In 2013, Gary Okihiro, a Yale professor of “Intro to Third World Studies,” said that the field of ethnic studies “was gained through contestation.” Although the University already provides the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration, the survival of that program hinges on yet another contest against broken promises related to faculty diversity and hiring.
Yale’s Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration began in 1997 in response to student protests. Then, students were only allowed to have Ethnicity, Race and Migration listed as a secondary major. The University, only after another wave of student demands, did not offer ER&M as a stand-alone major until 2012.
During its lifespan, ER&M has become a patchwork of classes and professors as opposed to a fully fledged academic department. Given its current structure, it can only ever exist as a program, not as a major; it lacks the necessary University resources to offer a comprehensive curriculum to its students.
The creation of the Yale Center for the Study of Race, Indigeneity and Transnational Migration came as a result of student demands after 2015. This center has since served to expand research and interest on issues of indigeneity that the ER&M program previously did not offer. In conjunction with this new center, the University began a $50 million initiative to diversify faculty over the course of five years. From the beginnings of these initiatives, neither the center nor the newly allocated funds were going to solve the core issue that has loomed over ER&M and has finally reached a tipping point: professor hiring and retention. Despite it all, students and faculty remained hopeful.
But that was three years ago. In those three years, the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration has lost several faculty members — among them, Erica James, Jafari Allen, Dixa Ramirez, Vanessa Agard-Jones — and departments have failed to hire other professors to fill in the resulting gaps.
These gaps still exist because the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration currently does not have hiring power. This means that it cannot recruit faculty and must instead depend on departments like history, anthropology and American studies. These faculty members are then cross-listed with ER&M. As a result, not much can be done within the ER&M program to recover the loss of various Caribbean studies professors previously at Yale. Such a lack of departmental sovereignty creates a gap for both undergraduate and graduate students looking for those classes or hoping to have a mentor who specializes in that area. Having a revolving door for professors is an immense disservice to those affiliated with the university. But the greater disservice is the fact that the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration does not have the power to recruit and hire leading faculty, does not have enough faculty to provide mentorship to its growing number of undergraduate majors and does not have the infrastructure necessary to facilitate its growth at this world-renowned research institution. Students are tired of waiting for an administration that chooses to react to crises instead of making proactive decisions that benefit its students. Perhaps Yale believes its students will forget the promises it made in 2015, since those students are on the cusp of graduation. But as students demanding respect for ethnic studies, we refuse to forget. We deserve better.
The study of ethnicity, race and migration should be a respected field of interdisciplinary studies that examines how these three subjects function in relation to one another. As a field of study within Yale, it allows students of color to examine themselves and their histories in ways they might not have been able to in the past. But beyond the personal, ER&M is a critical study of power structures that pervade our lives regardless of cultural background. Every student regardless of their background has a stake in understanding the world around them.
When will the university fully appreciate the rigor and contributions of ethnic studies? What are the results of the University’s promised $50 million diversity initiative? What has been done to combat the 41 faculty members that have left ER&M since its inception? When will the University listen to the needs of its students?
In 1943, Kingman Brewster, then a Yale College undergraduate and future president of Yale University, wrote: “The world we shall live and work in is being refashioned. Parts of the Yale Machinery that are rusty with complacency and stiff with tradition will have to be hauled out and re-examined.” Although this statement was about the stiff tradition of the secret societies we still have today, President Brewster had a keen understanding of Yale’s perpetual position at the crossroads of progress. As president, he diversified Yale’s student body, introducing the first minority undergraduate to campus. Diversity is a principle that the University prides itself on — at least, in its advertising. With the student protests of 2015 still within the reach of Yale’s consciousness, Yale once again finds itself at a crossroads with regards to diversity. Yale knows what is right, has known what is right — now it just needs to act on what is right.
Oscar Lopez Aguirre is a junior in Grace Hopper College. Diana Saavedra is a junior in Trumbull College. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com .