Ethnic Studies, Yesterday

Barker Center

An almost half-century-long struggle to create an Ethnic Studies department at Harvard has reignited after the departure of two tenure-track professors who specialize in Asian-American studies. In response, students and alumni penned letters to University President Lawrence S. Bacow and three Harvard organizations — the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance, and the Coalition For A Diverse Harvard — organized a rally calling on the University to establish a formalized program for ethnic studies.

The fight for ethnic studies has long-plagued the United States and Harvard, and the loss of these two Asian-American studies professors only highlights the continued lack of resources and infrastructure Harvard provides to students and faculty interested in the field. Over the past 47 years, the University has witnessed a seemingly constant stream of petitions and demands for the institutionalization of a robust ethnic studies curriculum.

The true importance of the field, however, is not really its popularity, though we hope the University would be more attentive to student interest. The underlying importance of ethnic studies is more an issue of academic focus. Ethnic studies is an established and essential discipline of research universities across the country. Harvard’s lack of a department or center for this field places it woefully behind its peers and severely limits its capacity to be the leader in intellectual progress it claims to be.

Striving to investigate the nuances of ethnoracial identity and power, with an emphasis on the perspectives of people of color, ethnic studies provides a critical front from which to understand that which is often glossed over in by predominantly Eurocentric course catalogues. Harvard is falling behind other universities across the country in terms of recognizing the need for, and building, a formalized ethnic studies program. Yale has a Ethnicity, Race, and Migrations major. Stanford has the Center for Comparative Studies in Race & Ethnicity. And the University of Chicago has a B.A. program in Comparative Race and Ethnicity Studies.


The establishment of such a department at Harvard would also help to provide the necessary infrastructure to support smaller already-existing programs and the professors who are struggling to make a difference within them. In 2017, for example, the Committee on Degrees in History and Literature announced a new subfield within the concentration, allowing students to pursue an ethnic studies track. But History and Literature instructors are hired for three-year terms, so the capacity of these instructors to contribute in the long term to the department’s intellectual community is severely limited.

While we appreciate and understand that the specifics of any individual decision on granting tenure are difficult to parse, we hope the University will forge a strong commitment to Asian-American studies – among other ethnic studies fields – by actively recruiting and retaining faculty for these disciplines. The formalization of an ethnic studies program would speak to University support for an important discipline and student interest, and for its faculty. Professors do far more work than teach classes; they provide formal and informal mentorship to their students and pursue pioneering research.

The fight for ethnic studies has been long and fraught, and the field’s place on Harvard’s campus is long overdue. Harvard — embattled by a lawsuit cutting to the core of its approach to diversity — has the opportunity to bring diversity into the classroom, actualizing diversity in what it teaches not merely who it brings on to its campus. In particular, it is time for Bacow to do that which decades of presidents before have not: Introduce an ethnic studies department at Harvard’s campus, deeply affirm his commitment to creating a vibrant culture of diversity and openness across campus, and, in so doing, show he is conscious of the hopes of students, faculty, and alumni.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.