With ‘Ethnic Studies Rise,’ Academics Take a Stand for Latina Professor Denied Tenure at Harvard

Dec 19, 2019
5:16 PM

Lorgia García Peña (Photo via Harvard)

In late November, Dr. Lorgia García Peña, an associate professor at Harvard University, was denied tenure. The decision sparked outrage among students and academics who view Garcia Peña’s work on Latinx studies, particularly as related to the Caribbean, as crucial and seminal to the field. Students staged a sit-in protest, over 200 senior scholars signed a letter to Harvard President Lawrence Bacow denouncing the decision, and over 5,000 signed another petition from scholars and students at large.

Now some professors have joined forces to create “Ethnic Studies Rise,” an effort to “honor the extraordinary contributions of scholar Dr. Lorgia García Peña.”

Dr. Katerina Gonzalez Seligmann, who teaches at Emerson College, was one of the people behind “Ethnic Studies Rise,” and she said she felt compelled to make a bigger gesture in support for García Peña, especially after speaking with one of her students, Massiel Torres.

“I had the idea that it would be lovely to do something public that was not about Harvard and the denial but about how extraordinary Lorgia García Peña’s work is, and I saw it in the form of a Twitter book club in which all of us who signed the petition the Harvard grad students sent around would have the chance to share their favorite passages from her work,” Gonzalez Seligmann told Latino Rebels.

The action she is referring to is #lorgiafest, on Twitter, which will take place on Friday December 20.

“‘Ethnic Studies Rise and #lorgiafest came out of our shared wish and drive to take public solidarity actions with Lorgia García Peña while the news of her tenure denial began to settle into massive support for her from scholars, students, and the public at large,” Gonzalez Seligmann said. “I was both struck by how upsetting the decision was but also by how inspiring the massive support for her in response to it has been.”

Dr. Raj Chetty, an assistant professor of Black Literature and Culture at San Diego State University, and Alex Gil, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Columbia University Libraries, eventually joined the project. Gil helped with the website, and Chetty provided the name for the #lorgiafest hashtag and will be co-moderating the discussion on Twitter with Gonzalez Seligmann.

“Katerina texted me with a simple question that got this project started: ‘How about hosting a virtual read-in with live tweets of Lorgia’s work?’ It was a flash in the dark. This idea of turning toward Lorgia’s work as part of efforts to embrace her and her work in this difficult moment, to shine a bright light on Lorgia’s work,” Chetty told Latino Rebels.

For the occasion, Duke University Press opened up access to the e-book version of García Peña’s acclaimed book The Borders of Dominicanidad.

Latino Rebels reached out to García Peña for comment on the outpouring of support. She recently posted a “thank you” message on Twitter.

García Peña also shared an article she had previously written for Asterix journal when Yale denied tenure to Latinx Studies professor Dr. Albert Laguna.

In it, she writes, “White supremacy in these institutions bleeds through the photos of white men which hang in the halls of the university, in the syllabi that privilege white cannon and lack any type of representation for people of color, and in the university’s inability to hire or retain black and brown faculty, in the university’s disavowal of Ethnic Studies as a legitimate field of knowledge.”

Ethnic Studies Rise is also organizing a roundtable discussion. And while the show of support for García Peña has been significant, for those in the field, this is more than just about her work.

“We hope these actions do a couple of things: distribute knowledge publicly about Ethnic Studies and the related disciplines that challenge structural white supremacy in higher education. We know that the ethos that animates Ethnic Studies derives from Black and Brown communities who have historically been excluded from seats of power, including from higher education,” Chetty said. “We know how central those communities’ ways of being and knowing are to imagining and implementing more humane futures, even as they are marginalized in higher education. So we hope the website will provide both a public humanities resource for students seeking that lifeline, seeking to organize and mobilize on their campuses, and seeking to draw inspiration from the communities that have formed them.”

Gil, who like García Peña is of Dominican descent, said that he sees himself in her work.

“I can tell you that I’m advocating for Lorgia because I see myself in her a little, the LatinX, the Nié (ni es dominicana, ni es American), the POC academic, striving, fighting, working two times as hard for half a chance,” he said. “I’m not alone. I’ve seen the reaction around me when we said we were doing this. Many, many more see themselves in her. And here we are still, fighting for the promise of a truly equitable university, a truly equitable society. La lucha sigue, indeed.”

Latino Rebels reached out to Harvard University’s Office of the President for comment and have not heard back as of the publishing of this story.

UPDATE, December 20, 2019, 10:45 a.m. ET

In an email response to Latino Rebels, a Harvard spokesperson wrote that “The University does not comment on tenure decisions.”

The email also included a link to a December 9 post by Dean Claudine Gay regarding Harvard’s position on Ethnic Studies as well as a link to the tenure process.