What’s At Stake in Harvard’s Ethnic Studies Cluster Hire Search?

Over the past few weeks, we have been asked to give our opinion on the cluster hire. We want to be honest with students, community members, and candidates about our position.

We have been clear about our demands in the past: the need for an Ethnic Studies department; the critical place of students and community members in its formation; and sustained commitment to scholars of Ethnic Studies at Harvard. For us, the legacies of the beloved scholars we have lost in the last couple of years, and especially the legacy of Professor Lorgia García-Peña, cast an immense shadow on the cluster hire. We, therefore, have significant reservations with the search — especially the Latinx Studies portion of it, given Profe’s previous proximity to the search. It would feel disingenuous to say otherwise.

At the same time, as students, we concretely understand the kinds of relationships that can be built with those faculty whose livelihood and occupational stability aren’t consistently at risk. Although we aren’t happy with the way the university has conducted this cluster hire, we do not want to drive away those committed to our fight.

Before we address the candidates, some background:

On August 20, 2020, Dean Gay released an email stating that the cluster hire search in “Ethnicity, Indigeneity, and Migration” — previously initiated in June of 2019 and suspended in March of 2020, following de-densification of Harvard’s campus — would be reactivated, with the intention of completing the hiring process by the end of the 2020–2021 school year.

Harvard has treated the candidates for hire abysmally, during both the finalist interviews and assessments last February. Following the suspension of the search in March, candidates were left unaware of the future of the hire for nearly half a year. Meanwhile, Harvard continued to search for an Athletics Director… in the midst of a global pandemic, when sports aren’t even being played.

Our greatest issue with the search, however, resides in its connection to Professor Lorgia García-Peña. We are completely aware that the processes guiding the cluster hire are bureaucratically separate from the tenure review process which resulted in the firing of our beloved Profe. After all, it was the activism of HESC and its affiliates, students and alumni, which pushed the university to adopt such a cluster hire in the first place.

Students protest for Ethnic Studies and new graduate student contracts outside of a Harvard building.

That said, Profe’s firing is inextricable from the cluster hire. Profe was one of five members of the review and search committee responsible for reviewing the original candidate pool; not to mention that she spearheaded and developed an academic program for Latinx Studies, which undergraduate and graduate students can now pursue as a secondary field. For the university to continue the cluster hire with full force, immediately following the firing of Profe, is a dismissal of the kind of Ethnic Studies she was trying to build at the university, through her service and scholarship. And because all the hires from the cluster search are intended to enter as tenured professors, the university is essentially searching for Profe’s replacement.

For Harvard to fire a Black Latina and leading scholar in Latinx Studies, only to try and replace her scholarship and her voice with the current candidates (mostly white, some Latin Americanists), is indefensible. These candidates will inevitably piggyback off the instrumental groundwork Professor García-Peña has laid and Harvard will not offer any form of recognition.

Profe’s firing is only part of a larger trend of Harvard’s mistreatment of its Ethnic Studies scholars. Harvard has lost four scholars — Genevieve Clutario, Natasha Warikoo, Ahmed Ragab, and Lorgia García-Peña — in the past two years alone, due to the university’s chronic inability to actively support these critical faculty. As we’ve said before, true institutional support would require creating an Ethnic Studies department, something the university will not commit to.

And so we say to the candidates:

For the Latinx Studies finalists — if you care about the future of Latinx Studies at Harvard, you will make your offer conditional on reversing Profe’s tenure denial. If this is not met by the university, you will decline the offer. This is the only ethical way to come into this university understanding the implications of your potential hiring.

Now, for everyone — if you open your arms to us, we can fight together for a space that reflects the rigor and dynamism of an imaginative and cutting-edge Ethnic Studies. We are fervent in our support and protection of the Ethnic Studies faculty we have; the alumni who stand with us; the often neglected community members of color affected by Harvard’s actions, investments, and very existence; and our graduate and undergraduate students. We know that this institution has treated Ethnic Studies and its constituent scholars as disposable, in the past and in the present. We will not do the same.

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. Students will have the opportunity to engage with candidates during the upcoming search process, and we will use those avenues to assert the kind of Ethnic Studies students and community members have been trying to build at Harvard for the past 48 years. We will be critical, but we will be fair.

It is often the bonds between faculty and students that have carried the momentum and enthusiasm for this project, despite the half-a-century of struggle we have collectively endured. We hope that, once this process has completed, we can build those bonds with you. We do not expect this process, even from our end, to be easy; but transformation is not easy. Justice is not easy. And we refuse to be complacent, or take the easy route, especially at the home stretch. We truly believe it’s now or never. When the dust settles, we hope you will stand with us.

Students fighting for Ethnic Studies at Harvard University