PERFORMANCE AND POLITICS: The Crisis of Ethnic Studies in the University

Nathan Kim • 2020 Issue


From The Editors:

Ethnic studies is often defined as the critical study of difference in various social spheres, with the objective of analyzing and challenging the power structure of contemporary society. Fraught with funding cuts, lack of tenured positions, and an overall aura of “unemployability,” ethnic studies scholars face an uphill battle to preserve the critical approach of their discipline. In PERFORMANCE AND POLITICS, Kim recounts its historical development and argues that, since its inception, ethnic studies has struggled to gain its rightful place in academic spaces, as it seeks to simultaneously challenge and be incorporated into the university curriculum. Meanwhile, universities face the dilemma of balancing the critical nature of ethnic studies with their own pragmatic, market-oriented considerations


Thirteen senior faculty members withdrew their participation from the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M) program at Yale in Spring 2019, revitalizing the conversation around ethnic studies at Yale. These events, which occurred in response to the denial of tenure to the popular American Studies Assistant Professor Albert Laguna, were a culmination of twenty years of tension between the ER&M faculty and the Yale administration. Founded in 1997, ER&M did not have the power to hire new professors until recently, and the hires were made as dual appointments with associated departments like History, Political Science, and Sociology. Faculty members were often denied tenure or recruited by other universities, resulting in a total of 41 ER&M-affiliated scholars leaving Yale over the past fifteen years. Professor Laguna’s denial of tenure, considered within this context, kicked off a wave of activism as both students and faculty members mobilized around the ER&M program.

The events of Spring 2019 at Yale are just one example of a larger issue that has taken ahold of the United States. In the past year, protests over the state of ethnic studies have sprung up at Harvard University, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Northwestern University. Why and how has this come to be the case? What does it mean for the goals of racial justice movements? How should their proponents react? This article argues that modern crises around ethnic studies stem from the unique position of ethnic studies as a discipline that aims to challenge the university while striving to be incorporated into the university system. Universities’ response to these seemingly conflicting goals often pivot ethnic studies away from the capacious goals of its founding activists. What would otherwise be a system of push and pull of the dual goals of ethnic studies becomes dominated by the university’s broader movements to maximize profitability, and thus, ethnic studies is often relegated to the fringes of the university.

Background: A history of ethnic studies

Student demands for ethnic studies began with one of the most famous series of university strikes in American history, the 1968 “Third World Liberation Front” at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and University of California, Berkeley. After derogatory editorials on Black Studies classes and the firing of SFSU’s George Murray, a Black graduate student and lecturer in English, students struck for a set of fifteen demands around a School of Ethnic Studies. The Black Students Union, joined by other groups including the Latin American Students Organization, the Asian American Political Alliance, and the Pilipino American Collegiate Endeavor came together as the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF) to strike for radically new education in the form of ethnic studies [1].

The TWLF expanded and rose again violently at the UC Berkeley, a few months after the SFSU strike, this time for the creation of a “Third World College” instead of a “School of Ethnic Studies” [2]. Ronald Reagan, the governor of California at the time, called in the National Guard after hearing of the resurgence of the strike at Berkeley. As a result, the protests escalated, becoming increasingly violent and encompassing over three thousand people. The local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers joined these protests for more faculty members of color, and hundreds of local high school students petitioned for the admission of more students of color as well [3]. Helicopters dropped tear gas, students were hospitalized, and protestors were given year-long jail sentences for fighting back against the police [4].

…many historical developments depended on exploiting marginalized groups, whether it be through the rise of capitalism’s dependence on the slave trade or the transcontinental railroad’s dependence on migrant labor/

The TWLF strikes were not limited to the issues of education or the creation of an Ethnic Studies department at San Francisco State University or UC Berkeley. As Gary Okihiro points out, these protests were part of the global movement of decolonization and anti-imperialism in the 1960s, and the SFSU students saw their own protests as part of this widespread effort for justice. No longer was there to be an American narrative of freedom and equality if the US continued to support colonization and advance its imperial goals in Vietnam. The name “Third World Liberation Front” reflected the importance of looking beyond the nation, serving as an homage to the “National Liberation Fronts” in Third World countries such as Algeria and Vietnam. These students reached past the United States’ borders to connect with the struggles of other countries, framing their movement as a worldwide effort for liberation instead of just a national one [5].

This Third World vision stretched not only across national lines, but across various other kinds of boundaries as well. The Women’s Liberation Front joined these strikes in a statement calling for feminists to stand in solidarity with the TWLF (Women Support Strike, 1969). The TWLF organized strikes not only on campus but also in the greater San Francisco community, hosting teach-ins at community centers and inviting local high school students to join their cause. The TWLF itself was created to cut across racial boundaries, comprising many different student organizations of different races fighting for a common goal. In this respect, the academic discipline of ethnic studies was conceived as a means to unite different communities, races, and Third World nations in one field of study. In the words of the Pilipino-American Collegiate Endeavor, “We have decided to fuse ourselves with the masses of Third World people, which are a majority of the world’s peoples, to create, through struggles, a new humanity, a new humanism, a New World Consciousness” [6].

