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Harvard needs an Ethnic Studies concentration.
This was the overwhelming consensus reached by College students in a 2021 survey — one that incoming President Claudine Gay tacitly began to work towards as FAS Dean. But even the creation of a concentration would not be a catch-all solution to a far more deep-rooted problem: Harvard’s systematic neglect of ethnic studies in the social sciences.
As a Government concentrator, I’ve felt this neglect firsthand, as it’s been a struggle to find ethnic studies courses that would count towards my concentration. In a recent interview, the Government Department’s Director of Undergraduate Studies, Nara Dillon, acknowledged to me the lack of Ethnic Studies courses within both the Government department and the College more broadly, expressing hope that recent hires could meet this need.
In the meantime, Dillon said that the option for Government students to petition to count outside courses for elective credit offers a temporary fix.
“We particularly try to give concentration elective credit in these petitions to cover gaps in our curriculum,” she told me.
This message seems at odds with the language of the petition for course credit itself, which explicitly states that courses taught in disciplines other than political science are “unlikely to be approved.” When asked for clarification, Dillon explained that “if about half of the course is political science, we'll go ahead and give concentration elective credit for it.”
However, Dillon also noted that this approach can exclude students from credit-bearing options.
“Almost every field these days uses this term ‘governance,’” she said. “Sometimes the theoretical perspective they’re coming at this issue of governance [with] is very different than what you would find in a political science course.”
But Christina Shiao-Mei Villareal, a lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and an expert in ethnic studies education, told me that she would strongly reject such distinctions.
“Who has historically had a chance to define political science?” she asked. “Who has historically had a chance to even define the parameters of what a school of government is supposed to be, or government studies?”
Villareal, who goes by “Dr. V,” was clear about the broader implications of being more concerned with semantics than representation.
“We can’t take a term like academia for granted and continue to say, ‘We need to be accepted in academia.’ No, we need to fundamentally transform it,” she said. “Ethnic Studies does argue that the problem historically with academia was that it was absent of community, of action within surrounding communities.”
Today, ethnic studies faces challenges far beyond the Government Department. This academic year, History & Literature counted 132 courses for credit in European Studies, as compared to 25 in Latin American Studies, while altogether failing to offer subfields for Indigenous, Middle Eastern, Pan-Asian, or Pan-African Studies. Even if these fields were to be created, the College’s area-focused history departments — that is, History, History & Literature, and History of Art and Architecture — only offer eight undergraduate-focused courses in Indigenous history, five in Latin American history, three in Middle Eastern history, nine in Pan-African history, and eight in Pan-Asian history.
When including courses offered by other social science and humanities departments, these counts rise to 19 courses in Indigenous Studies, 26 in Latin American Studies, 11 in Middle Eastern Studies, 45 in Pan-African Studies, 59 in Pan-Asian Studies, and 110 in European studies.
A total of 146 unique courses representing the entire non-white world is woefully inadequate when compared to the 110 courses that exist for European Studies alone. This disparity starkly illustrates the College’s prioritization of white academia.
Notably, these course counts diverge from those offered by the History & Literature concentration and the Ethnicity, Migration and Rights secondary because my analysis does not include language courses offered in subfields — by intention. As Villareal recognized, there is a clear difference between language learning and Ethnic Studies, as the latter “has a very clear, politicized stance.”
“If it is not focused on the project of decolonization, if it is not rooted directly in communities, if it is not intersectional,” she told me, then it’s not Ethnic Studies.
While language courses may not necessarily teach ethnic studies content, it remains clear that such courses can open avenues for students to learn ethnic studies, as recordings of the histories and societies of people of color are far from limited to the English language. With that in mind, there is no denying the complete inadequacy of Harvard’s language course offerings. Filipino — the standardized form of Tagalog, currently the fourth most common language in the U.S. — will only be offered for the first time next semester after years of student activism.
In contrast, even when only ten undergraduates graduated with a degree in the concentration in 2021-2022, Classics is seen as too intrinsically valuable not to teach. Don’t get me wrong; Harvard should offer Classics. But there is no excuse for treating the languages and histories of white people that have been dead for thousands of years as if they have more inherent value than those of billions of people of color today.
When questioned on the lack of ethnic studies courses at Harvard today, administrators, including Dillon, have often offered the same sentiment: We’re hiring.
