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Summers’ Nixing of Latino Studies


by David Pluviose

Summers’ Nixing of Latino Studies
A Deal Breaker for Some Harvard Faculty
By David Pluviose

In the months following his ascension to the presidency in July 2001, Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers was presented with two proposals to boost multicultural research at the university. First was a proposal to create a Latino studies center in the mold of the university’s much-respected Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Summers nixed the plan. Later, he was presented with a new proposal, this time for an immigration studies center. Again, he squashed the idea.

Dr. Gary A. Orfield, director and co-founder of Harvard’s Civil Rights Project, felt that Harvard “was a logical place to create a ‘Dream Team’ to work on issues of Latino problems in the U.S.,” given the boom in the nation’s Latino population. That opinion was joined by other Harvard faculty as well, including Dr. John Coatsworth, director of Harvard’s Latin American Studies Center; Dr. Doris Sommer, professor of romance languages and literature; and former Harvard professors Drs. Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco.

“We thought it was a wonderful idea and a unique opportunity for Harvard, and it was shot down by Larry Summers,” says Orfield, who is also a professor in Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “And we came back with a proposal to do one on immigration, since he didn’t want anything that dealt directly with Latinos as an ethnic group, and that was shot down as well.”

Joe Wrinn, director of Harvard’s Office of News and Public Affairs, had not responded to a  request for comment on the Latino studies center proposal by  press time.

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Facing a second no-confidence vote after the resignation announcement of Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) Dean William C. Kirby, Summers announced in February that he will resign at the end of this academic term (see Diverse, March 9). The FAS passed the first no-confidence measure against Summers last year following comments he made questioning the “intrinsic aptitude” of women for science and math.

According to Orfield, some faculty members have left Harvard as a result of Summers’ rejection of the Latino studies proposal. Among those departing were Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco, now at New York University. Orfield says their move was “a terrible loss for Harvard.”

Both Marcelo and Carola Suárez-Orozco declined to discuss specifically why they left Harvard, but Marcelo Suárez-Orozco says Latino studies did not have a strong presence on the campus before they arrived.

“I co-taught the first course in the history of the university on Latino cultures and chaired its first Interfaculty Committee on Latino Studies,” he says.

Says Orfield, “There are virtually no faculty who work on Latino issues at [Harvard]. The only really prominent one is [Dr.] David Carrasco in the Divinity School. There are just no faculty in the arts and sciences particularly. There are a few in education and public health and other places.”

Dr. Loui Olivas, president of the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education and vice president for academic affairs at Arizona State University, says major universities have not adequately covered issues relating to matriculation, financial aid, faculty hires, tenure and the hiring of university presidents “from a Latino perspective.”

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Given this nation’s rapidly changing demographics, Olivas says that now is the time to embark on Latino studies initiatives like the one Orfield and his colleagues sought to establish at Harvard.

But Harvard professor of anthropology and African and African American studies, Dr. J. Lorand Matory, says Summers was generally not supportive of diversity-related issues on campus.

“Mr. Summers did create the impression that he wished to undermine what President [Neil L.] Rudenstine, his predecessor, has made a singular contribution on campus, that is to say the building of the Afro-American studies department. … The truth is, he damaged and demoralized people in all disciplines. Mr. Summers was left with very few allies, but he started out on minority people,” Matory says.

However, Summers’ record relating to diversity issues is mixed, says Orfield, as Summers voiced strong support to the cause of affirmative action in higher education during the 2003 Supreme Court cases involving the University of Michigan’s admissions process.

“[Summers] did play an active role in Harvard’s brief to the Supreme Court in the Michigan case,” Orfield says. “He made a pretty passionate statement about it to the NAACP board of directors. That was a part of him that really wasn’t known very well. … [He had] become quite convinced that affirmative action was a good idea.”

Olivas says that as president, Summers wields great influence when it comes to setting the tone for diversity-related issues, and the burden to clarify Harvard’s stance on those issues will rest with his successor.

“A new president coming into Harvard, as any new president in any major university, is the leader that sets the tone and the philosophy of a direction for diversity … in terms of research, in terms of policy renewal [and] exploration,” Olivas says.

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