Harvard University sparked outrage among students and scholars all over the country this week after it denied tenure to Lorgia García Peña, a beloved Latinx studies professor at the Ivy League school.
More than 3,000 graduate students and scholars have signed a letter demanding that the school reverse its decision, and about 50 students held a sit-in at University Hall on Monday evening in support of García Peña—and to call on Harvard to create a formalized ethnic studies program, reported The Harvard Crimson.
Arlene Dávila, the founding director of the Latinx Project at New York University, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that the decision is a “sign of incredible disrespect” and “speaks to a larger disregard of Latina Studies” because so many senior scholars in her field wrote letters of support to Harvard before the decision was finalized.
“Our views were disregarded as meaningless,” Dávila said.
García Peña is currently the Roy G. Clouse Associate Professor of Romance languages and literatures and of history and literature. She holds an extensive list of degrees, including 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.
In 2016, she published The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nations and Archives of Contradictions, which won several awards, including the 2017 National Women’s Studies Association Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize, the 2016 LASA Latino/a Studies Book Award, and the 2016 Isis Duarte Book Prize in Haiti and Dominican Studies. (García Peña did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast on Wednesday.)
Dávila was just one of dozens of scholars who tweeted on Monday in support of García Peña, writing that she was “appalled” by Harvard’s decision, considering that she views García Peña as a “leader in the field of Latinx studies.”
Dávila said that García Peña’s first book was “groundbreaking” and that her “scholarship represents one of the best examples of the interdisciplinarity of Latina studies in the field” and has “started real conversations that have impacted scholarship.”
“This Latina star scholar is not good enough?” asked Dávila. “Who gets to make that assessment?”
Rosemary Feal, a former visiting scholar at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard and Professor Emerita of Spanish at State University of New York at Buffalo, told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that García Peña’s presence on campus has been “profoundly transformational” as a “teacher, mentor, and organizer of events, performances, conferences, and so on.”
But Feal pointed out that “merits for tenure by nature are politicized on any campus,” with standards that are often “mysterious or applied unequally.” Rather than analyzing the tenure denial by looking at García Peña’s scholarly output “point by point,” Feal said she encouraged people to see the “groundswell of protests by senior scholars” for evidence that her work is “held in the highest esteem.”
Scholars from all over the United States chimed in this week—on Twitter and elsewhere—to offer support to García Peña and express outrage. And long before the tenure decision was final or the campus protests broke out, more than a dozen students lobbied in April on García Peña’s behalf in a letter-writing campaign to express support for her bid. Several supporters cited her active mentorship of Latinx students on campus.
“It’s disgusting that Harvard thinks it can do this,” said Marisol LeBrón, an assistant professor of Latino Studies at the University of Texas. LeBrón is currently at Harvard as a faculty fellow at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History.
LeBrón told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that Harvard’s decision is just “the latest example of the exceptionally high tenure standards that scholars of color, especially Black women and other women of color, are held to in comparison to their white peers.”
“Despite all of the difficulties that scholars of color must navigate at top-tier research institutions, when scholars do meet the exceptionally high criteria for tenure, as Professor García Peña did, they are often denied because these institutions do not have people who can appropriately assess the cutting-edge work these scholars do,” LeBrón added. “The organizing around Professor García Peña’s tenure denial is not only about righting an egregious wrong but also about pointing out that, while Harvard touts itself one of the top sites of knowledge production in the world, it is an intellectual desert when it comes to ethnic studies because it systematically undermines brilliant faculty trying to do this work.”
During Monday’s protest, students occupied the lobby of a building on campus for 48 minutes to symbolize the 48 years that students have been asking for a formalized ethnic studies program, The Harvard Crimson reported.
Harvard spokeswoman Anna Cowenhoven declined comment to The Daily Beast “on individual tenure cases” but noted on Wednesday that the issue of expanding ethnic studies “is separate and distinct from the tenure case.” Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay, she said, has “made this an academic priority and launched a search for four new faculty members in the area of ethnicity, migration, and indigeneity.”
Gay has said that she intends to recruit faculty for those positions before creating a formal program.
But in the 2,000-word open letter asking for Harvard to reverse its decision about García Peña, the coalition of graduate students and concerned scholars protesting the tenure denial said the move “strikes us as a disavowal of Harvard’s recent commitment to invest in ethnic studies.”
“Denying tenure to a faculty member of color who is actively serving on the committee for new hires in ethnic studies undermines Harvard’s commitment and betrays efforts to advance diversity and inclusion at this institution,” said the letter, which also pointed to two racist incidents on campus that they claim the university has not properly addressed.
In September, the university announced that someone left a “hateful and obscene” note at García Peña’s office allegedly insulting her ethnicity and her immigrant status and challenging her right to be at Harvard. At the time, Harvard condemned the note and university police investigated the incident.
Then, in October, a white Harvard janitor reportedly called police on students in García Peña’s fall class called “Performing Latinidad” while they were putting up an art installation in Harvard Yard. Harvard University Police reportedly questioned the students and asked to see their student IDs, which Dean Gay later described as “painful.” The incident was denounced by the Harvard GSAS Latinx Student Association, which wrote an open letter noting that “such acts enable the perpetuation of violence against marginalized members of our community.” Afterward, the university commissioned a report and promised to take steps to ensure that the incident isn’t repeated.
Harvard’s annual report on faculty demographics for 2019 noted that only 41 percent of tenured faculty are now “women and/or minorities.”
Final decisions about which faculty members receive tenure lie with the university president, and the school’s tenure review committees do not normally release public information about such cases, according to the university’s tenure track handbook. This week’s open letter called on administrators at Harvard to “increase transparency in the tenure review process for all faculty, providing more lines of accountability and greater consideration of the ways in which faculty have contributed to supporting underrepresented students on campus.”
Of course, Harvard isn’t alone.
In April, after Yale denied tenure to renowned Latinx studies professor Dr. Albert Laguna, García Peña penned a story for Asterix Journal writing, “White supremacy in these institutions bleeds through the photos of white men which hang in the halls of the university, in the syllabi that privilege white canon and lack any type of representation for people of color, and in the university’s inability to hire or retain black and brown faculty, in the university’s disavowal of Ethnic Studies as a legitimate field of knowledge.”
Feal told The Daily Beast that the negative effect of Garcia Pena’s tenure denial will be felt widely on campus.
“Fields that concern marginalized people have to be fought for on college campuses, and those doing the fighting—who, after all, are hired to develop those fields—are often marginalized themselves,” she said. “I’m thinking of fields we now understand as fundamental and which are fully established on most campuses: African-American literature, history, art, and music, for example.”
“When an institution like Harvard invests in a scholar like Lorgia García Peña, and then, despite her achievements, denies her tenure, it has negative consequences,” Feal continued. “It has the effect of alienating students, as the protests on campus have demonstrated. It has the effect of stopping the momentum toward a truly inclusive curriculum and diversified faculty.”
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to indicate that García Peña is not the only Latina women on the tenure track at Harvard.