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FAS Dean Gay Declares ‘Institutional Commitment’ to Ethnic Studies in Wake of Protests

Advocates for a formalized Ethnic Studies program at Harvard rallied in front of Widener Library Thursday.
Advocates for a formalized Ethnic Studies program at Harvard rallied in front of Widener Library Thursday. By Mariah Ellen D. Dimalaluan
By Jonah S. Berger and Molly C. McCafferty, Crimson Staff Writers

Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay emailed FAS affiliates Monday stating that she would support faculty who wanted to create an undergraduate concentration in ethnic studies and declared an “institutional commitment” to the discipline.

The email comes as a surge of ethnic studies organizing has reemerged on campus. The swell of activism in the past week — the latest in a nearly five-decade push to establish a formalized ethnic studies program at Harvard — was spurred by the University’s decision to deny tenure to Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña.

Hundreds of students and student groups have signed onto an open letter criticizing the decision, staged a sit-in at University Hall, and interrupted last Tuesday’s monthly faculty meeting. Though several of their criticisms have been directed toward Gay, she did not address the tenure denial in her Monday email.

Gay stood by the position she first stated last fall that FAS must hire more faculty who specialize in ethnic studies before creating a formal department to house them, citing professors’ wide influence over curriculum, advising, and research. She pointed to her efforts to strengthen Native American studies at the University during her tenure as Dean of Social Sciences, as well as her previously stated commitment to hiring four new ethnic studies faculty this year, as evidence of her dedication to ethnic studies.

“At a time when funds for incremental faculty searches are increasingly hard to come by, the decision to advance this search is intended to signal a strong institutional commitment, as well as a sense of urgency to make concrete, palpable progress,” she wrote.

Gay wrote that she would “welcome the idea” of a new undergraduate concentration in “ethnicity, migration, and indigeneity,” adding that faculty, not deans, must “spearhead” the effort by developing a proposal and bringing it before the full faculty for a debate and ultimate vote.

She wrote that faculty would have “the support of the institution” for any attempt to form a new concentration, and that she is prepared to provide the undergraduate curricular committee that would host the concentration with the power to make tenure and tenure-track faculty appointments jointly with any department in FAS.

“With appointment powers, the curricular committee would be able to secure the faculty commitments necessary to sustain the concentration,” Gay wrote.

Gay specifically cited the Department of African and African-American Studies — which, she noted, had its “origins” in the “student activism of the late 1960s” — as a model for how to create a robust ethnic studies program. AAAS, she argued, experienced “years of uneven struggle” before it shored up its faculty ranks and was able to “elevate the study of the African diaspora” to the benefit of Harvard students.

“This history informs my theory of change, and is why my own efforts on behalf of ethnic studies are focused, first, on hiring,” Gay wrote Monday.

Correction: Dec. 11, 2019

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Claudine Gay "called for" an institutional commtiment to an Ethnic Studies program at Harvard. In fact, she made the institutional commitment to Ethnic Studies in her email.

— Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.

—Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mollmccaff

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