When I talk to my undergraduates about literature, we discuss Black and Latinx authors who illuminate how painful and grating it is to live with the legacy of white supremacy; how this country breaks down the bodies of individuals for their labor, giving little in return. How people of color have to be twice as good, have to fight twice as hard as their white counterparts for the same level of respect.
Last week, I heard that the brilliant professor who introduced me to these concepts was denied tenure by Harvard. I was reminded that what I say in lectures are not simply abstract, academic concerns.
Lorgia García-Peña ticks the major boxes touted as tenure requirements. She has written prolifically and published to great acclaim — winning multiple book prizes and publishing eight articles and four chapters, all while completing her forthcoming monograph. She is a pillar of academic life at Harvard, as a faculty member in multiple departments, adviser to various committees, and an award-winning educator at both the undergraduate and graduate level. García-Peña has been described as a “star” academic, “profoundly transformational,” and “a monument on this campus.” She also shaped the trajectory of my life. Without her, I would not be working toward my MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and teaching undergraduates.
As the son of two Salvadoran immigrants, I did not imagine myself as an academic or a writer. Professors, in my mind, were exclusively aloof white men in tweed blazers, with snow-white beards who spent all their time discussing long-dead European poets.
But studying with García-Peña — an Afro-Latina, first-generation college student turned professor — shifted that for me. There was no limit to the knowledge I produced, whose stories I analyzed, and how I myself fit into my academic inquiry. Her classroom was where I first fell in love with academia and felt it had a place for me. Now, three times a week, I put on my professor costume— a cozy turtleneck and clean-pressed dress pants — and teach literature to undergraduates.
The news of her tenure denial, though, makes me question how long I’ll remain in academia. If my brilliant, accomplished mentor cannot find stability in this profession, how can I ever hope to?
The denial of tenure to an academic superstar like García-Peña is an unjust assault on merit, and it’s indicative of a broader trend in academia. Nationwide, people of color are underrepresented in tenure-track positions. Those that are considered for tenure are often held to a higher standard than their white peers. Consequently, many universities’ faculty are far less diverse than their student bodies.
Nationwide, only 2 percent of full-time professors at postsecondary institutions were Latina, according to data from 2017. If a widely-respected scholar like García-Peña cannot secure a future at a university where she’s invested countless hours of energy, there’s little hope that these numbers will rise substantially.
A young academic’s path is paved by older faculty members who share research interests, parallel life experiences, and guidance on the long road from undergrad to a teaching appointment. If academics of color are routinely pushed out of academia by obscure, shadowy tenure processes — as they have been at Harvard and comparable institutions — there’s little hope that the racial and ethnic underrepresentation in academia will be fixed.
Tenured faculty come to shape a university’s academic mission. These instructors dictate which questions and fields are uplifted as worthy of resources and support. When academics of color — especially those working in fields related to marginalized histories and populations — are siphoned out of their universities, the message is clear. Their intellectual contributions matter less, as do those of any student who may share their academic concerns.
For institutions that still struggle to reflect the country’s demographics, such a statement is damning. As long as administrators refuse to publicly explain their rationale for tenure decisions, instances like García-Peña’s will continue to serve as warning signs to young scholars considering a future in the academy.
After all, few would choose a career path that is riddled with so many dead-ends and uncertainties, and we are worse off when scholars are discouraged from following their training to its full potential. Research universities, and their contributions to the world more broadly, are undermined by tenure processes that are unnecessarily and manipulatively clandestine. Harvard should reconsider García-Peña’s case, and see its current decision as the destructive omen that it is.
During office hours, a student asked me where my parents were from. El Salvador, I told him, and he told me how he was born in neighboring Guatemala. I’d love to build a life in academia that’ll facilitate more of these connections, Latinx instructor to Latinx student. If universities begin to appraise talented faculty of color more fairly, I might survive long enough to make them happen.
Ruben Reyes Jr. is a master of fine art candidate in fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a graduate of Harvard College.