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More than 200 senior scholars in Latinx and Latin American studies, ethnic studies, women’s and gender studies, and other fields wrote a letter Monday to Harvard University president Lawrence Bacow in support of a professor who was recently denied tenure. Lorgia García Peña, Roy G. Clouse Associate Professor of Romance Languages at Harvard, recently lost her tenure bid, despite her strong standing in her field and her reputation for mentoring students.

Harvard has an unusually high denial rate, and many scholars who don’t get tenure there successfully move on to other institutions. But García Peña’s tenure denial has sparked student protests and concern among many that Harvard encourages its faculty members of color and ethnic studies scholars to work on inclusion and diversity issues, even as its formal review processes still disadvantage them. Many students and scholars have questioned Harvard’s overall commitment to ethnic studies. They’ve also pointed out that García Peña is now in the strange position of being on the hiring committee for a four-person ethnic studies faculty cluster as she prepares to leave campus.

“García Peña’s work has been an invaluable contribution to the creation of a truly inclusive intellectual community,” reads the senior scholars’ letter. “She regularly contributes -- lending her name and her labor -- to Harvard’s efforts to diversify its faculty and student body.” Demanding of her “time and intellectual equity on the one hand, while denying her a place within that community is not only hypocritical, it signals to the larger academic community that Harvard University is not truly invested in supporting stellar scholars in these areas of study.” The letter also says that given “what we know about the extremely positive outside peer review letters in her case, we also find ourselves unsure of why anyone would write in support of tenure at Harvard University if such recommendations are only to be patently ignored.”

bell hooks, distinguished professor in residence at Berea College, said in a related statement that Harvard’s decision is a “testament to the ways that black and Latinx studies continue to be ignored as sites of vital knowledge production in the academy.” García Peña's "scholarship and service is the cornerstone to continue building ethnic studies as a leading program at Harvard and her absence would be a detriment to the students and faculty that depend on her keen insight."

Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Wilbur A. Cowett Professor of Government and of African and African-American Studies, wrote a in statement to faculty members and students late Monday that she’d heard the calls for support for ethnic studies. She declared that she is “unequivocally” committed to building up the field at Harvard, and that she has worked “steadily to expand our faculty coverage in ethnicity, migration and indigeneity.” This year saw the cluster hire plan, she said, even at a “time when funds for incremental faculty searches are increasingly hard to come by.” Even after the search is complete, Gay said, “we will continue our efforts to diversify the curriculum.” The statement did not mention García Peña, who has not commented publicly on her case.

Beyond investing in personnel, Gay said that she welcomed the idea of a new undergraduate concentration in ethnicity, migration and indigeneity. However, she said, “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.” Should the faculty approve such a concentration, she continued, “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, Gay said, “the curricular committee would be able to secure the faculty commitments necessary to sustain the concentration.”

Saying the effort is at a “delicate stage,” Gay asked for “resolve,” and that members of the campus “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.”