March 11, 2002

Ethnic Studies in The Ivy League

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Rallies, proposals and forums have recently brought attention to Cornell’s ethnic studies programs. Controversy over ethnic studies is not isolated to Cornell, but exists throughout the Ivy League.

The Cornell University Coalition for Ethnic Studies (CUCES) successfully lobbied Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin last month for the creation of a task force to assess the current resources of Cornell’s ethnic studies programs.

The Task Force on Ethnic Studies, a group composed of administrators, directors of the ethnic studies programs, faculty and students, will provide recommendations on how to make the Asian American Studies Program, the Africana Studies and Research Center, the Latino Studies Program (LSP) and the American Indian Program stronger.

“Everyone [on the task force] agrees that there is work to be done,” said Isaac Kramnick, vice provost for undergraduate education and task force member.

Concerns about the state of ethnic studies programs, which are disciplines that explore the history and experiences of people of a particular ethnicity in North America, have been raised at many Ivy League universities. Current controversies about issues such as funding, hiring power and departmental status for ethnic studies programs exist throughout the Ivy League.

According to some CUCES members, the University’s ethnic studies programs cannot improve without increased funding.

“The University has a tendency to hear what it wants to hear,” CUCES member Kandis Gibson ’04 said after Martin approved CUCES’ proposal for a task force.

“If they heard what we were saying, they’d realize [that the programs do not receive] an adequate amount of money.”

Kramnick said that increased funding for the programs represents only one of the task force’s recommendation options.

The Task Force on Ethnic Studies plans to provide the administration with suggested program changes by December.

The members of CUCES want the task force to construct policies that address programmatic expansion, resources, infrastructure and finances for each program, CUCES member Astryd Benzan-Aquino ’05 said at a forum the group held last week.

At the forum, CUCES members said that many ethnic studies faculty members seem skeptical of the amount of change that CUCES can achieve.

“[The faculty] doesn’t have faith in the task force,” Benzan-Aquino said. “They’ve seen attempts before.”

Other Ivy League universities are making efforts to strengthen their ethnic studies programs, according to Prof. Maria Cristina Garcia, director of LSP.

“Cornell has the most impressive Latino Studies program in the Ivy League so far, but I suspect that won’t last for long,” Garcia said. “Dartmouth and Brown are developing their programs, and students at Harvard are actively petitioning for the creation of a Latino and Latin American Studies department or program.”

Although Cornell’s LSP ranks highly among other Ivy League programs, Garcia said the program is weaker than many programs nationwide.

“When you compare our program with the more established and financially endowed Latino or Chicano studies programs out west, say Michigan, Texas, UCLA, we come up very short,” she said.

“Cornell’s LSP has come a long way in the past ten years, but those of us associated with the program have big dreams. We see what the program could be.”

A member of the Task Force on Ethnic Studies, Garcia said she hopes the administration is dedicated to strengthening Cornell’s ethnic studies programs.

“At this point I wish to take administrators at their word that they are sincerely interested in improving ethnic studies at Cornell,” she said.

Efforts to strengthen the presence of ethnic studies on Ivy League campuses outside of Ithaca are numerous.

At Harvard University, recent attempts by students and faculty to create a Latino and Latin American Studies department have been unsuccessful, according to John Coatsworth, director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

Although Harvard has a wide array of courses about Latin America, there are not many that relate to Latino issues. In response to this imbalance, Coatsworth and his colleagues at the Center for Latin American Studies submitted a proposal to Harvard President Lawrence Summers to expand the number of Latino Studies courses last June.

At the time of the proposal, Summers had just begun his tenure as president.

“He said he was not prepared to endorse the proposal,” Coatsworth said. “He didn’t tell is it was unimportant, just that he wasn’t ready.”

“[The proposal’s rejection] was a disappointment, but not a bitter disappointment,” he added.

Despite the proposal’s rejection, the number of Latino faculty members at Harvard have increased, courses on Latino culture and history have increased and programs about Latino issues “are growing exponentially,” Coatsworth said.

