In December, Harvard students occupied the university's admissions office to demand the creation of an ethnic studies department. Protests and rallies began after Professor Lorgia Garcia Pena, who taught courses in Latinx studies and was looking to expand the school's ethnic studies program, was denied tenure. Both students and faculty viewed denying García Peña tenure as contrary to the university's commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion. In addition to protesting in support of García Peña, students have pushed for Harvard to create a full ethnic studies department.
These protests and rallies at Harvard have sparked a conversation about if ethnic studies, as a field, is necessary in higher education and if so, why. Students belonging to racial minorities have expressed a desire to have their histories and experiences taught in their schools. Universities themselves may be diverse, but that does not necessarily mean that their curriculum and the subject material of their courses are diverse. People of color have often felt excluded and erased from American history. Consequently, having ethnic studies courses can encourage a new sense of belonging for students of color.
Furthermore, with racism still being a prevalent issue in the United States, ethnic studies can help dissolve stereotypes and give students a better understanding of the experiences of different minorities.
Recent studies have also shown that ethnic studies courses can improve academic performance. San Francisco State University has found that students who take ethnic studies courses have higher graduation rates. Outside of higher education, high schools in San Francisco have reported improved attendance and grades among students taking part in an ethnic studies program. While there is no definitive answer as to why this is, many have pointed out that ethnic studies classes can be empowering to minority students and give a better sense of belonging. These students may also feel more involved and engaged when their courses are more relevant to their own experiences. The same still applies in higher education, where minority students may still feel alienated.
Of course, the students at Harvard could opt to transfer to a school that does offer ethnic studies, but transferring does not solve the problem at Harvard and other schools that do not have ethnic studies departments. Every student should have access to ethnic studies programs, regardless of which school they choose to attend. Diversity is not only important in the student population, but also in these students' actual education and curriculum. Starting these programs requires student interest, and transferring would do nothing to help expand ethnic studies departments in schools that do not offer ethnic studies. Minority students should not have to transfer in order to learn about their own histories. Ethnic studies courses should be available to them, regardless of the school they attend.
In my own experience at Rutgers University, I have found that there are very few Asian American studies courses, and these courses are not always offered every semester, despite Asian Americans being the largest minority at Rutgers (the university is also now majority-minority). If these Asian American students, or even non-Asian students, wished to take more classes about their own experiences, why should they have to seek out another university to do so? Having a diverse range of ethnic studies courses can benefit all students and help students learn more about both themselves and those around them.
Ethnic studies is still a field that is severely lacking representation in higher education. Students at Harvard have demanded an ethnic studies department for decades, and there is and has been a strong need for ethnic studies programs in a country where racism has always been a prevalent part of its history. The United States is a racially diverse country, and higher education should reflect that diversity in its curriculum.