The Long Tradition of Ethnic Studies at Harvard

The new concentration track focused on Ethnic Studies in History & Literature was heralded by Lauren Kaminsky, Director of Studies of that concentration, as “a natural fit to be the first place to begin” in The Crimson’s article covering the announcement. The track has also been described as an incubator for a larger effort in Ethnic Studies.

Ethnic Studies is not new at Harvard. If this latest effort is an incubation, let’s recognize that this is yet another iteration or stage rather than a beginning. In fact, Harvard has been incubating Ethnic Studies for the past 38 years. Time and attention is not what Ethnic Studies has lacked; it has lacked resources and institutional commitment.

The first proposal from students and faculty for Ethnic Studies at Harvard was submitted in 1972. The first formal institutional response came fifteen years later, in 1988, when a fund was started to bring visiting faculty to campus to teach in Ethnic Studies fields. Then, in 1989, the University established a faculty committee called the Committee on Ethnic Studies to manage the fund. In the late 1990s, the committee converted the funds for visiting faculty into ladder-track faculty lines shared with departments. Four tenure-track faculty members were hired. Harvard did not retain those faculty members; only one remains.

In 2009, the secondary field in Ethnic Studies was established after student and faculty efforts. Shortly thereafter, an anonymous Asian American alum donated funds for an endowed faculty line in Ethnic Studies. In 2012, the Committee on Ethnic Studies changed its name to the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights and, with it, the name of the secondary field. The change was a strategic effort to increase the number of faculty who could see themselves working within the field of Ethnic Studies by foregrounding related and important studies of migration and human rights. Thus, EMR is Ethnic Studies, albeit in a form that has developed distinctive to Harvard. In 2015, EMR established a secondary field pathway in Latino Studies and began supporting working groups in Asian American and Latina/o Studies. The committee remains active but under-resourced.

These are only the major milestones in the development of Ethnic Studies within EMR, to say nothing of the tremendous work done by the Departments of African and African American Studies and Romance Languages and Literatures.

Ethnic Studies at Harvard has had setbacks. The visiting faculty fund has dried up. When the tenure-track faculty hires left, the University recouped the funds rather than recommitting them to Ethnic Studies. There was a time when the Committee on Ethnic Studies fell into disuse because faculty felt the University was dismally non-committal about the project.

In recent years, though, there’s been momentum and a resurgence of interest among faculty and students. The secondary field has grown exponentially in the past seven years, doubling in graduates for much of the early period. Two years ago, EMR began offering its own courses. Recently, we celebrated our current seniors: This year there were 31 secondary field graduates in EMR and Latino Studies, eight of whom presented their thesis work in a forum from across our areas of focus. Among the 26 senior theses nominated for the EMR Thesis Prize, nine won the Hoopes Prize.

EMR has been operating under its new name for four years. Faded from memory is the fact that it used to be called Ethnic Studies. With the recent efforts of students through the Ethnic Studies Coalition, Harvard is once again confronted with the reality that concerns related to Ethnic Studies remain intellectually important and morally urgent. Of course, as the brilliant and committed students who make up EMR community know best, this has long been the case, and over the generations those students and supportive faculty have lobbied to elevate the study of ethnicity, migration, and rights at Harvard. Ethnic Studies is thus not new at all. One wonders why Harvard hews so closely to tradition in some cases but regularly expresses amnesia in others.

Tessa Lowinske Desmond is administrative director and lecturer in the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights. Kay K. Shelemay is G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and African and African American Studies. She is also chair of the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights.

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