Our Forty-Four Years of Struggle Must End Now

On Nov. 15, 2016, just one week after the presidential election, President Faust wrote a letter that envisioned a Harvard “enriched, not embattled, by difference and diversity” and called us to exercise “our capacities and our values” to heal this nation. In response to her bold proposition, we, the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, write appealing for critical ethnic studies at Harvard.

We believe that this is a pivotal moment to fulfill intellectual needs that have gone unaddressed for too long. The president-elect’s political platform was built on xenophobic, sexist, and racist rhetoric and policy proposals, which, even within the first few days of the election, have inspired hate crimes against many marginalized groups in the United States. We believe this calls for urgent action on Harvard’s part to be ever more proactive in educating "the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society," as the mission of Harvard College states, who are grounded in values of equity and justice.

Over the past 44 years, Harvard students have submitted 11 proposals for ethnic studies. Today, neither a concentration nor a department for ethnic studies exists at Harvard, while our peer institutions have established research centers, departments, and programs in ethnic studies. In his 1903 book “Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois prophetically declared, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line,” but today’s political climate reveals that we have yet to overcome that color line. How can Harvard be a leading academic institution for the 21st century, and in this political climate, without an institutional commitment to the study of race and ethnicity in all of its multiplicity?

Currently, the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights, founded as the Committee on Ethnic Studies, offers only undergraduate secondary fields. Though many of us are members of the EMR community and have been nurtured by its affiliated faculty, EMR remains under-resourced, and its current structure is inadequate to meet the needs of students and faculty.

In addition, Harvard’s Department of African and African American Studies and Hutchins Center for African and African American Research indicate to us Harvard’s ability to create and fund scholarship at the forefront of studies of race and ethnicity. However, without similar strengths in other areas of the study of race and ethnicity, the University fails to undertake a comprehensive examination of differences between and across racial and ethnic identities as well as histories while risking the perpetuation of a black/white binary.

Students and faculty across schools and departments at Harvard have demonstrated their interest in and dedication to ethnic studies over the years. During the past year alone, we have organized teach-ins, town halls, and workshops on ethnic studies. Harvard students continue to pursue ethnic studies, even given the limited intellectual and material support from the University. We, then, find it incomprehensible that our institution continues to overlook our appeals and consequently fail to foster our intellectual growth.

Our proposal for structural change includes, but is not limited to, the following. Many of our concerns are also reflected in the recent petition to protect undocumented students.

We ask that Harvard establish a Department of Ethnic Studies, which would offer undergraduate concentrations and secondary fields in Native American and Indigenous Studies, Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, Arab and Muslim American Studies, and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies, as well as Ph.D. degrees and graduate-level secondary fields in Ethnic Studies. The University can only be a leading institution of learning by providing the necessary institutional structures for students to critically examine the historical and contemporary constructions of race and ethnicity.

In order to provide much-needed intellectual space for students, scholars, and faculty, we ask Harvard to also establish a center that would be a national and international hub for research in critical ethnic studies in comparative, national, transnational, and global frameworks. Currently, Harvard falls far behind its peer institutions as a host for research on race, ethnicity, and power. The center would promote intergenerational and interdisciplinary engagement by sponsoring a variety of events, including conferences, workshops, and seminars.

Lastly, it is critical that Harvard recruit and retain Ethnic Studies faculty and faculty of color by dedicating tenured, tenure-track, and visiting professorships for Ethnic Studies and its allied fields such as Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and African and African American Studies. No academic program can be sustained without a community of dedicated and distinguished faculty and scholars.

We believe that now is the time to act—for the University to be at the forefront of teaching, learning, and research in an academic field that seeks to examine some of the most fundamental and critical questions of our time. Indeed, the University must renew its dedication to developing leaders who can make a difference at home and globally.


Ruodi Duan is a second year Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History. Helen J. Kim is a fifth year Ph.D. Candidate in the Committee on the Study of Religion. Juhwan Seo ’17 is a joint Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender & Sexuality concentrator living in Leverett House. They write representing the views of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition.

This op-ed is based on a petition to support ethnic studies at Harvard, which has more than 700 signatures from Harvard students and alumni. The petition has been officially endorsed by Asian American Association, Black Students Association, Chinese Students Association, Concilio Latino, Native Americans at Harvard College, and South Asian Association.

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