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Student Activists, Heed This Advice

Four Steps to Making an Ethnic Studies Department a Reality

By Douglas M. Pravda

In the spring of 1995, the Academic Affairs Committee of the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations wrote a 200-page memo to Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles asking for increased commitment to ethnic studies.

As one of the faculty reporters at the time, I was assigned to write a story about the memo, which contained about 15 pages of recommendations.

I remember thinking that the student activists who were pushing for an ethnic studies department were going about the issue the wrong way. Knowles basically sidestepped many of the issues raised in the report, which was seen by only a handful of students and faculty members. I remember thinking that the students on the committee ought to condense their report into a few pages and distribute it widely so that other students could see what they were doing and protest the Administration's inactivity.

However, maintaining journalistic objectivity did not allow me to convey my feelings. As I am now approaching graduation and still have strong feelings on the subject, I wanted to outline the approach I think student activists should take to make progress on this front.

There are those at Harvard and elsewhere who oppose the study of ethnicity, calling it separatist and unnecessary. Frankly, these people's opinions are ridiculous. The study of ethnicity is valuable for clearing up many misperceptions and stereotypes about ethnic groups, and would help eradicate some of the discrimination faced by minorities in our society.

I believe the creation of a department is necessary because it is the only way to ensure that the University will tenure professors who are interested in teaching ethnic studies. Merely tenuring professors in disciplines such as government, history and sociology will not ensure that those professors will teach courses relating to the study of ethnicity in America.

However, student activists on campus have recently adopted an incremental approach to creating an increased emphasis on the study of ethnicity on campus. Rather than pushing for a department, which has proven unpopular with a Faculty that must approve it, students are seeking to increase the number of professors and courses that study ethnicity.

In the absence of widespread faculty or administrative support for a department, this is a good approach to take. However, students must be wary that the successes they achieve have no guarantee of permanence unless a department is eventually created.

In order to gain this department, or even simply more courses and professors, student activists must work on their relations with four groups: administrators, students, faculty and alumni.

On the administrative level, it is necessary for students to meet with Knowles on a regular basis. Knowles pretty much controls any progress on ethnic studies, ranging from deciding which recommendations of the FAS Committee on Ethnic Studies come before the Faculty Council to tenuring professors who specialize in the study of ethnicity.

Knowles would be more than happy to keep the issue on the back burner and will assuredly do so unless there is continuous pressure from students. Thus, they must constantly remind him that students care about ethnic studies and that they are upset at the Administration's delay.

On this front, student activists have actually been doing alright, meeting with the Dean roughly once a semester. Students could probably push for more meetings, but for a high-ranking dean, once a semester is actually pretty good.

The second step involves keeping the issue in the spotlight among the student body, something ethnic studies activists have done poorly this year. Keeping ethnic studies on center stage is important because Knowles' tenure decisions are often based on student demand. The Dean has even said in the past that he will not tenure professors who specialize in the study of ethnicity because there is little demand for such courses.

But Knowles happens to be a reasonable man. He has declined to commit some of the capital campaign money earmarked for 40 new professorships to tenure professors in ethnic studies. However, he has approved four visiting professorships in ethnic studies, which are awarded by the FAS ethnic studies committee.

Well-attended and publicized events among students show that the demand for such courses exists. A panel in April 1996 debating the merits of ethnic studies attracted nearly 200 people and another hundred rallied outside University Hall a week later.

But this year has witnessed a marked decrease in ethnic studies activities among students. This semester has seen only two sparsely attended panels and one weekend conference on ethnic studies. And a junior parents' weekend rally for ethnic studies was not as vocal or as well-attended as in previous years.

Students activists have done a poor job of keeping the issue in the spotlight. They need to hold a rally at least once a semester. They need to keep up petition drives, pass out flyers, hold more meetings, panels, rallies and do anything to make sure administrators regularly see ethnic studies in the news.

The third step is to gain the support of Faculty members. Faculty members have much more clout in this University than students and if Faculty members could be convinced to fight for an increased commitment to ethnic studies, they would be much more likely to produce results. But even more importantly, it is the Faculty that must vote to approve an ethnic studies department or the recommendations of the Ethnic Studies Committee. Without support from the Faculty, Harvard will never increase its commitment to ethnic studies.

Student activists have worked to gain support from Faculty members, in particular, convincing some noted scholars from the Afro-American Studies Department to endorse their conferences on ethnic studies. However, these activists need to go farther. Last week, the Faculty Council elected six new members to serve for the next three years. Students should meet with these Faculty members and explain why they think Harvard needs to increase its commitment to the study of ethnicity.

Finally, and perhaps most important, student activists must take Jerry Maguire's "Show me the money" to heart. Even at Harvard, which has the largest endowment of any university, change is often controlled by money. And donors to Harvard have the ability to specify exactly where their donation may go. Even if Knowles is opposed to tenuring a professor who specializes in the study of ethnicity, he would not likely turn down a donation earmarked specifically to establish a chair in ethnic studies.

Thus, students must turn to alumni to seek donations specifically for the purpose of increasing Harvard's commitment to ethnic studies. Granted, it is difficult for students to convince alumni that ethnic studies is a cause worth giving to when Knowles is not saying the same thing, but that money will be the root of any real change.

Students could contact all donors who have given money to Harvard in the last 10 years and ask that they donate money specifically for ethnic studies, or put an advertisement in Harvard Magazine, which is distributed to all alumni. Perhaps students could get one of their Faculty supporters, such as Skip Gates, to write an article in the magazine or a letter to alumni asking them to donate money to establish a professorship in ethnic studies.

A similar situation can be found among those who are seeking to withhold money from the University unless they hire more women and minority faculty. But soliciting money for the cause of ethnic studies would be an easier task because alumni can earmark donations for a specific discipline, but not for a professor of a given race or gender.

These four steps will be difficult to accomplish and will require a lot of work on the part of those activists who want to increase Harvard's commitment to the study of ethnicity. But I believe each of these steps is necessary for Harvard to further the study of ethnicity and to establish the permanent study of ethnicity at this University.

Douglas M. Pravda was the Managing Editor of The Harvard Crimson in 1996.

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