Encounters between Summers and Afro-American Studies faculty members last fall reignited the effort to expand Latino Studies at Harvard, Coatsworth said.

According to Coatsworth, Afro-American Studies faculty members felt dismayed and offended by encounters with Summers. The Boston Globe reported on the encounters and Summers’ refusal to expand Latino Studies, which created an image that the president “has a double insensitivity to ethnic studies,” Coatsworth said.

Students recently presented a new proposal advocating the implementation of a degree program in Latino and Latin American Studies.

“Summers repeated that he was uneasy about creating ethnic enclaves,” Coatsworth said. “He said that, disregarding Afro-American Studies, the best way to approach ethnic minorities was in a comparative program.”

Student advocates expressed their unhappiness with Summers’ decision.

“We were disappointed with the outcome of the meeting, but not surprised based on the way he has treated others here. We are in good company,” Luiz Hernandez, co-chair of Concilio Latino, said to The Harvard Crimson.

Harvard’s Ethnic Studies Coalition recently began advocating for the establishment of separate ethnic studies programs. Afro-American Studies is the only independent ethnic studies program at Harvard; the rest are combined into the Ethnic Studies Program.

“The coalition’s main goal is to increase faculty and courses in ethnic studies, particularly in areas of Asian American, Latino and Native American studies,” said Ethan Yeh ’02, co-chair of the coalition. “We are also pushing for greater area studies faculty and courses in African and South Asian studies.”

The Ethnic Studies Coalition began the movement to create distinct programs for the ethnic studies programs last month.

“The administration hasn’t really responded with any progress, they have just said they will meet to discuss certain proposals, that the faculty have traditionally not been very supportive of creating specific departments for the study of race and ethnicity,” Yeh said.

A student movement to create an Asian American Studies program recently began at Dartmouth College, according to Shirley Lin ’02.

The Asian American task force, comprised of Dartmouth students, met in January to discuss the Asian American Studies Initiative.

“We’re shooting to get a minor here, but that is a long-term goal,” Derrick Chu ’04, co-chair of the task force, said to The Dartmouth. “Right now, we’re trying to facilitate the awareness of Asian American

In an opinion column in The Dartmouth, Chu and Morna Ha ’04, co-chair of the Asian American task force, expressed their support of the establishing an Asian American studies program.

“By integrating the Asian-American experience into the broader academic curriculum, [Asian American studies] creates a new lens for critically reinterpreting society and the truths purported by traditional readings of history,” they said. “The course offerings at Dartmouth are woefully inadequate for a thorough examination of Asian-American issues.”

Whereas students and faculty at Harvard and Dartmouth have advocated for the creation of separate ethnic studies programs, students at Columbia University are currently lobbying to combine the university’s ethnic studies programs into a single ethnic studies department.

Students Promoting Empowerment and Knowledge (SPEaK) support the creation of an ethnic studies department in order to make ethnic studies more comparative and intellectually coherent, said Hallie Tansey a senior at Columbia and co-chair of SPEaK. In addition, obtaining departmental status would allow the programs faculty hiring power.

SPEaK members staged hunger strikes and building takeovers in 1996 in support of ethnic studies, and their efforts resulted in the creation of programs in Latino studies and Asian American studies and the establishment of Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity.

Since the inception of the programs, however, the Latino Studies Program has been unable to hire a permanent director. Additionally, the programs cannot hire their own faculty members, a common inability among ethnic studies programs. Faculty members must be hired by other departments and then can become affiliated with ethnic studies programs.

“Administrators don’t value ethnic studies,” Tansey said. “They say the university is strapped for cash. They don’t want to make the financial investment [to improve individual ethnic studies programs].”

Tansey said that incorporating all of the ethnic studies programs in one department will allow the programs to improve.

Keeping them as individual programs “guarantees that they will stay weak, since they can’t even choose their own faculty,” she said. “A department would be stronger and able to attract more students and faculty.”

As Cornell’s task force examines the needs of the University’s ethnic studies programs, students and faculty at Cornell’s peer institutions will continue to encourage change in their programs as well.

Archived article by Stephanie Hankin