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Ethnic Studies Advocates Call for a Department, Research Center

By Mia C. Karr, Crimson Staff Writer

A group of undergraduates and graduate students are circulating a petition among Harvard affiliates that calls for the formation of an ethnic studies department and research center.

The group, which calls itself the Ethnic Studies Coalition, met for the first time in early November, according to member Juhwan Seo ’17. Seo said they discussed the possibility of writing a proposal for ethnic studies at the meeting and decided to go forward with the idea after the election of Donald Trump.

“What the election really brought to light was just how urgent problems of race, ethnicity, division, and so on are,” graduate student and group member Ruodi Duan said.

According to Seo, the idea for a petition was inspired by an earlier petition circulated in November urging Harvard’s administration to protect undocumented students in the wake of Trump’s victory, which has garnered more than 4,000 signatures.

In their petition advocating for ethnic studies, the group makes three main proposals: establish an ethnic studies department which offers degrees in Native American and Indigenous Studies, Latinx Studies, Asian American Studies, Arab and Muslim American Studies, Comparative Ethnic Studies, and Ph.D. degrees in ethnic studies; establish a center for research in critical ethnic studies; and hire and retain more faculty in ethnic studies and related fields.

“We believe that now is the time to act—for the University to be at the forefront of teaching, learning, and research in an academic field that seeks to examine some of the most fundamental and critical questions of our time,” the petition reads.

The petition is addressed to top administrators University President Drew G. Faust, University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Michael D. Smith, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Dean Xiao-Li Meng, and Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana.

This petition is the latest in a long line of proposals submitted by students for ethnic studies, according to coalition members. According to the Ethnic Studies Coalition, students have submitted 11 proposals for ethnic studies over the past 44 years.

In the recent history of ethnic studies advocacy at Harvard, students successfully advocated for a Latino Studies secondary field and formed the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies.

“I think, of course now more than ever, Harvard needs to put in a university commitment to the resolution of a longstanding historical problem,” Duan said.

In an email, College spokesperson Rachael Dane noted the existence of academic departments and programs such as African and African American Studies; East Asian Languages and Civilizations; and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, as well as the secondary field in Ethnicity, Migration, Rights.

However, coalition member Kaipo T. Matsumoto ’17 said ethnic studies advocates will not be satisfied until their proposals are met.

“We’re not going to be happy until we see infrastructure built, and that probably translates to money moving,” he said.

Seo agreed that there are significant gaps in Harvard’s course offerings, which the election highlighted.

“To me, the most aggravating thing about Harvard and the election was that we really don't have scholars who can really explain much of how the election happened or the major topics that were discussed,” Seo said. “ If we’re talking about Asian Americans we have no faculty basically who can explain anything that’s going on.”

Seo said the group plans to deliver the petition, which has gained over 700 signatures, to administrators within the next week.

“[The petition] has this ability to kind of represent what was previously anecdotal support for an Ethnic Studies Department,” Seo said. “Now we have a picture as to how much support we actually have.”

—Crimson staff writer Mia C. Karr can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @miackarr.

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