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Harvard’s Only Latina Professor Was Denied Tenure, Sparking Student Protests and a Larger Conversation About Institutional Racism

Harvard has long been regarded as one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the US, if not the world. The Ivy League University has 36,012 students and 2,400 faculty members from over 150 countries. But although Harvard often boasts of the efforts they make to diversify their students, their faculty, and their curriculum, their track record has been less than stellar. That has been no clearer than in the recent turmoil surrounding the denial of their only Latina Professor, Lorgia García Peña. 

Once students learned of the University President’s decision to deny Garcia tenure, they were dismayed. Garcia’s tenure had been watched closely by the student body throughout the year, some going so far as to conduct a letter-writing campaign on her behalf earlier in the year. Once the initial disappointment at the decision faded, some students felt the need to take action. 

On Monday, roughly 50 students took to Harvard’s University Hall to protest Professor García’s tenure denial.

Although there is a Non-Discrimination and Affirmative Action clause in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Appointment Handbook, students believe that the decision to deny García tenure “exemplifies bias in the review process against professors of Ethnic Studies, whose scholarship and mentorship often put them in tension with Harvard’s administration”. 

In light of the upsetting denial of Garcia as a tenured professor, students drafted a petition with a list of demands aimed at the administration. The petition demands that the administration provides students with an explanation as to why Garcia’s tenure was denied. Students also demand a formal investigation into the alleged reasoning behind the tenure denial, with a specific focus on possible unconscious or structrual bias. Last but not least, the students demand the formal establishment of an Ethnic Studies Division–a request that the student body has been pursuing since 1972. 

For college professors, securing tenure is widely thought of as the most important accomplishment in their academic career.

According to The American Association of University Professors, becoming a tenured professor means that you “can be terminated only for cause or under extraordinary circumstances”. In other words, it is a professor’s permanent job contract, which grants them greater academic freedom and protects them from being arbitrary fired. Usually, a professor is granted tenure after a probationary period of six years after which they’ve established themselves as valuable to the institution they’re working for. Usually during this time, they’re expected to publish academic research and findings to prove their value.

According to Professor Robert Anderson of Pepperdine University, tenure means that professors “are the most secure” in the unpredictable game of university politics. “[Tenured professors] are more like debt holders. If anyone bears the risk, it’s the staff who get tossed in the trash to save faculty”.

The uproar over Garcia’s tenure denial represents the larger struggle that many Latinx academics face when trying to establish themselves in higher education. 

As Latina Harvard student Mercedes Gomez tweeted on Monday, “Harvard flaunts its diversity and its admission numbers, but refuses to do the work to cultivate an environment for its students of color to feel safe and represented”. This statement rings true

As for the broader Latino community, they have not stayed silent on social media when commenting on Harvard’s questionable decision.

The fact itself that Professor Garcia is the only Latina on the faculty on the tenure track is room enough for skepticism. 

Harvard student Mercedes Gomez is especially invested in justice for Professor Garcia. 

https://twitter.com/gomezsb_/status/1201607299741212672?s=20

Let’s hope that the students’ activism spurs Harvard to re-think their decision.

This Latina academic has some chilling stories to tell about the way POC academics are structurally oppressed by academic institutions:

https://twitter.com/yarimarbonilla/status/1201689622583160832?s=20

The evidence seems to be piling up that these professors are denied tenure because their ideas don’t align with the institution’s bottom line. 

This Latina made a valid observation about how boringly predictable these tenure outcomes for WOC have become.

https://twitter.com/allisonefagan/status/1201864198403305472?s=20

The problem with institutional racism is that it’s so insidious–it’s often hard to see when it’s in front of you. And it’s even harder to call out.

This Latina is angry simply at the denial because of Garcia’s stellar resume. 

https://twitter.com/marisollebron/status/1201597626233315329?s=20

It’s frustrating to see that Ivy League institutions recruit off their claims of radical inclusivity, but their administrations don’t follow through when it comes to changing the structures of their institutions. 

The reason for Garcia’s tenure denial should be made public and then investigated. Because if this isn’t evidence of institutional racism, we don’t know what is.

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