This is certainly a welcome start; hiring Ethnic Studies faculty is essential. But it’s clear that hiring faculty alone can’t solve the underlying exclusion of ethnic studies from social science concentrations.
While hiring more ethnic studies faculty is itself good, we don’t have to look far in the past to find promises of new hires that have gone awry. Professor Lorgia García-Peña was an Ethnic Studies scholar who had done everything right — she taught popular classes, had the trust of the student body, and was well-respected within her field. Her reward? She was denied tenure in 2019 and, in turn, was effectively fired from Harvard University.
This decision was decried by students and academics alike, the latter of whom argued in a letter to President Bacow that the decision to deny García-Peña tenure would render the University unable “to respond to students’ growing interest in ethnic studies” and “to recruit and retain top faculty working in our fields.”
The truth is, if we don’t tenure faculty like García-Peña, many such scholars will eventually reach Harvard’s eight-year limit for untenured faculty and find themselves forced out of the University’s gates. This creates an endless cycle of instability for ethnic studies at Harvard and renders the excuse that “we’re hiring” entirely inadequate.
At the end of the day, a new Ethnic Studies concentration with more courses means nothing if interested students cannot easily take them — regardless of their concentration choice. When Ethnic Studies courses are relegated to specific subfields and concentrations, they become a sacrifice to take, no matter their relevance.
Fixing this problem will require more than just tacking on an Ethnic Studies concentration — existing concentrations must move away from rigid, exclusionary systems, refocusing requirements around course relevance rather than department name. Doing so will allow students of color to take Ethnic Studies classes that not only accurately reflect their fields of interest but represent their identities, too.
Such a representative education is essential but rarely available before college. In the U.S. public education system, under 10 percent of K-12 class time is spent on Black history; the taught histories of Indigenous people largely end in the 1800s; education on the Middle East is often limited to the context of war; and the histories of Latines, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders are often ignored entirely. Ethnic Studies not only teaches the experiences of people of color but also remedies centuries of untaught history.
When asked if she would be in favor of counting courses for elective credit based on relevance rather than department, Dillon agreed, arguing that the Government department had already taken the unconventional step of requiring only 10 courses for the concentration “to promote flexibility and encourage students to take a wide range of courses in other departments as part of a liberal arts education.” This comes in contrast to other concentrations, which can require as many as 20 courses.
Even still, joint and double concentrations are commonplace, and it seems unlikely that students will find room for Ethnic Studies courses until they’re counted for concentration credit everywhere they’re relevant.
Eric C. Henson, a lecturer at multiple of Harvard’s schools and research fellow at the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, recounted that for many of his students, particularly those at the Law School, his classes didn’t count towards their graduation requirements.
According to Henson, since only five of his 27 students are degree-seeking from the school that offered his class, the perception of enrollment may be skewed.
“It looks to the administration like you’ve got nobody showing up or caring,” he told me.
Though there’s no denying that Harvard College needs an Ethnic Studies concentration, we can’t stop there. An Ethnic Studies concentration is a first step, but if it barely has any courses, what have we really accomplished? And even if we add ethnic studies courses, how much have we really changed if they’re only accessible for undergraduate students in a single concentration?
While the promise of new Ethnic Studies hires is a start, we need more than promises — we need an Ethnic Studies department where professors are afforded the same degree of job security and basic respect as their colleagues in other departments via tenure.
Further, to recognize the intrinsic value of ethnic studies, Harvard College should create an ethnic studies course requirement — stamping it as essential to an undergraduate education — similar to UCLA in 2015 and Princeton in 2020.
Today, the College requires that undergraduates take one formal social science course under the Divisional Distribution requirement, as well two General Education courses exploring social science themes. It’s simple: If social science disciplines are incomplete without Ethnic Studies, as other institutions have recognized, then so are the College’s social science requirements.
It’s been over 50 years since San Francisco State’s Third World Liberation Front first took up the picket line demanding the eventual creation of the first Ethnic Studies department in the nation, but the fight for Ethnic Studies is far from over. Change has never come easily, but no politician, no university, no set of handcuffs, can rob Ethnic Studies of its legitimacy.
Joseph W. Hernandez ’25, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Government concentrator in Adams House.
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