These student demands resulted in the founding of modern ethnic studies, with a department created at SFSU and a school created at Berkeley. The University of California, Los Angeles, set up initial programming that same year, and other ethnic studies programs in the University of California system soon followed suit. Other universities in the West, including the University of Washington and the University of Colorado-Boulder, followed in the decade after. Yale’s own program was established in 1997. Academic organizations like the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies and the Association for Asian American Studies were established in 1972 and 1979, and related organizations like the American Studies Association have established subcommittees on critical ethnic studies. Thousands of college-, secondary-, and even primary-level ethnic studies programs have been created across the country since the SFSU strikers first demanded ethnic studies in 1969 [7].

Ethnic studies has also matured as an academic discipline, producing ideas that reach far beyond labels of “ethnic studies.” Key concepts of ethnic studies, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “intersectionality,” or racial formation theory as described by Michael Omi and Howard Winant, have shifted discussions of identity from static variables to constructions that continually morph and evolve [8], [9]. Scholars have shown that many historical developments depended on exploiting marginalized groups, whether it be through the rise of capitalism’s dependence on the slave trade or the transcontinental railroad’s dependence on migrant labor [10], [11]. These ideas, along with thousands of other works over the past fifty years, have created a critical scholarship around race not present before the movement of ethnic studies.

Despite its increasing prominence, ethnic studies, from a national perspective, has not always been welcomed into university curricula. For example, Harvard professor Lorgia García Peña, a prominent figure in Dominican studies who has won several major book awards, was denied tenure in Fall 2019 [12]. Students were outraged and demanded transparency in the tenure process, and Harvard responded with a statement emphasizing its effort to hire faculty of color and ethnic studies scholars. Students were unsatisfied by this explanation given that results remained unclear after 48 years of activism and demands, especially since Professor Peña was on the committee designated for this task yet was ultimately denied tenure herself [13]. At the University of Pennsylvania, ethnic studies programs exist but can only hire through joint appointments, preventing these programs from growing and leaving a handful of faculty members with many leadership responsibilities. When Grace Kao left her post as the Director of Asian American Studies at Penn (incidentally for Yale Sociology and ER&M) in 2018, the program at Penn was thrown into jeopardy because of this shortage in affiliated faculty members [14].

Universities across America echo similar conflicts and complaints. Scholars including Anita Mannur, Adrian Piper, Terry Park, Tulia Falleti, Evelyn Hu-Dehart, Mae Ngai, and Gary Okihiro have expressed frustration over the insecure status and lack of support for ethnic studies from their own respective universities [12], [15]–[19]. In addition to the schools mentioned above, student groups at Stanford University, Cornell University, the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and San Francisco State University have called for changes to curriculum and the tenure process [20]–[25]. In 2016, Arizona lawmakers moved to enact a bill banning ethnic studies from high school curricula, provoking outcry from high school students and teachers around the state [26].

On the margins of the university

From the case studies above, it is clear that ethnic studies across the country has not been fully integrated into the university. Ethnic studies faces these crises because its goals are often a direct challenge to the university, a challenge that the university does not always concede. Since its founding with the TWLF strikes, ethnic studies has sought to transform the university on both structural and intellectual axes, whether it be through more petitioning for more faculty of color or critiquing academic work such as the long history of eugenics movements at universities like Yale [27].

…universities use ethnic studies as diversity marketing, part of a trend towards multicultural pluralism.

This goal of transformation often clashes with university values of tradition and history, resulting in administrative responses that strive to curtail these conflicts. Universities often reject these transformations by either morphing ethnic studies to something more palatable and incorporating ethnic studies only at face value, or pushing ethnic studies to its margins and defunding it directly. In the former case, universities use ethnic studies as diversity marketing, part of a trend towards multicultural pluralism that some scholars call a “hallmark of the revitalized corporate university” [28]. In the latter case, universities pivot to higher-priority programs centered around technical skills, or as former Harvard President Lawrence Summers writes, “what you (really) need to know” [29]. In both cases, majors and curricula are commodified, universities are branded, and support for ethnic studies programs diminishes in an overarching effort towards the economic efficiency of the university.

Cathy Schlund-Vials notes that this pattern of ethnic studies advocacy and corporatized university response has resulted in the development of a set of practices known as “planned obsolescence” [30]. Staff for ethnic studies programs are often graduate students and adjunct professors, paid little and given administrative work without the security of tenure. If they are given a tenure-track position, faculty in ethnic studies are often expected to hold joint appointments in and fulfill the duties of several departments at many universities. Ethnic studies programs are often encouraged to seek “soft” funding lines, or grants from sources outside of the university. Without large bodies of funding like the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health from outside of the university, this expectation makes funding for ethnic studies unsustainable. These practices allow the university to incorporate ethnic studies when and how it is desired, and to phase it out when it is not.

