More than 200 internationally renowned scholars—including bell hooks and Angela Davis—lent their support on Monday to a beloved Harvard University professor of Latinx studies, Lorgia García Peña, who was denied tenure last month.
The clash between García Peña’s supporters and the Ivy League school began on Nov. 27, when the university announced its decision not to grant her tenure. More than 4,600 outraged students and scholars last week signed a 2,000-word open letter demanding that the school reverse its decision and create a formalized ethnic studies program.
“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,” said hooks—the acclaimed author, professor, feminist, and social activist—in a statement on Monday.
“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,” added hooks, who is currently serving as a distinguished professor in residence at Berea College.
Last Thursday, hundreds of Harvard affiliates protested the tenure denial on the steps of Widener Library, and days earlier, about 50 students staged a sit-in at University Hall, reported The Harvard Crimson. During the sit-in, students reportedly occupied the lobby of University Hall for 48 minutes to symbolize the 48 years that students have been lobbying for a formalized ethnic studies program at the elite school. Students also interrupted a faculty meeting on behalf of García Peña.
Months earlier, in April, more than a dozen students lobbied on the professor’s behalf in support of her tenure bid. In their arguments against the school’s decision, several of her supporters have pointed to her active mentorship of Latinx students at Harvard and referenced her vast contributions to her field of study.
García Peña is the Roy G. Clouse Associate Professor of Romance Languages at Harvard. In addition to a laundry list of degrees—a bachelor’s degree in journalism and Spanish language and literature from Rutgers University, a master’s in Latin American literature and cultures from Rutgers, and a PhD in American studies from the University of Michigan—she published an award-winning book, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nations and Archives of Contradictions, in 2016.
The book has been heralded by colleagues in her field as “groundbreaking,” and was described in Monday’s letter as “possibly the single most important book to be published in English in Dominican studies in the past ten years.” García Peña has not responded to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on her tenure case.
Off campus, scholars from all over the United States chimed in on Twitter and elsewhere to express anger over the decision last week.
But Monday’s open letter to Harvard University President Lawrence Bacow is a clear escalation in the condemnation of the university’s decision and a searing indictment of its review process and allegedly lackluster commitment “to the fields the university has promised not to ignore.” The letter’s signatories are noted experts in Latinx and Latin American studies, Caribbean studies, Dominican studies, ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, African American and black studies, and American studies. The letter touted García Peña’s “impressive scholarly achievements” and her “invaluable contributions” to the signatories’ fields of study.
Along with hooks, the authors included Angela Davis, distinguished professor emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz; Rosemary Feal, professor emerita of modern languages and literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo; Arlene Davila, professor of anthropology & social and cultural analysis at New York University; and Maria Cristina García, the Howard A. Newman professor of American studies and professor in the department of history and the Latino studies program at Cornell University.
The authors say that García Peña’s work has had such a profound effect on a “wide swath of academic fields” that it “is nearly impossible to find new work in the humanities around Dominican or Latinx studies that does not cite or reference” her scholarship.
“She regularly contributes—lending her name and her labor—to Harvard’s efforts to diversify its faculty and student body,” the authors said in Monday’s letter. “Demanding of her time and intellectual equity on the one hand, while denying her a place within that community is not only hypocritical, it signals to the larger academic community that Harvard University is not truly invested in supporting stellar scholars in these areas of study.”
“Given what we know about the extremely positive outside peer review letters in her case, we also find ourselves unsure of why anyone would write in support of tenure at Harvard University if such recommendations are only to be patently ignored,” wrote the signatories.
“This decision signals that the University is ill-equipped to evaluate the depth, breadth, and import of these fields of scholarship from one of its most brilliant and nationally-recognized practitioners,” said the letter. “We find this decision shocking both in its failure to properly evaluate the stellar merits of Dr. García Peña’s scholarship, but also in its refusal to recognize the invaluable contributions of this type of work to the larger academic community.”
The authors also argued that the decision to deny García Peña’s tenure will “substantially limit its ability to attract top talent in these fields” and “signals that, despite increasing demands from students, these areas of study are not intellectually significant in the tenure process.”
Bacow has said he cannot publicly offer an explanation about García Peña’s tenure denial because the tenure review process, like most personnel decisions, is confidential, according to The Harvard Crimson.
Harvard spokesman Jason Newton said on Monday: “We can confirm that the letter was received by Pres. Bacow this morning” but that “beyond that, we do not comment on individual tenure cases.” Another spokesperson, Anna Cowenhoven, last week also declined comment to The Daily Beast “on individual tenure cases” but noted that the issue of expanding ethnic studies “is separate and distinct from the tenure case.”
Cowenhoven said last week that Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay has “made this an academic priority and launched a search for four new faculty members in the area of ethnicity, migration, and indigeneity.”
“For several years now, I have worked steadily to expand our faculty coverage in ethnicity, migration and indigeneity, beginning with my efforts as dean of social science to strengthen Native American studies,” said Gay.
“This effort is at a delicate stage, and it needs support and nourishment from those who are invested in the future of ethnic studies at Harvard,” she continued. “Today, I am asking not for your patience, because I agree we have all waited long enough. I am asking for your resolve.”
“I am asking that together we send the unambiguous message that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is ready to embrace ethnic studies and to support faculty and students as they create the strongest and most successful program of its kind in the nation,” Gay added.