After Harvard denies tenure to Latina scholar, students stage sit-in, demanding an ethnic studies department

December 17, 2019 • 10:00 am

I’ve been paying attention to this fracas for a while, and while I’m concerned that my Ph.D. alma mater, Harvard University, is going full woke (and the University of Chicago is showing worrying tendencies that way, too), I don’t have much of an opinion about the proposed ethnic studies department there. I do object to Harvard students staging sit-ins, which is a violation of University policy (it would be okay, though, if they were willing to take the punishment), and I’m not convinced that the tenure denial that has animated them was a gross injustice. This is all reported in Vox (click on screenshot), as well as in the Harvard Crimson (here, here, here, and here).

Vox, being woke, casts the whole thing as a miscarriage of justice and a bias against a necessary ethnic-studies program. Part of their report:

Earlier this month, over 50 Harvard students staged a sit-in at University Hall. They held banners that read in big, bold letters: “Ethnic studies.” They chanted, “Ethnic studies! When do we want it? Now!” What they also wanted: justice for Lorgia García Peña, an ethnic studies scholar who had recently been denied tenure at the university.

They also interrupted a Harvard faculty meeting; also a violation of University policy.

Peña, an associate professor of romance languages and literatures, was not only up for tenure, but she was also considered to be the best candidate to lead Harvard’s ethnic studies initiatives, according to students; after a 50-year push, the Ivy League school still lacks an ethnic studies department. Peña is a leading expert in Dominican studies, making Harvard a leading school in this field as well. And yet the university denied her tenure. (Harvard told Vox that it doesn’t comment on individual tenure decisions; Peña has not responded to Vox’s request for comment.)

While students and faculty had signed an open letter criticizing Harvard’s decision, last week over 200 of the brightest US scholars in ethnic studies also drafted a letter condemning the university’s treatment of Peña. They also acknowledged that her case is not an anomaly in academia. Renowned women’s and African American studies scholar bell hooks, Berea College’s distinguished professor in residence, summed up the predicament:

“Harvard’s denial of Dr. Garcia Peña’s tenure is a testament to the ways that Black and Latinx Studies continue to be ignored as sites of vital knowledge production in the academy. Dr. Garcia Peña’s scholarship and service is the cornerstone to continue building Ethnic Studies as a leading program at Harvard and her absence would be a detriment to the students and faculty that depend on her keen insight.”

hook’s words echo loudly over the heads of women across the country who, like Peña, struggle to do great work in ethnic studies despite the lack of support and acknowledgment of their achievements. In fact, the struggle for professors of color to be respected is as old as ethnic studies programs themselves.

Here are some of the protestors at the faculty meeting, courtesy of the Crimson (their caption):

Protestors lined the walls of Emerson Hall outside of a faculty meeting on Tuesday after professor Lorgia García Peña was denied tenure. Photo: Kathryn S. Kuhar

What’s my reason for being ambiguous about ethnic studies departments? Mainly because they tend to be departments engaged not in an objective search for truth, but to promote a specific ideology: the ideology of white oppression, intersectionalism, colonialism, and unrelenting bigotry of dominant groups. (Some colleges have “white studies” courses as well, but, as you can guess, they are not rah-rah about whites, but concentrate on the toxicity and bad aspects of that particular race.)

Yet I also believe that the literatures and histories of many groups should be taught in colleges, for they add to the diverse perspectives you expect to get in a good college. Still, given the climate in American colleges today, I doubt that an ethnic studies curriculum or department can free itself from pushing specific ideologies and demonizing or silencing those guilty of “wrongthink”. Perhaps that’s why Harvard is dragging its heels about establishing such a department, although they’ve committed to establishing some form of ethnic studies.

As for Lorgia García Peña, I am not sure why she was denied tenure, nor of course will Harvard comment on it since that’s always a private personnel matter, and Harvard never speaks about such things. All we know is that the faculty committee must have recommended tenure denial, because Harvard’s President Bacow says that he’s never overturned a faculty tenure decision.

Looking at García Peña’swebsite at Harvard, her c.v., and her Google Scholar profile gives me a clue, though.  She’s published one book, which seems to be derived from her Ph.D. thesis (another’s under contract, and a third seems to be just a Spanish translation of the published book), but lists only five refereed papers since she began at Harvard in 2013.  (There are also four “peer-reviewed” chapters, but in general those things are invited and the “peer review” consists of the comments of reviewers who know the chapter will be published.) Here are the listed papers:

2020 “Lo que dice la piel: Consciencia rayana y solidaridad post-terremoto 2010” Forthcoming in Revista de Estudios Sociales, Santo Domingo, Spring 2020.

2016 “Black in English: Race, Migration, and National Belonging in Postcolonial Italy.” Kalfou 3, no. 2 (2016), 207-229

2015 “Translating Blackness: Dominicans Negotiating Race and Belonging.” The Black Scholar 45, no. 2 (2015): 10-20. Awarded Best Article by Black Scholar,

2015. 2013 “Un-Bordering Hispaniola: David Pérez’s Performance Actions of Haitian-Dominican Solidarity.” Afro-Hispanic Review 32, no. 2 (2013): 57-71.

2013 “Being Black Ain’t So Bad… Dominican Immigrant Women Negotiating Race in Contemporary Italy.” Caribbean Studies 41, no. 2 (2013): 137-161.