Ethnic studies is far from the only discipline facing these issues. Critics like Christopher Newfield, Stanley Fish, Benjamin Schmidt, and others have written about a broader crisis in the humanities as a result of the aforementioned university-wide turn towards profitability [31]–[33]. They point to SUNY-Albany’s shuttering of its French, Italian, Russian, and classical languages programs in 2010 and the large recent decline in humanities majors and PhD program applicants. Columnists connect this to recent trends in university corporatization, and also note historical parallels to canonical writers like Max Weber [34].

Ethnic studies faces these crises because its goals are often a direct challenge to the university, a challenge that the university does not always concede.

Ethnic studies’ nearly unique recency and uncertain place within the university compound this crisis. Unlike many fields in the humanities, ethnic studies has been involved in this crisis since its inception. As scholars move to define and establish ethnic studies, the past fifty years of administrative pushback have instead given ethnic studies a stigma of marginality. Moments of potential to define ethnic studies as a fully-fledged part of the university, or even as completely antithetical to the university, have been consistently met with an ambiguous response between support and denial. Ethnic studies has no precedent to return to, and its current marginal status is becoming its precedent for the future.

In short, after fifty years of activism, ethnic studies continues to encounter many of the same problems it faced in 1969. Students still protest for its inclusion, the university pushes back, and funding and hiring lines are kept uncertain. Unlike in 1969, today’s university has developed methods to perpetuate this conflict and make it difficult for ethnic studies to gain traction. Because of these conflicts, at institutions in every part of the United States, ethnic studies has become an image of diversity and multiculturalism that is cast aside once its marketable relevance to the university is no longer present. The goals of the TWLF, to create a wide-ranging curriculum studying oppression and in the process create a better world, have not fully been achieved.

The Future

The developments posed so far seem to imply that ethnic studies will remain on the outskirts of the university in a cycle of denial and concession. Three main solutions may help disrupt this cycle. Firstly, as Rod Ferguson argues in The Reorder of Things, any form of cultural or ethnic studies will be altered in its incorporation to serve the university, and there is therefore a need to develop modes of analysis that will resist these changes [15, p. 11]. Ethnic studies must constantly recognize where and how the goals of the university and those of its scholars differ, and how these tensions manifest themselves in its scholars’ work. In my understanding of this message, one of the subjects of ethnic studies must be itself, continually being examined as a form of knowledge production inside institutions with self-interested motives. This is then a message to all of those creating and participating in the ethnic studies project, to both deconstruct their subject matter’s genealogy and produce future work being cautious of the university’s goals. For students, this is a call to critically engage with ethnic studies in their own institutions, recognizing that what they learn should be questioned no matter what department or professor with which this learning takes place.

A second solution is, in the spirit of the TWLF activists’ vision, to look beyond the university as the home for ethnic studies. Though the university is the hegemonic, dominating structure in the US for knowledge production, ethnic studies from its outset saw beyond the walls of the ivory tower into the communities surrounding it. If the university is a limiting constraint for ethnic studies, systematically and intellectually, then ethnic studies should be extended to communities outside of the university. This could be pursued in the form of political action centers, historical archives, and museums as nonprofit centers placed directly in these communities. Partnerships with local activists, unions, art collectives, and other organizations are opportunities for the growth of ethnic studies.

Finally, as long as ethnic studies continues to operate within the university, there must also exist forms of “strategic resistance” to avoid closure by working under the university’s institutional goals. Schlund-Vials describes this method from her own experiences at UConn, where the Asian American Studies Program was in danger of being terminated but now has become the “Asian/Asian American Studies” Program. This was, on one hand, an act to appear viable to the university as a “global” field of study, and on the other hand a welcome academic change fitting Kandice Chuh’s call to broaden Asian American Studies to the Asian diaspora and beyond [35]. Similarly, we must invest alongside the university’s institutional goals to make ethnic studies live on. This practical effort to exist alongside the university must still be interrogated, ensuring that efforts to work alongside the university does not harm or take away from ethnic studies’ broader goals.

"Yale was a white, male club built on Quinnipiac lands… such foundational premises will not be undone by a generation or two of liberalism and change of heart. The problem of racial and gender representation and equity on the Yale faculty is structural, it is deep, it is stubborn and it is dire."

For Yale

On May 2nd, 2019, ER&M Chair Professor Alicia Camacho announced “new institutional status and permanence” that would bring the thirteen senior faculty members of ER&M to recommit to the program. ER&M was granted its own hiring power through five faculty slots that could be used solely for ER&M, freeing it from the dual-appointment requirement that had fallen on every ER&M faculty member previously [36].

Still, as American Studies Chair Matthew Jacobson argued to the Yale Daily News, “Yale was a white, male club built on Quinnipiac lands… such foundational premises will not be undone by a generation or two of liberalism and change of heart. The problem of racial and gender representation and equity on the Yale faculty is structural, it is deep, it is stubborn and it is dire” [37].

Jacobson’s stark words remind us of ER&M’s constant positioning against Yale University. Despite the newly granted tenure lines ER&M has won, the conflict between ethnic studies and the university is still present, and the goals of ER&M have not yet been fully achieved. The mission of ER&M will continue because there will always be a need to oppose the foundations of injustice that Jacobson points out. There is always more work to do.



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