‘Incremental Change’: Student Activists Reflect on Push for Ethnic Studies, As New Generation Continues Fight


Throughout the 1997-98 academic year, student organizers and activists renewed demands for Harvard to establish an ethnic studies concentration — a call that even then was decades-old.

Twenty-five years later, Harvard still does not offer a ethnic studies concentration or house a department for the subject, although there is now an ethnic studies field within the History and Literature concentration and a secondary field in Ethnicity, Migration, Rights.

“We were calling for a curriculum, like a actual concentration where you can really gain expertise in the history and culture literature of a representative minorities in the United States,” Michael Hsu ’98 said.

“We’re trying to make up for for gaps in the curriculum. We’re not just trying to do some anthropology,” Hsu added.


When the Ethnic Studies Action Committee was formed in 1993, it was “a relatively small group,” Mina K. Park ’98 said.

Park said the group was primarily “about filling a huge gap” within the curriculum at the University.

“At the time, even though it was so long ago, it didn’t seem like such a radical thing to ask for,” Park said.

Organizers then shared many of the frustrations current student activists have expressed — namely, a lack of both course options addressing modern ethnic studies and full-time faculty members focused on the topic.

“At the time, we had this incredible African American studies program, and I was very interested in studying Asian American Studies, but there just wasn’t anything really available,” Park said.

Like Park, Nisha S. Agarwal ’00 had wanted to study Modern India during her time at Harvard. While Harvard did offer classes on Sanskrit and ancient Indian history, Agarwal said there weren’t “modern classes.”

“I looked for classes on India, on Gandhi, on really so-called modern questions and classes, and there was nothing,” Agarwal said. “So it was like, this is very odd because it’s a pretty big country and we should expect that there would be some classes on that.”

Agarwal later created the South Asian Studies Initiative in the spring of 1998 to advocate for classes about modern South Asia.

ESAC, SASI, and other ethnicity-based groups including the Academic Affairs Committee and Asian American Association jointly adopted the cause of an ethnic studies department.

Hsu, a former member ESAC and chair of AAC, said ESAC would organize public protests while AAC — an organization within the Harvard Foundation — would meet with deans and faculty members.

“We played good cop and bad cop,” Hsu said of AAC and ESAC.

While organizers said there were many supportive faculty members, “in terms of actually being able to do something or actually pulling whatever levers they could, it was different,” Park said.


Jennifer Ching ’96 recalled “being completely shut down and being dismissed and insulted” by passers-by while protesting outside Harvard’s Science Center. Ching said she believes the push for ethnic studies is related to fighting white supremacy.

“It’s the idea that any call for resources that center the rights, the thoughts, the lived experiences of Black, Indigenous, or people of color — communities generally — is somehow illegitimate,” she said of the response to ESAC’s work.
“I would argue that’s because it is ultimately deeply threatening because a substantial body of that work is looking to interrogate and actually dismantle the infrastructure of white supremacy,” she added.

While ESAC and related groups held many demonstrations, including a demonstration of green wristbands at the 1998 Cultural Rhythms event and yearly demonstrations during Junior Parents Weekend, the group’s main demand was never met.

‘There is such a strategy of just delay in university organizing settings where the administration probably rightly so just thinks ‘we get these people out, the momentum is gone,’” Ching said.

Harvard spokesperson Anna Cowenhoven declined to comment on the University’s response over time.

Ching added that she sensed they were creating “incremental change” through their activism.

In 2009, an Ethnic Studies secondary was established before being renamed in 2012 as Ethnicity, Migration, Rights. The secondary gives students an opportunity to “pursue sustained, interdisciplinary study of ethnicity, migration, indigeneity, and human rights,” focusing on “Asian American, Latinx, and Native American studies.”

The Asian American Studies program in particular within Ethnicity, Migration, Rights was expanded in 2021 after contributions from alumni of over $45 million to endow professorships, fellowships, and fund research in the field.

In addition, History and Literature introduced an ethnic studies track in 2017 that addresses “the roles of diaspora, migration, and colonialism in shaping cultural and social movements.”

Lauren Kaminsky, the director of studies for History and Literature, wrote in a statement that ethnic studies is contained within the History and Literature concentration, which she described as providing students “a way of approaching their studies rather than any particular content area.”

“[I]n the same way that we expect students to be able to study European Studies or the Medieval World in other concentrations, History and Literature should not be the only place where a student can pursue Ethnic Studies,” Kaminsky wrote.

She added that she hopes to see an increase in faculty specializing in Ethnic Studies.

“The key to expanding course offerings in Ethnic Studies is faculty hiring,” she wrote.

Indeed, in 2022, three new professors, History professors Jesse E. Hoffnung-Garskof ’93 and Erika Lee and Government professor Taeku Lee, were hired as part of a cluster hire for ethnic studies.


Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay, who was announced in December as Harvard’s next president, said in a May interview with The Crimson that the next FAS Dean should “build out the cohort” of ethnic studies faculty.

However, many students see these changes as inadequate and there remains broad support for the creation of an ethnic studies concentration.

In December of 2016, the Ethnic Studies Coalition petitioned Harvard to create an ethnic studies concentration and research center, which Kaminsky said partially inspired the History and Literature ethnic studies track.

Again in 2019, there was a surge of protest, including a sit-in at University Hall in support of ethnic studies after Romance Languages and Literatures associate professor Lorgia García Peña was denied tenure.

A Harvard College Open Data Project Report in 2021 also confirmed that a majority of students across different fields of concentration strongly or somewhat supported the creation of an ethnic studies concentration.

This year, the Task Force for Asian American Progressive Advocacy and Studies, Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, and the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard hosted the first Ethnic Studies Week, which featured events such as a teach-in and panel discussion.

In an op-ed in The Crimson the week after, Joseph W. Hernandez ’25 said there is a continued need for an ethnic studies concentration.

“As a Government concentrator, I’ve felt this neglect firsthand, as it’s been a struggle to find ethnic studies courses that would count towards my concentration,” Hernandez wrote.

Ching, who came to Harvard 29 years before Hernandez, expressed similar regret at the lack of ethnic studies at Harvard in her time in college.

“To think about how much of a better attorney or advocate or thoughtful practitioner I would have been had I had more meaningful access to the scholarship,” Ching said. “It really saddens me.”

—Staff writer Cam E. Kettles can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @cam_kettles.

—Staff writer Jo B. Lemann can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Jo_Lemann.