Irene Jiang

Weeks after University President Peter Salovey announced a plan to establish a center to support scholarship in race, ethnicity and social identity, questions remain about what exactly the center will do and how it will be structured.

In response to passionate student activism about racial issues at Yale and demands for greater prioritization of ethnic studies, Salovey announced in a Nov. 17 email to the Yale community that the University would create a center to aid the “intense study” of race and ethnicity, but the administration has yet to offer further details about the physical and conceptual plans for the center. The announcement comes after years of discussion among faculty members and after four proposals for just such a center were rejected, according to history and American Studies professor Stephen Pitti, former director of the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program. Meanwhile, the University has struggled to satisfy students who say Yale does not offer enough ethnic studies courses, or do enough to retain its faculty of color. Still, Pitti said he is hopeful that the initiative will address the concerns of students and faculty alike. And professors at prominent ethnic studies units at other universities said they were excited to hear about Salovey’s announcement, but noted that there are many nuances that shape how the center will contribute to the studies of ethnicity and race on Yale’s campus.

“The faculty have pushed for these issues for a long time, and we are hopeful that the administration will follow through with the encouragement and promises it has made for the last six years,” Pitti said.

Pitti said the conversations about a possible center began in 2009, when a group of eight faculty members — including himself — met to discuss ways to improve both the campus climate for faculty of color and the academic experiences of students in ethnic studies and related fields. He said the center they envisioned would support the ER&M program and departments like African American Studies, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies and American Studies. It would be a “rich intellectual site” on campus that would support faculty and student research, but hopefully would also lead to hiring and retention of a more diverse faculty body, he added.

But at the time, the administration did not approve the plans. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, who took part in the initial efforts, said the four proposals since 2011 simply did not gain enough traction in the community.

Pitti and Holloway declined to comment on the current state of planning for the newly announced center. Several other professors in ER&M and African American Studies also declined to comment, stating that it is too early to know what the center will look like.

Salovey’s email did not provide many details, such as what the center will be called or how it will interact with existing academic programs. Instead, he wrote that it would be “a prominent university center supporting the exciting scholarship represented by [studies of race, ethnicity and other aspects of social identity].” He told the News that the center will be administratively overseen by the Provost’s Office but will be planned by a faculty committee, whose members have yet to be appointed.

Professors at the University of California, Berkeley’s department of ethnic studies and Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity — two of the leading ethnic studies programs in the country — said Yale’s center will be defined by its programming and its structure.

“It matters how you name the center at Yale,” said Gary Okihiro, the founding director of Columbia’s ethnic studies center. “Is it a teaching place for undergraduates, or is it designed to bring together faculty to discuss issues about ethnic studies for research?”

Salovey wrote that the center would support the study of “social identity,” but Lok Siu, a professor in Berkeley’s department of ethnic studies, said ethnic studies examines power and not identity.

“The critique of ethnic studies is that it studies identity and is therefore anti-intellectual. But ethnic studies is about examining power,” Siu said. “At the heart of ethnic studies is a social-justice platform that examines the processes of marginalization. We are looking at power and social inequality.”

Okihiro, who will teach at Yale the next academic year as a visiting professor, said it is important to clarify whether the center will promote “ethnic studies” — a term Salovey did not use in his email — and if so, what the University’s definition of the term is.

When the issue of ethnic studies first arose at San Francisco State University in 1968, Okihiro said, it was the product of student activists calling for “Third World Studies,” which aimed to study the connections between people of color in the U.S. and people in the third world. The field focused on power structures and relations domestically and internationally. This definition, Okihiro said, is very different from the study of ethnic diversity in the United States, which some have mistakenly understood as the purpose of ethnic studies.

He said that through his experience at Columbia, he has learned that it is easier for university administrators to accept the study of “identity” than of “power and hierarchal structures.” Okihiro said when he proposed creating majors in Latino Studies and Asian American Studies, Columbia immediately approved. However, when he proposed a center for ethnic studies as a study of social power and inequality, it took three years for the initiative to be approved. Administrators and many faculty members were unhappy with his vision of ethnic studies, he said.

“The widespread understanding of ethnic studies is about ‘identity’ and about young people wanting to find and understand themselves,” Okihiro said. “That’s pretty harmless as opposed to young people trying to liberate themselves.”

Other professors interviewed said that another major challenge Yale’s center will face is in attracting and retaining faculty members without departmental status or the ability to independently hire. Pitti said that in the early faculty proposals, the center did not have the ability to hire or retain faculty members.

On this issue, the models at Berkeley and Columbia offer contrary examples. At Berkeley, the department of ethnic studies has the ability to hire faculty, control the tenure process and shape its students’ curriculum, UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor Keith Feldman said. At Columbia, however, the Center for Study of Race and Ethnicity does not have autonomy over faculty hiring and granting tenure, according to Columbia history professor Karl Jacoby GRD ’97. He added that the Center has to partner with departments to jointly hire faculty members, a system he said is extremely challenging for young faculty members who are seeking tenure. Columbia does not have a separate ethnic studies department.

Jacoby added that a center for ethnic studies at Yale should be the first step toward an independent department, rather than an end goal.

“In an ideal world, a center is building toward something that would become a department with the ability to hire and retain faculty,” he said. “The question is, can it grow into something larger?”