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‘We Want More’: Harvard Campus Groups Continue Advocacy With Inaugural ‘Ethnic Studies Week’

Advocates for a formalized Ethnic Studies program at Harvard rallied in front of Widener Library in early December 2019 after the University’s decision to deny tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña.
Advocates for a formalized Ethnic Studies program at Harvard rallied in front of Widener Library in early December 2019 after the University’s decision to deny tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña. By Mariah Ellen D. Dimalaluan
By Madeleine A. Hung and Joyce E. Kim, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard students, faculty, and alumni gathered to learn about advocacy for ethnic studies during a series of events held last week.

The events, part of the inaugural Ethnic Studies Week, continue a decadeslong push for the creation of a degree-granting ethnic studies department at Harvard that has inspired demonstrations, proposal submissions, and letters to administrators.

Ethnic Studies Week was organized by the Task Force for Asian American Progressive Advocacy and Studies in conjunction with the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition and the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard.

Zoha A. Ibrahim ’26, a TAPAS co-coordinator, said Ethnic Studies Week is a continuation of affirmative action advocacy from last semester around the high-profile Supreme Court lawsuit brought against Harvard that would ban race-conscious admissions.

“Last semester, we did a lot of advocacy with affirmative action, and I think affirmative action and ethnic studies are very much intertwined,” Ibrahim said. “So I think we really wanted to just use this week as a chance to build momentum.”

Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences hired three new professors — Taeku Lee, Erika Lee, and Jesse E. Hoffnung-Garskof ’93 — in mid-2022 as a part of an ethnic studies cluster hire, but the University still lacks a formal ethnic studies department.

TAPAS co-coordinator Rebecca S. Zhang ’26 said Ethnic Studies Week was organized in order to “reinvigorate interest” in advocacy in the wake of a new incoming University president and FAS dean.

“With the cluster hire and the new EMR lecture hires, I think we also wanted to make a statement that, first of all, we’re really grateful for these hires and we’re super glad that everyone’s coming, but also, we want more,” Zhang said. “I think that’s really important to say because I think that what we have now is not enough, and we want to make that clear.”

A Harvard spokesperson referenced outgoing FAS Dean Claudine Gay’s 2019 statement committing to “building ethnic studies at Harvard” in response to a request for comment.

The week’s programming kicked off with a teach-in, which featured a presentation on ethnic studies and Harvard’s history and a discussion with guest speakers, including current and past undergraduate and faculty advocates for the department.

Attendee Priyanka Mukhara ’26 said it was “shocking” and “just very interesting” to learn that Harvard lacks an ethnic studies department “despite all its resources and connections.”

“The fact that students continuously age out or graduate, so the movement has to restart again — it made me see how ethnic studies is a very people-dependent movement, and I think that’s a big strength and a big weakness,” Mukhara said.

On Wednesday, TAPAS hosted a panel discussion featuring Mai Du, an advocate for ethnic studies in K-12 schools, and Jane Sujen Bock ’81, who sits on the Board of Directors of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard.

In an emailed statement, Bock wrote that it is “infuriating” that Harvard still does not have an ethnic studies department after 51 years of student activism.

“It’s wonderful that Dean Gay’s cluster hire is bringing three star Ethnic Studies faculty to Harvard in the next couple years, but that doesn’t begin to make up for the great scholars who have recently left or are about to leave,” Bock wrote.

“Unlike every other comparable institution, Harvard is failing to meet the needs of its students in this area and is harming its ability to contribute to a changing world,” she added.

Du, who grew up in Vietnam, said she is an advocate for ethnic studies because she “experienced firsthand” re-education camps under Communist rule.

“There are just certain academic content and studies that have not been very reflective and accurate to the history of all people,” Du said.

Du said incorporating ethnic studies in curricula is important for students’ mental health and academic performance.

“You’re more motivated to go to school because you see yourself in textbooks,” she said. “You’re learning about yourself and your families, and your lived experiences are honored, embraced, and uplifted.”

Currently, Harvard offers a secondary field in Ethnicity, Migration, Rights and a field of specialization in ethnic studies within the History and Literature concentration for undergraduates.

Ibrahim said she finds it frustrating that other institutions have more courses related to ethnic studies, while Harvard only offers EMR as a secondary.

“It deserves to be a full-fledged entity and it deserves to have departmentalization and funding,” she said. “And all those things help Harvard students and they will end up helping Harvard in the long run.”

Zhang said this year’s inaugural Ethnic Studies Week was a jumping-off point for further student activism and organizing around ethnic studies.

“We just wanted to gather people together who are interested in ethnic studies and want to help advocate for it,” Zhang added. “So I think this week was kind of a starting point for us to hopefully build on for future advocacy.”

—Staff writer Madeleine A. Hung can be reached at madeleine.hung@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Joyce E. Kim can be reached at joyce.kim@thecrimson.com.

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