty years, students, faculty and staff have asked the same question. Earlier attempts to establish a Center in 1971, 1979, 1993, 2001, and 2005 were all rebuffed by Harvard administration.

Resistance to the creation of a Latino Studies Center has taken several different forms. One argument, called “Balkanization,” holds that focusing on a single ethnic group encourages disunity. But this argument has already been played out and found its conclusion. Nearly every other elite institution long ago established a center for Latino Studies. Both Yale and Stanford founded centers in 1977 and Columbia founded theirs in 1920.

What seems like just an academic argument is becoming an explicit strategic imperative. Harvard is simply losing out in the battle to attract and retain the nation’s top Latino talent. The Medical School is training fewer Latinos to become future physicians than the national average, at a time when the needs of the healthcare system demand the opposite. And in 2010, Harvard ranked 3rd among elite institutions, behind Columbia and Stanford, in the number of Hispanic Ph.Ds graduated, despite graduating more Ph.Ds in total.

This inability to maintain pre-eminence among students extends to faculty as well. Harvard’s vaunted History department has been without a tenured professor of Latin American history for years. The Business School and the Law School have a dearth of faculty with core expertise on U.S. Latino issues. Of those faculty members who led previous proposals for a Center in 2001 and 2005, many have left for opportunities at competing universities.

And we have yet to mention the growth of the Latino population. By 2020, the U.S. Department of Education projects that Latinos will make up more than one out of every six postsecondary students. This will affect Harvard’s future candidate pool and therefore its campus environment. Current Latino students are disillusioned with the University’s continued refusal to make a commitment, and Latino alumni—of all schools—are growing tired as well.

But despite our frustration with the lack of support, we care deeply about Harvard. For HLSA and its members, it is as much in our interests, as well as in those of the University, to maintain Harvard’s pre-eminence among all groups domestic and international. There have been enough discussions and proposals of what a Latino Studies Center could look like to be able to launch an initiative very quickly. All that is needed is a commitment from the University.

We urge President Drew Faust to put aside the mistakes of previous administrations and work with us in establishing, after so many years, a Latino Studies Center at Harvard. Students, faculty, staff and alumni want it. And the University needs it.

Michael J. Trejo is pursuing a joint Master’s in Public Policy and Master’s in Business Administration at Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Business School, graduating in 2013. He is the President of the Harvard Latino Student Alliance, a university-wide student organization.

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