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At Harvard, Asian-American students urge diversity efforts beyond admissions

Harvard senior Sally Chen addressed a group of protesters outside of the Charles Hotel on Friday.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

On the stand in federal court, on social media, and during rallies, they defended Harvard University in a landmark trial over affirmative action in college admissions last year, helping to shore up the school’s case that it doesn’t discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

But in recent weeks, some Asian-American students and alumni say they have been frustrated by the glacial pace of Harvard’s efforts to improve diversity beyond admissions.

The imminent departures of two Asian-American professors who specialize in ethnic and racial studies has stunned many. The moves have also drawn attention to the meager number of minority faculty on campus and renewed calls for Harvard to create an ethnic studies department.


“I feel let down,” said Sally Chen, 21, a senior who was one of eight current and past students who testified in support of race-conscious admissions during the trial last October. Chen said she shared her family stories, her dreams, and her academic journey with lawyers, the media, and eventually a judge to defend diversity in admissions. But her mentor at Harvard is one of the professors now leaving.

“It struck a personal chord. I had worked with [these professors], it felt crucial to my ability to testify,” she said.

The faculty departures reminded students that just 18 percent of Harvard’s 2,517 professors are minorities, according to 2016 data, and that going back nearly 50 years students have been demanding an ethnic studies department, dedicated to teaching and research about Asian, Hispanic, Arab-American, and Native American communities.

The two professors taught classes on Asian-American history and diversity and equity in higher education. Genevieve Clutario, an assistant professor of history at Harvard has taken a job next fall at Wellesley College’s Asian-American studies program. Natasha Kumar Warikoo, an associate professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, who frequently spoke and wrote about affirmative action in admissions in recent years, was not put up for tenure last fall and said she plans to leave the college.


Harvard officials declined to comment about personnel decisions.

But President Larry Bacow said he is “not unsympathetic” to the demands for an ethnic studies department.

College administrators have been discussing this issue and are recruiting faculty to teach ethnic studies, Bacow said.

“Ultimately, new programs or curriculum are the purview of the faculty,” Bacow said in a statement. “We have been focused on ensuring that any new program would have the faculty and resources essential to deliver it. ... We know there is more work to do, and we will continue to make progress in the months ahead.”

Students and alumni are frustrated because they’ve been asking for ethnic studies for decades, said Albert Maldonado, a 2014 graduate of Harvard’s Divinity School, and a member of the university’s Latino Alumni Alliance.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Maldonado said. “Especially with the lawsuit going on, on the one hand we support Harvard, but on the other hand we’re bringing to their attention they need to do a lot more for us.”

Harvard has formed committees and studied the viability of an ethnic studies department for decades, even as its competitors, including Stanford University and Columbia University, have created the departments and invested in them, advocates said.

After the recent admissions trial and Harvard’s emphasis on a diverse campus, current and former students want to see progress, said Jeannie Park, a 1983 graduate of the college and the president of the school’s Asian American Alumni Alliance.


“The university has been talking about diversity non-stop, and the loss of [the professors] feels harsher,” said Park, who helped organize rallies to support race-conscious admissions last year and was often in the crowd during the three-week trial. “There’s a lot of committees, at some point somebody’s got to put a budget down and a head-count down.”

On Friday, organizers who used social media to rally crowds last fall in support of race-conscious admissions activated those same networks to bring together about 60 students outside of the Charles Hotel near Harvard to demand an ethnic studies department.

Bacow spoke briefly with the protesters outside. And as he was meeting with alumni inside the hotel, the students, wearing shirts and pins declaring “Ethnic studies now,” chanted “Out of the courtroom, into the classroom.”

The case, which played out over three weeks in a Boston federal district courtroom, drew international attention and could eventually be appealed to the Supreme Court. Legal scholars believe the case has the potential to overturn decades of race-conscious admissions practices in the United States.

Students for Fair Admissions, which brought the lawsuit, alleged that Harvard’s undergraduate admissions data showed that the college’s use of personal ratings, which measure likability, leadership, and vivaciousness, discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Getting a high personal rating is crucial to gaining entry to Harvard where so many of the applicants are academically strong and active in sports and clubs.


Harvard denied that it discriminated against students and said that its admissions policies were legal and that officials consider more than 200 variables, including race, in evaluating applicants. Harvard accused Students for Fair Admissions of cherry-picking data and trying to turn back the clock on racial diversity on college campuses.

On Wednesday, both sides are scheduled to appear in court again to present their final oral arguments before Judge Allison Burroughs. Burroughs will then decide on the case in the coming months.

At Harvard, the trial has mobilized students who are prepared to keep the pressure on administrators for more diversity, Chen said.

“There’s a level of wanting to see them stay true to their word,” she said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.