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Cool Desserts, Hot Issues: Protesters for Harvard Ethnic Studies Department Disrupt President Gay’s Ice Cream Social

University President Claudine Gay spoke with demonstrators protesting in favor of greater institutional support of ethnic studies Tuesday.
University President Claudine Gay spoke with demonstrators protesting in favor of greater institutional support of ethnic studies Tuesday. By Julian J. Giordano
By Michelle N. Amponsah and Neil H. Shah, Crimson Staff Writers

Demonstrators rallying in support of creating an ethnic studies department at Harvard disrupted an ice cream social in Harvard Yard hosted Tuesday afternoon by University President Claudine Gay.

During the event, students affiliated with the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition protested in favor of greater institutional support of ethnic studies at Harvard. Organizers held signs and chanted “Hey, President Gay! We need ethnic studies today!”

In conversation with the students, Gay affirmed her support for ethnic studies and said she was “inspired” by their work. Gay told demonstrators that creating an ethnic studies department would require faculty support, asking them, “How do you have a concentration without faculty?”

Toward the end of her tenure as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Gay hired three senior faculty members as part of a cluster hire initiative who study ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration: Government professor Taeku Lee, History professor Erika Lee, and History professor Jesse E. Hoffnung-Garskof ’93.

Harvard affiliates have pushed to create an undergraduate ethnic studies concentration since 1972, when then-History and Economics professor John Womack Jr. ’59 submitted the first proposal for an ethnic studies program. An Ethnic Studies secondary was established in 2009 and was later renamed Ethnicity, Migration, Rights, which remains as a secondary field option today.

University spokesperson Jonathan L. Swain declined to comment on the demonstration and student criticisms, but wrote in an email that Gay enjoyed meeting with students.

“President Gay appreciated the opportunity to speak with the students, and spend time with the many members of the Harvard community who came to events in Longwood, Allston and Harvard Yard yesterday,” Swain said in an emailed statement.

FAS spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo declined to comment.

The Harvard Yard event was part of a trio of ice cream socials around the University’s campus on Tuesday, marking the beginning of her tenure as president.

The socials — which featured ice cream carts and tents serving refreshments, cookies, and cake pops — were held at the Medical School’s Countway Library, the Business School’s Schwartz Pavilion, and Massachusetts Hall.

Carlos F. Valldejuly, a Harvard Summer School student, said the ice cream social had “good ice cream” and “good people.”

“It’s really nice getting to meet all the people here and talking about our backgrounds,” Harvard Summer School student Sahana Premkumar said. She also reacted to the start of Gay’s tenure, saying that Gay’s presidency was “breaking” barriers.

Gay, whose tenure began July 1, is the University’s first Black president and second female president. She was previously the first woman and first person of color to be appointed Dean of the FAS, the University’s largest faculty.

Valldejuly said he felt “lucky” meeting Gay, adding that he is pleased diversity remains “very important to Harvard” given “the times that we are living in.”

In terms of the decision to demonstrate at Thursday’s ice cream social, Aaryan K. Rawal ’26 said the president rarely meets students and affiliates in a public setting.

Students demonstrated in favor of ethnic studies at an ice cream social in Harvard Yard Tuesday.
Students demonstrated in favor of ethnic studies at an ice cream social in Harvard Yard Tuesday. By Julian J. Giordano

“How many other times has the president come out to the Harvard community to speak to the students?” Rawal said. “The reality is that even today, this wasn’t a genuine commitment to speak to students.”

“Let’s be for real: every single student who’s on campus is on campus because they have a job right now or they have research. And yet, this ice cream social was scheduled during working hours,” Rawal added.

Rawal also found it “disappointing” that Harvard had not listened to “51 years of student concerns.” After the June 29 Supreme Court ruling that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions process was unconstitutional, Rawal added that it is “more important than ever” that the University creates an ethnic studies concentration.

Responding to protesters, Gay discussed steps being taken to expand ethnic studies at Harvard, saying that the school has a “growing critical mass of faculty who are working on ethnic studies.”

“I think we’ve made pretty significant progress — it’s certainly not enough,” she said. “That work is ongoing.”

—Staff writer Michelle N. Amponsah can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mnamponsah.

—Staff writer Neil H. Shah can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @neilhshah15.

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Students Demonstrate for Ethnic Studies at Harvard Yard Ice Cream Social