Building the Future of Ethnic Studies at Harvard

December 9, 2019
Dear members of the FAS community,
 
Over the last few days I have heard from students, alumni, friends, and colleagues expressing support for ethnic studies at Harvard and calling for an institutional commitment to the field. I write today to state unequivocally my commitment to building ethnic studies at Harvard and to describe how I am working toward that goal.The study of ethnicity, migration, and indigeneity is a dynamic field and an important body of knowledge. First in the course of my own research, and then as the dean of the Division of Social Science and now as the dean of the FAS, I have advanced the view that this work needs to be more fully represented on our campus and in our curriculum. Students must have access to it as part of a comprehensive education that prepares them for leadership in a diverse society. I also view it as part of the larger project of building a truly inclusive scholarly community, where the academic experience affirms the relevance, significance, and worth of diverse cultural backgrounds and histories for understanding contemporary American society.
 
For several years now, I have worked steadily to expand our faculty coverage in ethnicity, migration and indigeneity, beginning with my efforts as dean of social science to strengthen Native American studies. This year, I sought to accelerate our efforts with a cluster of four new hires that I hope will be bold, field-defining, and intellectually synergistic.  At a time when funds for incremental faculty searches are increasingly hard to come by, the decision to advance this search is intended to signal a strong institutional commitment, as well as a sense of urgency to make concrete, palpable progress. Even after this search is complete, we will continue our efforts to diversify the curriculum.
 
Why focus first on an investment in people? Faculty provide the intellectual leadership and agenda-setting vision needed to build and sustain a successful program. They, too, are the ones who develop and teach the courses, and provide the advising students need to navigate the curriculum. A program without a strong, vibrant cohort of committed faculty is destined to fail, and this cannot fail. It is far too important. From my own experiences in building academic initiatives, I also have learned that structures work best when they have been shaped by those who have to live within them. The various ways that academic work is organized – whether in an institute, a concentration committee, a department, a center – all have different strengths and weaknesses, and are optimized for different things. To increase our likelihood of long-term success, form should follow function. That’s why the FAS is prioritizing faculty hiring. This reflects my intention of supporting the agency of faculty to define a vision for their work together and to advance that vision through the governance processes of the faculty.
 
Building faculty strength, and by extension our teaching and research capacity, is only a first step. Equally important is building a curriculum and making it easier for interested students to pursue a rigorous and comprehensive course of study in this area. I welcome the idea of a new undergraduate concentration in ethnicity, migration, and indigeneity, and faculty have the support of the institution for any effort to establish a new concentration. However, as we all know, it is faculty (and not deans) who will need to spearhead this effort and do the work to make that happen, including developing the proposal and shepherding it through debate and vote by the full FAS faculty.
 
Curricular stability is critical to the success of any undergraduate concentration. Teaching and advising must be robust and predictable, and for that you need faculty willing and able to commit their time and expertise on a long-term basis. If the FAS faculty approve a new concentration, then I am prepared to provide the undergraduate curricular committee that hosts the concentration with the ability to make ladder-faculty appointments, joint with any FAS department. With appointment powers, the curricular committee would be able to secure the faculty commitments necessary to sustain the concentration.
 
In the debate on and off campus about the future of ethnic studies at Harvard there have been appeals to history, in particular the history of the Department of African and African-American Studies (AAAS) and its origins in the student activism of the late 1960s. I, too, derive inspiration from the past and present of AAAS; my colleagues in AAAS have contributed immensely to my development as a scholar and to my sense of belonging at Harvard. I know how important community is. But the history of the department as we know it today is rooted at least as much in the 1990s as in the 1960s. The founding of the department did not instantly bring legitimacy, success, or stature; in fact, the department’s first decades were years of uneven struggle. It was in the 1990s that the University set about in earnest to recruit and assemble at Harvard a dynamic and intellectually formidable group of scholars, from disciplines as diverse as literature, sociology, philosophy, and history, whose energy, insight, and commitment would renew and elevate the study of the African diaspora on this campus and in our curriculum—to the enormous benefit of Harvard students. This was a methodical, years-long, and relentless effort to achieve a leadership position in the field. And the work began with building the faculty. This history informs my theory of change, and is why my own efforts on behalf of ethnic studies are focused, first, on hiring. 
 
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. Today, I am asking not for your patience, because I agree we have all waited long enough. I am asking for your resolve. I am asking for you to channel your hopes and frustrations into our efforts to recruit faculty, and through our collective actions and our words to make clear that the FAS is ready for ethnic studies to thrive here; we are ready to welcome new faculty to our campus and support them in doing the best work of their careers; that our students are eager for them to arrive. I am asking that together we send the unambiguous message that the Faculty of Arts and Sciences is ready to embrace ethnic studies and to support faculty and students as they create the strongest and most successful program of its kind in the nation.
 
Sincerely,
 
Claudine Gay
Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences