Two and a half years ago, many professors wondered how broken the tenure system must have been if Lorgia García Peña was not deemed qualified.
García Peña, who came to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a child, was the only black Latina scholar on the tenure track at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His department committee unanimously recommended his tenure in 2019, and the College-Level Appointments and Promotions Committee approved that decision. But once her case reached the administration, she was denied.
That move sparked outrage, with thousands of students and faculty members across the country signing a letter to Harvard President Lawrence S. Baco. On campus, Harvard students rallied to support him.
According to an article published last year The New Yorker, some Harvard professors viewed García Peña’s work as activism rather than scholarship—a common challenge, according to ethnic-studies scholars. At one point, his assigned advisor suggested that he withdraw an already submitted manuscript and change the direction of his research, The New Yorker Reported. But for the most part the tenure process went smoothly, and many students sang his praises.
After García Peña was denied tenure, he filed a complaint. A panel of professors alleged that he faced discrimination and recommended that the Harvard administration review the decision. The The New YorkerBut that didn’t happen. A Harvard spokesperson said The Chronicle The university would not comment on tenure issues this week. The dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences agreed to review the tenure process, and changes are now underway to increase transparency and reduce bias.
In the new book, Community as Rebellion: A Curriculum for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color (Haymarket Publishing), García Pena writes about how her experiences at Harvard and elsewhere in higher education shaped her as a professor from a marginalized background, how she finds hope in times of struggle, and how scholars of color can work to overcome inequality. educational structures.
García Peña arrived at Harvard in 2013, leaving a tenure-track post at the University of Georgia. Athens, Ga. While at, she co-founded “Freedom University,” a project that seeks to educate and uplift undocumented students. The program began in 2010 after such students were barred from attending some public colleges in Georgia. García Peña is currently Associate Professor of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora Studies at Tufts University.
Garcia Pena recently spoke The Chronicle In his first interview with a journalist after his tenure rejection. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You actually didn’t start writing this book after you were turned down for your tenure at Harvard. It was after an academic conference where you said you and other scholars felt silenced. what happened
At the end of 2018, I went to a Dominican-studies conference. And this is just one example, because I’ve seen these dynamics in other conferences, but there was a lot of resistance to change. For those of us who are interdisciplinary scholars, being in institutional spaces—whether it’s a conference or a department—there’s always a push and pull, because there’s this traditional way of making knowledge and knowledge, and then there’s this other way. I prefer to answer questions rather than follow discipline.
At this conference, a group of us—all women—were trying to push for a different structure that would allow for new voices, younger people, and more inclusive leadership. It was very clear that we were not being heard. So we decided to put together our own conference—a conference that was, in many ways, the antithesis of what we had just experienced.
After the symposium, I began writing what was to become a long letter to my graduate students. I want to share a little bit about what my path was and what working together with these two other women did for me, in terms of thinking about the Academy and the work we do hopefully—not just as a site of hope. A site of struggle. I’ve had many conversations with students over the years: How do we do this? How do we survive this? Basically it was impulse. Then everything happened during my tenure. Just keep writing.
When you were at Harvard, you wrote that you felt the university thought of you as “the one” scholar in Latinx studies. You notice that some of your colleagues in the field feel that your success is limiting them. What is the result of that?
None of these institutions have a critical mass of scholars doing this work. Many of these organizations have one or two people, and it never moves above that. This has a ripple effect, you have people competing for the same job. But there’s only one job, right? The Department of English will appoint one scholar of ethnic literature.
Organization is making us see each other as competition – “If this person gets that, I won’t get it” – because there will only be one of us. This varies from institution to institution. I think this is especially pronounced in places like Harvard or Yale, which are already saying, “We are special, and we are unique, and therefore if you are chosen, you are even more unique.”
You said you weren’t prepared for the silence of your colleagues after being denied your tenure. What do you think that was the drive?
engagement. They don’t feel responsible, if they don’t deny me tenure. But in structures of exclusion, the people who benefit from the system must think about their role in it. How are you able to get tenure and I’m not?
You never questioned inequality. You never question the fact that someone else is doing something you shouldn’t be doing. I was adjunct faculty at Harvard in five different units, and I was in two departments, and I had 24 graduate students. The amount of work I did was much more than the average faculty member.
When you are the direct beneficiary of my labor, and you don’t question your role in it, and you remain silent after injustice, you are part of the problem. It’s always heartbreaking to me, because the only way we can make real change is if everyone plays their part, as small as possible, in creating the problem or at least perpetuating it.
You wrote that scholars of color sometimes need to stop their labor. “Should I do it or not?” How do you go about making that decision?
Ethnic studies is coming to the rescue of academia, if only universities will allow it.
I’m still learning to say no. It’s a lesson many of us are still learning, especially women. I think a lot about how what I am asked to do will affect the students. Is it something that can, in some way, make the project I’ve invested in better? Or is this just labor to make me a poster child for university? And it’s not always clear. For me, it’s really about creating spaces for students, especially first-generation students of color.
You want to create those spaces for students, but it also takes a lot of work, and you don’t need to be rewarded for it. You feel torn.
every day And it’s not just the students; This is your territory too. You have people writing from universities asking you to evaluate tenure cases. I get at least five requests to review books or articles on a weekly basis. There are all these things that you don’t pay for. But you do it, because I worry that if I don’t evaluate this manuscript in black latinity, They will send it to someone who is unable to do it. When you’re in a small field like I am, you start thinking about the impact that not saying this tenure case would have on the person you’re evaluating.
Why are so many institutions, you see, not committed to ethnic studies?
Oh, this is a very easy answer. The goal of ethnic studies is essentially to deconstruct and abolish the university. We have all these conversations about curriculum and recruitment and retention and faculty diversification. But people still want to do the things they are used to doing. And the way we use to do academia is Eurocentric, it’s anti-Black, it’s colonialist, it’s misogynist, and it’s elitist, and it needs to change. Otherwise, we are doomed. Ethnic studies is coming to the rescue of academia, if only universities will allow it.
People in higher education talk about how “we are committed to being an adversarial institution.” They say what you say, and then…
This is lip service. I say bullshit. So we have the killing of George Floyd. We have, the next day, all these universities, including Harvard, issuing statements about their support for Black faculty, at the same time they’re firing me—the only Black Latina on the faculty. Their commitment to race and equity doesn’t go beyond writing papers that no one reads.
There are efforts to diversify the scholarly pipeline in higher education: postdoc programs, fellowships, cluster hires. Do you think those efforts will work?
They can have a positive effect. Many universities are very good at hiring clusters. But the people make no effort to support them, to retain them, to give them tenure, to promote them. We must understand that not everyone arrives at university—faculty and students—in the same way. Some people get into academia, and they are the fourth generation of professors in their family. Others learn as they go.
We continue to talk about race, but we don’t talk about class, especially when it comes to faculty. I had a very challenging time when I started as a professor at the University of Georgia because I was in a lot of debt. I was coming off several years of being below the poverty line, and I had a newborn baby. Suddenly, everything is based on reimbursement, and you have to max out your credit cards. If you’re 30 years old and a new professor, you don’t know how to talk about those things.
To go back to what happened at Harvard – now that some time has passed, has your perspective on that experience changed?
Not really. If anything, the distance makes it even more obvious that what I went through was terrible. And I don’t just mean denied tenure. The denial of tenure was the culmination of what was defined as an abusive eight-year relationship.
I still have a hard time driving through Harvard Square. I live in Boston, so it’s not easy to avoid. It’s still heartbreaking when I go to one of my former co-workers at Whole Foods, and they look the other way because they’re embarrassed, or they don’t want to be associated with me. I have graduate students who are finishing their PhDs, and I’m the one who mentors them and gets them to that finish line. But I can’t go to their graduation because I can’t be there. That’s hard.
You can’t forget it.
I still have students for whom I am the main advisor, who are writing dissertations with me. They are Harvard students. It’s a really useless situation, because I have choices: I give up the students who have been working for five, six, sometimes seven years, or I do this free labor for Harvard. I have to room with colleagues, rooms at Harvard where I’m doing a dissertation defense or a Ph.D. exam It’s triggering.