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Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition and Grad Student Union Rally Together in Protest of Prof’s Tenure Denial

Advocates for a formalized Ethnic Studies program at Harvard rallied in front of Widener Library.
Advocates for a formalized Ethnic Studies program at Harvard rallied in front of Widener Library. By Mariah Ellen D. Dimalaluan
By Amanda Y. Su, Crimson Staff Writer

Hundreds of Harvard affiliates crowded the steps of Widener Library Thursday to protest the decision to deny Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña tenure and demand an ethnic studies program.

The University informed García Peña — who specializes in Latinx studies — of the tenure decision Nov. 27. Since then, students and faculty across the University have protested the verdict by penning letters to top Harvard administrators, staging a sit-in at University Hall, and interrupting a faculty meeting.

Ethnic studies advocates have called on Harvard to reverse García Peña’s tenure decision; publicly release correspondence about that decision between Bacow, Gay, and Romance Languages and Literatures department chair Mariano Siskind; and open an investigation into García Peña’s case for “procedural errors, prejudice, and discrimination,” according to a letter they circulated.

García Peña did not respond to a request for comment on her tenure case.

During the rally, Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition member Laura S. Veira-Ramirez ’20, a former Crimson editor, told protesters that Thursday was the last day of García Peña’s course SPANSH 126: “Performing Latinidad.” She said García Peña’s mentorship inspired many of her students’ advocacy for a formalized ethnic studies program at Harvard, a demand with an almost 50-year-long history.

“Beyond Professor García Peña, we’re fighting for an ethnic studies department,” Veira-Ramirez said.

Activists have linked García Peña’s tenure decision to the broader fight for an ethnic studies program. García Peña helped establish the ethnic studies track in History and Literature and is currently serving on a search committee for faculty who specialize in Ethnic Studies.

Ethnic Studies Coalition member Rosa L. Vazquez ’20 said at the rally that the University has touted the diversity of its students without supporting them.

“We’re fighting for our histories to be taught in these classrooms that preach diversity but don’t actually teach us anything,” Vasquez said. “Harvard loves to put our faces on admissions pamphlets but won’t actually teach our histories or our culture.”

The Ethnic Studies Coalition contends that administrators’ responses to the issue have been unsatisfactory. University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay responded to students’ demands in two separate emails Wednesday night, according to an open letter posted by the group on Medium.

Bacow’s email stated that he could not publicly offer an explanation about García Peña’s tenure denial because the tenure review process is confidential, the letter states.

In a separate email, Gay wrote that she supports Ethnic Studies, according to the letter. She also wrote that FAS has launched a cluster hire of three to four faculty members who specialize in Asian American, Muslim American, and Latinx studies.

During her speech at the rally, Ramirez called the emails from Bacow and Gay “inadequate” and accused Bacow of hiding behind bureaucratic “red tape.”

“In our response, we demanded that they have a comittee to review any discrimination that could have taken place and likely took place in this tenure process,” she said. “We must acknowledge that these people need to be held accountable.”

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain and FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven both declined to comment on the tenure decision regarding García Peña. They also declined to comment on Bacow’s and Gay’s emails.

In addition to García Peña, at least three other professors who specialize in race or religion have been denied tenure or left the University to take a job elsewhere. In November 2018, the University denied tenure to Harvard Graduate School of Education associate professor Natasha K. Warikoo; History assistant professor Genevieve A. Clutario accepted a position at Wellesley College soon after; and Science and Religion associate professor Ahmed Ragab was denied tenure at Harvard Divinity School last spring.

Roughly 100 Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers picketers on strike Thursday joined the ethnic studies rally in a show of support.

HGSU-UAW, which represents approximately 5,000 student teaching staff and graduate research assistants across the University, has been on strike since Tuesday. Members have given up their teaching and research responsibilities until the union negotiates a contract with the University. Though the two parties have reached 12 tentative agreements, they remain at odds on key issues including compensation, health benefits, and grievance procedures for sexual harassment and discrimination complaints.

During the ethnic studies rally, HGSU-UAW organizer Justin Bloesch said the union’s student workers support the protesters’ fight for ethnic studies at Harvard, connecting the two groups’ missions.

“This has been a fight for decades on campuses across the country. Harvard is decades behind,” he said. “The fight for economic justice isn’t the same fight without racial justice.”

“Whether it’s ethnic studies or grievance procedures to address discrimination or harassment or adequate mental health care, Harvard is not doing enough to make this place an equitable campus,” he added.

—Staff writer Amanda Y. Su can be reached at amanda.su@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @amandaysu.

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