Harvard professor Lorgia García Peña has been described as a brilliant ethnic studies scholar and an excellent teacher by her colleagues and her students. But she was relatively unknown until a week ago, when Harvard’s administrators denied her tenure.
Now, the once obscure professor of romance languages and literatures has become a cause celebre, inspiring student protests, letters of support from hundreds of academics across the country, and a petition urging the university to reverse course signed by thousands of students, professors, and alumni.
García Peña’s case has become a rallying cry for Harvard students and alumni who have been pushing the university to establish an ethnic studies department for nearly 50 years and are frustrated by the slow progress. It has renewed criticism of Harvard’s complicated and secretive tenure system and the university’s commitment to faculty of color. And it has fueled unrest on a campus already on edge over a graduate student workers strike.
“The campus is kind of erupting in this moment of time,” said Alice Cheng, 21, a senior and member of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition.
García Peña is one of a handful of minority professors who have left or been denied tenure in the past two years, raising questions about how much support Harvard provides to faculty of color, Cheng said.
On Monday that tenure process — handled behind closed doors, as at most universities — was blasted by more than 200 academics from across the United States and other countries in a letter sent to the Lawrence Bacow, the university’s president.
“Harvard’s denial of Dr. García 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 bell hooks, a feminist author and distinguished professor in residence at Berea College in Kentucky. She, along with Brown University political science professor Juliet Hooker, and filmmaker Frances Negrón-Muntaner, joined other Latin American, Ethnic Studies, and African-American and Black Studies professors in criticizing Harvard for “grossly” miscalculating García Peña’s value.
They questioned whether the Ivy League school is equipped to evaluate the work of professors such as García Peña.
“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 letter reads.
García Peña is the author of “The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nations, and Archives of Contradictions” and according to her Harvard faculty page her scholarship focuses on Hispanic Caribbean literatures and cultures, migration, and race and ethnicity. García Peña declined to comment.
Harvard declined to comment on individual tenure decisions.
The decision of who is promoted for a permanent position at Harvard is a multiple-step process with the final decision made by Bacow, university officials said.
On Monday, Claudine Gay, the dean of Harvard’s faculty of arts and sciences, sent a communitywide message reiterating that she “unequivocally” backs building an ethnic studies department.
Gay, a professor of government and African and African-American studies, said the university is in the process of recruiting faculty and will then establish the department.
“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,” Gay said in her message. “Today, I am asking not for your patience, because I agree we have all waited long enough. I am asking for your resolve.”
But activists say that denying García Peña tenure sends the wrong message. García Peña is on the faculty search committee for the ethnic studies department.
Rosa Vazquez, 21, a senior who has taken two of García Peña’s classes and helped organize student protests, said Harvard was supposed to have hired new professors by the end of this semester, but that has been pushed back to next year.
Harvard has also lost four professors who focus on race and ethnic studies recently, and four potential new hires will only ensure that the specialized faculty numbers remain the same, Vazquez said.
“We haven’t felt that our histories are welcomed in the classroom and everybody is frustrated,” Vazquez said.
Jeannie Park, a Harvard alumna and member of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, said the university’s secretive tenure system has added to the controversy.
“The lack of transparency around how Professor García Peña’s tenure was vetoed at Harvard’s highest levels makes us wonder whether any ethnic studies professor can truly succeed and thrive there,” Park said. “And we worry that the few remaining ethnic studies faculty are wondering the same. How can we continue to encourage faculty to come build this program, when the university has treated ethnic studies scholars so poorly?”
Gaining tenure at Harvard, one of the country’s most elite academic institutions, has always been a fraught and complicated process. During the 2018-19 academic year, in the faculty of arts and sciences, just 11 of 18 eligible professors received tenure.
Faculty must provide a dossier of their work and recommendation letters from colleagues and specialists in the field. The university also seeks their own experts to evaluate a professor’s scholarship. The individual departments vote on a tenure decision, which is then reviewed by the dean. The case eventually reaches the provost and president, who can set up their own committee to consider a case. Faculty can also submit confidential letters to the dean about tenure cases, according to those familiar with the process.
Harvard professors said that it is rare for the university president or provost to veto a tenure decision that has been approved by the department and the dean, but it does happen.
It is unclear why Harvard officials rejected García Peña’s tenure.
Activists have requested that Harvard release letters from Bacow, Gay, and the chair of the García Peña’s department about this decision and have called for greater transparency in promoting faculty.
Harvard rarely reverses a decision after tenure is denied, longtime faculty said. But Harvard students said on Monday they won’t give up and will keep protesting even after they return from winter break.
Students have been energized by the strike of graduate student workers who are fighting for better pay and job protections, said Cheng.
After 48 years of pushing for ethnic studies, there may be an opening for concrete progress, Cheng said.
“This is a moment of time for Harvard to listen to students and student demands,” she said. “There is potential for change.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the process by which faculty can submit letters about tenure cases. Those letters are confidential but not anonymous.