For Harvard, this doesn’t seem an outstanding record of scholarship, especially the hiatus between 2016 and 2020. I haven’t read the papers (I think most of these can be accessed), but the titles make them seem on the ideological side of “ethnic studies,” and perhaps Harvard doesn’t want that kind of work. A thin-ish record like this would certainly not support tenure for someone in biology, especially in niche journals like those cited above.  I’m just guessing here, but the clues seem to be that the denial of tenure is based on a paucity of published work; as we all know, it’s publish or perish at a school like Harvard. García-Peña also won awards for mentoring and teaching, but at Harvard those come a distant second to publication.

While Harvard may well create an ethnic studies department (they already have a program in Ethnic Studies in History and Literature, which allows concentrations in Asian American Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Latinx Studies), perhaps they want a program that is more serious than similar programs at other schools, programs that are ideologically based and produce a large number of pretty useless “grievance study” papers. But since the whole thing is shrouded in mystery, all I can do is speculate.


24 thoughts on “After Harvard denies tenure to Latina scholar, students stage sit-in, demanding an ethnic studies department

  1. Hard to judge this case without a lot more information. It might be that she didn’t produce publications or research deserving of tenure. This seems a reasonable possibility since Harvard seems to cater to the woke, and had to know this would cause a lot of protest.

  2. Just a guess but demonstrations demanding tenure be given might have the opposite effect. No college wants to be seen as granting tenure based on who has the most demonstrative friends.

        1. Generally not – it is almost always up or out. One could possibly appeal, but that usually goes nowhere. If tenure was granted solely by the opinions of the students, everyone would be receiving A’s with honors and lots of free pastries.

  3. My impression has long been that it is rare for junior faculty at Harvard to receive tenure. Superstars only. They prefer to poach already distinguished senior people from elsewhere. If they want an ethnic studies dept. they will do the same.

    1. That used to be the case but it no longer true. When I was a grad student there, newly hired professors weren’t expected to even try to get tenure, but now it’s a lot more common. This source from 2014 says that, at Harvard, “Over the last five years, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard has tenured 66-75% of candidates”.

  4. My only comment would be – decisions such as this are made by the school, not students far as I know. Just like determining which teacher to hire, I don’t think you take a poll of the students. Give all your responsibilities away to the students and then what? Then you start to look like our congress.

    1. well yeah, seems like a ridiculous thing for students to demand.

      Why don’t they just go educate themselves, if they know better than the institution? (I’m quite serious.)

      I have some customers try to tell me how to do my job — while at the same time they want me to guarantee the outcome.

      I have to explain to them (for some reason): The reason you are paying me is for my expertise. I know how to do this (and you don’t). So, if you try to tell me how to do it:
      1. I won’t guarantee the outcome
      2. You will be moving away from the (local) design optimum that I have devised over a long time and a lot of experience.
      (3. Therefore either let me do my job or try someone else.)

      1. Quite true. And I think most of us went to school at some time or another, just as we had to find jobs and careers. I always understood there was a school administration and all of that and they had their responsibilities as do the students. Hiring teachers and making decisions on tenure would not come under student control. Same is true on the job. Once you have a job at a company you don’t normally get to say, move over higher management, I will now run things.

      2. These must be the same clients who demand to know how long it will take to fix before they’ve even told you the problem. Lot of it about!

  5. I clicked on the link and read/skimmed a good portion of the introduction to her book
    “The Border of Dominicanidad”.

    It’s like a buffet line of the most au courant academic jargon. And I wonder: Don’t these academics realize how silly and shallow they sound? I guess if they do, they are not embarrassed by it or care.

    Significant portions read as if written by a smart high school senior who has a taste for academic jargon.

    It’s also so cookie-cutter predictable. There must be thousands and thousands of tomes and academic works written this way in the humanities.

    1. I don’t think this is, in general terms, a new thing. My not-then-but-future wife used to work a job on campus when she was going to school in the later 80s. One of her most common tasks was typing dissertations for doctoral candidates. My god you wouldn’t believe the tedious, ridiculous, simplistic and boring drivel that many of these dissertations amounted to. Most of these were various sub-fields of counseling. Made both of us think we were on the wrong education track at times.

    2. As someone who decided not to pursue an advanced degree in the humanities it makes me angry and sad that the most ridiculous, superstitious and/or trendy muck is churned out and “read” by so-called liberal thinkers who claim from the other side of their mouths that they champion reason, science, and critical thinking.

  6. Makes me think of the (sadly) out of print board game ‘Survival of the Witless’ by Avalanche Press.

    It was published in the 1990s at the tail end of ‘Political Correctness’.

    The whole idea of the game was to earn tenure by impressing the other tenured academics.

    Aside from referring to ‘Mail of Color’ (e.g. Blackmail.) as a means to obtain tenure, one of the academics to be impressed was a guy who’d obtained tenure by organizing his students (and other like minded students) to protest the ‘obvious’ racism in denying tenure to someone who’s written a paper proving that (a). All whites are psychopaths because their ‘souls have been chilled’ by the cold of the north and (b) Every important figure in European history was actually a black person…

  7. I don’t understand. She is described as an associate professor, which is above a non-tenured assistant professor. Being an associate prof. means you have tenure, and you are going up for promotion to full professor.
    Unless these titles are different at Harvard she already has tenure and job security. Lots of associate profs never make full professor by choice or by committee decision.

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