Harvard and the “What the Hell is Ethnic Studies?” Webinar

Does Harvard need an ethnic studies department? That question has fueled debates at the university for several decades. Academics made the first call for such a department in 1972. In recent years, pressures have mounted. The Harvard ethnic studies campaign may now be approaching resolution. As it does so, a key question remains as to the nature and purpose of ethnic studies as a field—and about the nature and purpose of higher education in general. Do the Harvard advocates of ethnic studies envision the field as a legitimate scholarly discipline like any other, or do they see it as a way to promote transformative change at Harvard and in society at large, change based on critical theory and radical political commitments?

In recent years, the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard and one of its member groups, the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, have led the campaign for the establishment of an ethnic studies department. For these groups, nothing less than a full-fledged department will do. Even as Harvard has incorporated many ethnic studies courses into other departments, the frustration and determination of the ethnic studies advocates have only increased. This was made clear in a webinar posted online and dated August 12, 2020, which was produced by the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard. In it, several students and professors make the case for an ethnic studies department. The webinar, called What the Hell is Ethnic Studies? And Why Should Every Alum Care in This Moment?, is worth examining in some detail.

The webinar’s presentation includes comments by several student activists, but the bulk of it consists of interviews with Philip Deloria, professor of history at Harvard; Jason Ferreira, associate professor in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University; and Viet Thanh Nguyen, professor of English, American studies, and ethnicity and comparative literature at the University of Southern California. The discussion is moderated by Harvard graduate Renee Tajima-Peña, now a UCLA professor of Asian American studies.

It is perhaps revealing that this lengthy presentation does not at first turn to its guest speakers to explore what ethnic studies is or present an academic argument in favor of creating an ethnic studies department at Harvard. Instead, it justifies its sense of urgency by referring to Harvard’s denial of tenure to ethnic studies professor Lorgia García-Peña. Without evidence, the webinar depicts this denial as a prime example of a political bias within Harvard that the proposed ethnic studies department will counteract. As Harvard student activist Alondra Ponce puts it:

She [García-Peña] has been at the forefront of this fight ever since she came to Harvard, only to be fired from the university because what she studies and advocates for at its very core problematizes and challenges this institution. Now what I mean by that is that ethnic studies carries a legacy that actively works to dismantle white supremacy, anti-blackness, modern slavery and much, much more.

Harvard, of course, denies tenure to a great number of professors each year for many reasons, and this webinar presents no evidence that García-Peña was denied tenure because of “what she studies and advocates for.” Given Harvard’s substantial affirmative action agenda, it would be surprising if García-Peña’s ethnicity and scholarly interests in Dominican studies did not weigh in her favor rather than against her, as the video clearly implies.

Garcia-Peña’s tenure denial was far from the first conflict that fueled the drive for ethnic studies at Harvard. Shortly after the founding of Harvard’s African and African American Studies Department in 1969, some called for a more comprehensive program of ethnic studies. In general, the idea of ethnic studies was a child of the Sixties upheavals on the West Coast, in particular the extended student strikes at San Francisco State and UC-Berkeley in 1968 and 1969. For decades, ethnic studies flourished in the context of California’s unique mix of African American, Asian, and Latin American communities, as well as the activism of radicals claiming to speak for those larger communities.

Things moved much more slowly on the East Coast. In 1972, Harvard Professor of Latin American History and Economics John Womack proposed an ethnic studies program. However, the idea languished. Later, the university made funds available to bring visiting faculty to campus to teach ethnic studies. A more concerted drive did not begin until 2009, when a secondary field in ethnic studies was established, to be guided by what was later re-named the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights (EMR). As ethnic studies courses proliferated, they did so largely within other departments such as U.S. history, anthropology, or history and literature. Harvard appears to accept the idea that ethnic studies courses have value, but it has dragged its feet about starting an entire, fully self-contained department. In 2015, for example, Dean of the Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen said, “I feel that creating new departments only isolates people, I think the key thing is to have the field be present in a lot of departments.”

It’s hard to decipher Harvard’s hesitancy to establish a fully independent ethnic studies department. Could it be a lingering recognition that academic standards are easier to maintain if ethnic studies courses are set within established subject field disciplines like history, anthropology, or history and literature? Perhaps Harvard administrators worry about a department that would become a base for political activism more than disciplined scholarship. It would be welcome if Harvard did recognize such a threat.

Unfortunately, many ethnic studies courses available at Harvard do appear to embody a spirit of ethnic group grievance expressed in the dense language of critical theory. For example, “EMR 141. Race, Solidarity, and the Carceral State,” or “EMR 133. Power, Knowledge, Identity: Critical Approaches to Race and Ethnicity.” Claudine Gay, who in 2018 was appointed dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, seems to be more supportive of the ethnic studies drive than many past Harvard administrators.

It’s not that ethnic studies courses must inevitably fall into an oppressor-oppressed framework. However, the August 12, 2020 webinar is saturated with that spirit. Following its opening focus and remarks on Garcia-Peña’s tenure denial, the video then presents the need for an ethnic studies department in similarly politicized terms. Its participants oscillate between two different versions of this politicization. The first version might be called “a liberal diversity perspective”; the second, “a radical transformative perspective.” Both perspectives depict ethnic studies as a political organizing tool more than as a purely academic department or field of scholarly study.

Each of the three professors interviewed in this presentation contend with the tensions between these two perspectives.

Viet Thanh Nguyen first describes his notion of a liberal ethnic studies model as one focused on “immigration and inclusion.” In this model, each group would examine its immigrant experience, its encounter with America, and its experiences of oppression and discrimination. The emphasis appears to be on the negative over the positive in the experiences of America’s immigrant communities. This model would also advocate for increasing the representation of each ethnic group in the student body and on the faculty. But Nguyen says this model needs to be challenged or replaced by a more radical approach. This more radical model would seek what Nguyen at one point describes as the “decolonization of the U.S.” It would stress this “decolonization” over a focus only on the immigration and inclusion of various ethnic groups in the United States. The approach instead proceeds from the individual, to one’s ethnic group, to a “solidarity” that grapples with the larger network of what Nguyen calls the “inequalities and privileges in this country that need to be constantly challenged.”

Jason Ferreira makes similar points when he distinguishes ethnic studies as “a legacy of struggle” from ethnic studies as “a vehicle of struggle.” He argues for the later. That is, he suggests the purpose of ethnic studies is to transform the world, not merely to study it. In discussing the origins of ethnic studies in the 1968-69 student strike at San Francisco State, he stresses that the goal was not “Ethnic Studies,” it was “Third-World Studies.” That is, the strike had a more ideologically radical and transformative agenda. It sought to confront an American empire in solidarity with Third World revolutionary movements. Ferreira clearly still prefers that agenda. He praises the first version of the California K-12 Ethnic Studies Framework and insists it was revised in a way that was “disrespectful.” That original framework, in fact, came under heavy fire for anti-Zionist rhetoric that many saw as anti-Semitic. But for Ferreira, the alterations made were “insulting to Arab Americans.” The revised California Framework (adopted in March 2021) is still radical in many respects, suffused with the language of critical race theory. For Ferreira, however, it represents a disappointing compromise.

The third scholar interviewed in the webinar, Philip Deloria, makes distinctions similar to those of Ferreira and Nguyen. He sees Nguyen’s “immigrant and inclusion” model as a “neoliberal” way to attach each immigrant group to the state instead of connecting all the marginalized ethnic groups with one another. He, too, wants ethnic studies to have a more radical project. For example, he praises his experience at the University of Michigan, in which sub-programs for ethnic groups could connect with their “communities” outside the academy—to labor groups or groups fighting for Indian tribal rights, for instance. The implication seems to be that an ethnic studies department could and should bring community activists into the university to work directly for its politicization and transformation.

These are just a few of the views expressed in the webinar, however they summarize well the general thrust of the event: the speakers envision an ethnic studies department with a politically transformative mission—transformative of Harvard and of society at large.

The webinar participants all seem to share a highly negative view of the history and current condition of America’s ethnic groups—they relentlessly depict the nation as a flawed and oppressive society. How then will their ethnic studies program account for the historic and continuing desire of so many national and ethnic groups to come to America? How will it account for the vast cultural enrichment those groups have provided and that so many other Americans have welcomed? How will it explain the positive feelings (along with negative criticisms) many ethnic groups clearly have about their adopted homeland? Will there be a place to analyze and understand these aspects of America’s ethnic diversity in the ethnic studies department envisioned by the speakers? It is hard to see how.

Finally, at no point in the discussion is there any consideration of the scholarly justification for an ethnic studies department. That is, what intellectual justification is there for a separate department, given the large number of already-existing ethnic studies courses available in other programs at Harvard? In the absence of such a justification, it is worth asking why Harvard needs yet another effort to politicize and “transform” itself in pursuit of a radical ideology.

In October 2020, the Ethnic Studies Coalition stated its view:

Others may mince words, but we want to make clear what others will not explicitly tell you: being a scholar of Ethnic Studies at Harvard is not easy. We will not compromise on our commitments to an Ethnic Studies that actively seeks to disrupt systems of power and center Indigenous communities, Black communities, and communities of color through transformative, dynamic, and groundbreaking methods of study, teaching, and practice.

Given this view, perhaps the last word should go to Brown University Economics Professor Glenn Loury, who recently tweetedthe following:

Is there a downside to ethnic studies departments in the universities? They’re here to stay no doubt. And they often study important questions. But they can also be an end-run around disciplinary gatekeepers which may allow some less-than-stellar scholarship to evade peer review.

Regarding ethnic studies, and many other movements at our institutions of higher learning, this appears to be a central question. Harvard must address it. How it will do so remains to be seen.

Image: Somesh Kesarla Suresh, Public Domain


  • Jonathan Burack

    Jonathan Burack is a Harvard graduate, class of '64, who has produced history curriculum materials for high schools for several decades, including a line called MindSparks. He is currently working on curriculum projects free of the radical distortions endangering even-handed approaches to K-12 history instruction.

3 thoughts on “Harvard and the “What the Hell is Ethnic Studies?” Webinar

  1. Ethnic studies is a pseudo-intellectual field created out of whole cloth. It serves no purpose other than to train people to fill ethnic studies faculty positions or get DEI positions in corporate America—and the latter serves no useful purpose other than to help keep the leftist mobs at bay. It is difficult to imagine how training in ethnic studies provides any benefit to society.

    1. While there is much truth in Knuth’s comment, I believe further discussion is needed to distinguish regional studies (Asian Studies or Japanese Studies, or Judaic Studies, or Arab Studies) from ethnic studies beyond the ‘critical consciousness’ that is a common driver of ‘ethnic’ but not ‘regional’ Studies.

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