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Harvard’s Vision for Ethnic Studies: Almost There, But Not Yet

In Judge Allison D. Burroughs’s decision to uphold race conscious admissions at Harvard, she reaffirmed the importance of thinking about how race affects our individual experiences. As her opinion acknowledges, race continues to be salient in students’ lives as “time marches on and the effects of entrenched racism and unequal opportunity remain obvious.” Fittingly, the study of race also illuminates aspects of the case itself, including the plaintiffs’ motivations, media coverage, testifying students’ stories, and the statistics presented during the trial. The dynamics surrounding the case can be better understood through interrogations of how race has been constructed in the United States.

It is this same need for examination of race that has driven students and alumni like us to call for the creation of an ethnic studies department at Harvard for almost 50 years. This past summer, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay responded to our call. In June, she announced that FAS will hire three or four faculty studying ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration, across the areas of Asian American Studies, Latinx Studies, and Muslim American Studies, this academic year.

Several peer institutions like Princeton and Stanford are conducting similar searches. Harvard’s faculty search committee has now begun reviewing applications and expects to bring final candidates to campus for a lecture series in the next couple of months.

After five decades of student and alumni advocacy, this is an exciting and promising step. However, there is still work to be done. To ensure that the hires will provide the foundation for an ethnic studies department that can flourish at Harvard, we urge the university and the faculty search committee to prioritize hiring academics with a powerful and pioneering vision for the study of race and ethnicity.

The search committee should take particular care to hire faculty whose work fits within an ethnic studies framework, and not just scholars who coincidentally study racial inequality or disparity more broadly. Academic work that broadly studies marginalized groups, though significant to the understanding of race and ethnicity, cannot be characterized as ethnic studies.

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In order to articulate the difference between ethnic studies and the study of race and ethnicity, Gary Y. Okihiro — a visiting American Studies professor at Yale University — wrote in 2010 that ethnic studies addresses “power and how it articulates around the axes of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, and nation.” He worried that the field of ethnic studies was being derailed from its goal to examine “the nation-state and its particular history and formations of conquest and extermination, land appropriation and labor exploitation, regimes of inclusion and exclusion, and expansion and imperialism.” These are the lenses that he feared were being de-centered at Columbia but that we hope will be re-centered in Harvard’s iteration of ethnic studies.

At its core, ethnic studies requires a deep criticism of how we traditionally produce knowledge. It challenges how we know what we know, forcing us to question what we consider to be the “truth,” and instead finds diverse forms of meaning through interdisciplinary inquiries. Only by subverting conventional understandings of history, which often omit the lived realities of people of color, can we come to a new understanding of the world, which can only happen at Harvard if the search committee hires the right faculty.

Given their expectation that these faculty will come together to build an ethnic studies department, the faculty search committee should also hire people who are committed to actually building this department. Ideal candidates include senior faculty that have built similar programs at other universities. Faculty appointed to and siloed in their “host departments” will already face challenges in program-building. If they lack the experience necessary to build an ethnic studies department, we worry that these hires will become like rocket blueprints: While they show promise as scholars, they won’t be enough for an ethnic studies program to properly launch.

Ultimately, we believe that the ongoing faculty search is the first step in building an ethnic studies department at Harvard. Yet much more has to be done in order to fully execute this vision. Upon their arrival to campus, the new faculty need to be supported with the proper resources to build a new academic program. Such resources include adequate funding to create a new department, paid time for faculty to work on its development, and an intergenerational community of students and scholars dedicated to ethnic studies. Race consciousness must expand beyond admissions and into classrooms where ethnic studies is fully supported by students, faculty, and most importantly, administration. We are optimistic that if this search selects the right faculty, Harvard can eventually set its aims far beyond catching up with our peer institutions, and instead become a pioneer in the fields of Asian American, Latinx, and Muslim American Studies.

Zainab Kahloon ’20 is a Social Studies concentrator in Currier House. Liana E. Chow ’21, a former Crimson Arts executive, is a History and Literature concentrator in Quincy House. Alondra Ponce ’21, a Crimson Business editor, is a Neuroscience concentrator in Lowell House. They are members of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition.

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