To many Mexican-Americans, Arizona may seem like a benighted place. First, there was that immigration law that critics said would encourage profiling. Then, a Mexican-American studies program at the Tucson Unified School District came under attack from some Arizona officials and was disbanded earlier this year.
Now, a state official who led the attack on the Tucson program appears to have a new target: the department of Mexican-American studies at the university and other such college-level programs in the state.
John Huppenthal, the superintendent of public instruction in the state and a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, told FOX News Latino  last month that the university produced teachers who then taught in programs such as the Tucson school district, where, he said, the curriculum teaches students to hate Anglos. “I think that’s where this toxic thing starts from, the universities,” Huppenthal told Fox News Latino. "To me, the pervasive problem was the lack of balance going on in these classes."
Huppenthal, who did not respond to requests for an interview, is a controversial figure in Arizona, and his latest comments have set off another firestorm and added fresh fuel to a debate in the state about how ethnic studies should be taught in the classroom. Faculty members at the university see his comments as an escalation of the battle that led to the closing of the Tucson program.
Antonio Estrada, who heads the department of Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona, declined to comment. “Mr. Huppenthal is a member of ABOR [the Arizona Board of Regents] and it would be inappropriate to discuss these issues in the press before they have had a chance to be discussed within the University of Arizona community, beginning with the president,” Estrada said in an e-mail.
Sarah Harper, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Board of Regents, said the issue had not been formally brought before the board and it “does not have an official position or opinion to offer at this time.”
Faculty members in the department said they were asked by administrators not to speak to the press, but at least two of them said they were fearful about the future of the program, and saw Huppenthal’s comments as more than mere grandstanding.
“This is Arizona,” said one longtime faculty-member. “And I firmly believe that they want to eliminate a world view, from the schools all the way to the university level.” Another professor said that the attack had created “an ecology of fear” in the department.
Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona began in 1968. A research center was created in 1981, and in 2009, the center became a department. The department offers a major and a master of science in Mexican-American studies and currently has more than 30 undergraduate majors, 12 minors and about a dozen faculty members. A doctoral program begins next year. The department is known for its interdisciplinary approach, with studies of both local cultures and indigenous knowledge. Its projects have looked at HIV prevention, immigration and bilingual education, among other topics.
Devon Peña, a former chair of the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies and a professor at the University of Washington, said the argument that the courses were designed for a particular ethnicity is false. “I have been teaching Mexican-American studies since 1977 and I would say that 90 percent of my students have been white,” he said.
Peña said Huppenthal’s comments were akin to saying that any kind of critical thinking should be banned. “While he will not find a sympathetic ear in the faculty ranks, he is on the Board of Regents and he can certainly hurt the university when it comes to the budget,” he said.
Many in Arizona do not see the issue as a skirmish limited to the University of Arizona.
Manuel Hernandez, associate professor of Spanish at Arizona State University and former president of the Arizona Association for Chicanos in Higher Education, feels that similar programs at other universities in the state could also come under attack.
Hernandez said the challenges to Mexican-American studies have little to do with the merits of the programs but are more about fears in “some quarters” that there are too many Mexican-Americans in Arizona. “I think ethnic studies is as American as apple pie,” he said.
Some in the academic community in Arizona feel that the challenge to ethnic studies has been a wake-up call. “They have seen that a school district could be attacked and a program shut down, “ said James Garcia, a spokesman for the Arizona Ethnic Studies Network, a loosely knit group of teachers and professors who have come together in the last two months to educate the public about the importance of ethnic studies. “If they sense that there is an opportunity to dismantle the programs, they will,” he said.
Garcia said ethnic studies programs broaden horizons and give students a stronger footing in understanding different cultures and societies. “The approach that such education is treasonous would sound absurd to anyone with a modicum of intelligence,” he said.