Ethnic Studies Advocates Criticize Diversity Task Force Proposals

UPDATED: October 29, 2017 at 4:03 p.m.

After a University-wide task force released its preliminary set of recommendations for improving diversity at Harvard in September, some ethnic studies advocates have raised concerns that specific mentions of race and ethnicity were left out.

The Presidential Task Force for Inclusion and Belonging released a draft executive summary last month that outlines a set of “Shared Standards” and calls on schools to ensure historically marginalized groups experience “full membership in the Harvard community.” It is the first set of recommendations that the group—which University President Drew G. Faust convened in 2016—has released to the public.

But some ethnic studies proponents charge that the document’s ambiguity leaves questions about the substance of the proposals.

Mayra Rivera, faculty chair of the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights, pointed to two recommendations in the task force’s document that she said have potential to advance ethnic studies: one recommendation promoting faculty diversity, and another that suggests creating University-wide research centers for “Identity, Politics, and Culture” and “Inclusion and Belonging.”

Yet the draft did not explicitly call for a dedicated ethnic studies program or center, which advocates of ethnic studies have requested for decades. In their most recent effort, the Ethnic Studies Coalition petitioned the University to create such a center and increase faculty hiring and renewal in the field.

Government professor and task force co-chair Danielle S. Allen said that she views ethnic studies proposals as “College-specific.” In contrast, she said, the two centers that the task force proposed would bring together faculty from across Harvard’s schools who work on issues relating to diversity and inclusion.

Professor Danielle Allen
Danielle S. Allen co-chaired the Presidential Task Force for Inclusion and Belonging.

“As a campus, I don’t think we’ve been able to leverage all the work that’s been going on. There’s a bigger collective body of work than is often visible to students,” Allen said. “Partly, it’s a matter of shining a light on the work that’s there and giving the faculty who work in these domains a chance to work on designing a structure to advance their work and support their efforts to build curricular efforts.”

Rivera called the language of the recommendation “broad and capacious.” While she said she understood that a University-wide task force must take a broad approach, she said she “would have expected to see some language of race and ethnicity.”

“It names identity, politics, and culture and the assumption is that that would include questions of race, ethnicity, always in the relationship with other axes of difference like class, gender, sexual identity, and all that,” she said. “Naming it would express a commitment.”

Sally Chen ’19, who leads the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies and is a member of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, also pointed out the lack of language addressing race and ethnicity. Chen pointed to Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, as well as Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, as examples.

“Whatever form this takes, it should necessarily mention race and ethnicity as an important part of what identity constitutes,” Chen said.

The task force intends to release its final recommendations at the end of the semester after collecting feedback from groups across the University, according to Allen. Chen said she hopes to see more detail about what form the center—or centers—will take.

“Where we want to see more elaboration in the final report is definitely elaborating more on what ‘Identity, Politics, and Culture’ means [and] more specific references to race and ethnicity in its title or in its description,” Chen said.

Allen said the group decided on “Identity, Politics, and Culture” as a framework for the center, since she envisions it as a place to unite research across disciplines in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences with projects at other schools.

“There’s the challenge of knowing how a new vocabulary of intersectionality relates to how you would design a center in this space,” she said. “There are lots of kind of intellectual questions that need to be answered about what the right way of providing a platform and deepened investment in research in these multiple areas. Faculty need to do the work of figuring that out.”

—Staff writer Kristine E. Guillaume can be reached at kristine.guillaume@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @krisguillaume.

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