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To Latino and Asian American students, the absence of an ethnic studies curriculum at Harvard means more than the university's usual stodginess or even budget problems. It means, they say, exclusion from a curriculum intended to teach a diverse student body.
"It just shows Harvard isn't committed to the type of diversity that they preach to the students that come in, the students that are applying," said Efrain Cortes '93, former president of the Puerto Rican student group La O, last fall.
In fact, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell, himself an advocate for a greater ethnic studies presence in the curriculum, called Harvard's current offerings in the area "embryonic" last fall.
Ethnic studies, most basically defined as research and teaching focusing on the history and culture of ethnic and racial minorities in the United States, are not offered through an independent department or committee at Harvard. Individual departments offer courses about ethnic studies topics on a year-to-year basis.
La O, the Mexican-American student group Raza and the Asian American Association (AAA) began agitating in September to force the University to begin the process of change in Harvard's treatment of ethnicity in the curriculum.
But making change happen in an institution like Harvard isn't easy.
The students started at the top and encountered an obstacle course. Raza and La O wrote to Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles requesting a meeting on Latino courses.
Knowles' response to the Latino groups' concerns was brief: he had no time to meet with them and referred them to Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III. The student groups met on the night of October 3, and their response to the perceived brushoff was angry and quick. "It was really upsetting that he couldn't find 10 minutes to meet with us about it," Cortes said in October.
The meeting with Knowles happened eventually, and was followed by meetings with other officials with no immediate result, according to the students involved.
The AAA organized a political committee to spearhead their efforts for more courses on Asian American topics and history, but they saw no progress this year either. The issue quieted and seemed to be swept under the bureaucratic rug.
But it didn't remain there for long.
The Coalition for Diversity, formed in early March, made the ethnic studies courses Latino and Asian American students had demanded a cornerstone of its platform and protests.
Finally, the gears of Harvard officialdom ground into motion. Knowles formed a subcommittee to the Educational Policy Committee to look into the possibilities for ethnic studies in the Harvard curriculum.
Knowles, Rudenstine and other top officials met again with students--this time under the auspices of the coalition--on ethnic studies, and other issues.
The subcommittee, chaired by Buell, was charged with developing a concrete plan for moving forward.
"This is going to be a more comprehensively active committee that's focused on trying to make recommendations on permanent curriculum development," Buell said in March.
But as the year drew to a close, the recommendations were not finalized. Though Buell says a draft report exists that calls for sweeping changes, it has not yet reached the Faculty Council, the first hurdle for any major change to the curriculum.
And it is months from reaching the full Faculty, whose support would be necessary for any major curricular addition.
The Faculty discussion, whenever it occurs, would likely reignite the ideological debate that has occurred over the year on campus and nationwide.
One debate is over whether ethnic studies should exist at all. Advocates call its "inclusion" by advocates, while opponents call it the "balkanization" of the curriculum.
The vision espoused by Latino groups at the beginning of the year was for an ethnic studies department with sub-focuses on different groups. The department would grow originally out of an increased number of courses.
Other moderates, while acknowledging the need for education and study dealing with ethnic and racial minorities, have spoken against an autonomous department and for courses within the traditional disciplines on ethnic-related topics.
The student Coalition for Diversity introduced the suggestion of an ethnic studies core requirement, an idea which a number of prominent Harvard officials have publicly opposed. "I don't think ethnic studies ranks on the same level as foreign cultures or science. I think foreign cultures are a different, broader subject, that there's more there," Provost Jerry R. Green said in March.
He said Core divisions are meant to be broad and inclusive, while ethnic studies tends to be more specifically focused.
So the conclusion of the student activists' crusade against Harvard's bureaucratic and ideological barriers can be brought down to the subcommittee and the report it produces, which is the result of both the bureaucratic process and the intellectual debate.
What the subcommittee says will decide the future of ethnic studies at Harvard, along with one other factor: money. In the final analysis, budgetary constraints could shape the vision of any new department Buell and his colleagues produce.
Knowles, who is the ultimate voice on Faculty budget matters, says funds from the capital campaign may be channeled to fund new efforts.
He says they will go "where they are most needed" for student education.
It is for the students, then, to say where it is most needed. They can vote with their study cards and with their feet: Knowles says money will go to relieve oversubscribed academic areas. Until then, student activists will continue the gradual process of trying to exact change in the often-stratified Harvard curriculum.
I don't think ethnic studies ranks on the same level as foreign cultures or science.
Provost Jerry R. Green
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