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Potential Ethnic Studies Faculty Hire Erika Lee Visits Harvard

Erika Lee, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, spoke with undergraduates on Wednesday regarding her candidacy for professorship at Harvard.
Erika Lee, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, spoke with undergraduates on Wednesday regarding her candidacy for professorship at Harvard. By Sara Komatsu
By James S. Bikales and Kevin R. Chen, Crimson Staff Writers

Erika Lee, a history professor at the University of Minnesota and a candidate for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’s ethnic studies faculty search, gave a lecture on her research and met with undergraduates on campus Wednesday afternoon.

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay announced in June 2019 that she will hire three to four senior faculty who specialize in Asian American, Latinx, and Muslim studies by the end of the current academic year. Gay said that each of the potential hires would visit campus as part of an FAS lecture series titled “New Perspectives on Ethnicity and Migration.”

Lee researches immigration and Asian American history, as well as directing the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota. She was the first candidate to speak on campus and came at the invitation of Harvard’s History department.

More than 70 people, including students, faculty, and administrators, filed into a theater in Harvard’s Carpenter Center to attend Lee’s lecture, titled “Xenophobia: A Racial History of the United States.”

During her lecture, Lee said xenophobia is not just about immigration, but can rather be understood as a form of racism. She also traced the history of anti-immigrant sentiment against various groups in America ranging from Catholics to Latinx people. While other scholars have said xenophobia rises and falls in response to national crises, Lee contended that xenophobia has remained strong throughout American history, calling it a deeply ingrained “American tradition.”

Following the lecture, Lee spoke with roughly 20 Harvard affiliates during a question and answer session. The discussion ranged from Lee’s pedagogical approach to Harvard’s lack of a formalized ethnic studies concentration.

Addressing a question on how she would navigate what a student called Harvard’s “ideological resistance” to accepting ethnic studies as a legitimate scholarly field, Lee said she would be “pretty forceful” in pushing back against such a view.

“I don’t have very much patience for those who would continue to question whether ethnic studies is a legitimate field anymore or not,” Lee said. “I think I’d be ready to take on people with that perspective and provide some data.”

FAS spokesperson Anna G. Cowenhoven declined to comment on criticisms raised at the question and answer session.

During the discussion, students expressed frustration about the lack of ethnic studies classes. Lee said she shared this feeling when she was in school.

“I kept on thinking, someone should be writing more about this and I kept on waiting for someone, like for more stuff to be written,” she said. “Then I realized, ‘I don’t think this is going to happen,’ so maybe that someone should be me.”

Lee praised ethnic studies advocates at Harvard for creating “an opportunity” to build the program, but she also pushed them to make specific requests that the candidates who are chosen could negotiate over during their hiring processes.

“It would be helpful to have a clear description of what students’ needs are so that that can be part of the ask,” she said.

Gay’s announcement of the ethnic studies faculty search came months after students and alumni protested the departure of two tenure-track faculty specializing in Asian American studies. The University’s November decision to deny tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures Associate Professor Lorgia García Peña — who researches race and ethnicity — reinvigorated student calls for an ethnic studies program at Harvard.

Harvard affiliates have lobbied for a formalized ethnic studies program for nearly five decades. Gay declared an “institutional commitment” to the field of ethnic studies in a December email to FAS affiliates and has said she is “hopeful” that faculty will lead an effort to develop a formal ethnic studies concentration.

At least seven more candidates will visit Harvard this semester as part of the lecture series associated with the FAS faculty search.

Other speakers will include University of Michigan history and Latino studies professor Jesse E. Hoffnung-Garskof ’93, University of California, Los Angeles sociology and Asian American studies professor Min Zhou, University of Pennsylvania English professor David L. Eng, University of California, Berkeley ethnic studies professor Raúl Coronado, Stanford sociology professor Tomás R. Jiménez, Yale American studies professor Zareena Grewal, and University of Minnesota American studies professor Martin F. Manalansan.

— Staff writer James S. Bikales can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamepdx.

— Staff writer Kevin R. Chen can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @kchenx.

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