A Latina professor who was denied tenure at Harvard is demanding a ‘revolution’ in academia

·6 min read

One of the country’s foremost ethnic studies scholars, who was denied tenure at Harvard in 2019 — prompting outrage from students and faculty nationwide and reigniting calls for more diversity at the school and in academia more broadly — has dissected the experience in depth for the first time in a new book.

In “Community as Rebellion: A Syllabus for Surviving Academia as a Woman of Color,” Lorgia García-Peña provides details about the harassment and “institutional violence” she says she faced while navigating everyday life as a faculty member on the predominantly white campus. She also highlights the need for radical changes to make academia more accessible to scholars and students of color.

García-Peña moved from the University of Georgia to Harvard in 2013, becoming the only tenure-track Black Latina professor in the school’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences. That was the start of what she describes in her book as an “abusive eight-year relationship” with her employer, marred by what she characterizes as painful moments of aggression, ranging from off-handed comments from other professors to threats against her career.

Image: Harvard University Campus (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images file)
Image: Harvard University Campus (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images file)

“We don’t talk too much about institutional trauma because it is often dismissed as unreal,” she told NBC News. “You know it is real because of the way your body reacts.”

In 2016, García-Peña writes, she was attacked on campus by two men who threw hot coffee at her and yelled, “Build the wall.” In 2019, she found a note on her office door saying, “You don’t belong here.” In 2020, her online lecture was “Zoombombed” — and the infiltrators called for her to be lynched, she writes.

García-Peña refers to these incidents and others in her book as acts of “institutional violence,” a term she uses to decry the implications of centuries' worth of exclusion of people of color from academic circles.

“What I’m trying to convey with the book is that that’s just one experience out of a multiplicity of violent experiences that women of color in particular, but not only, experience in the academy,” she said.

Those experiences came to a head in late 2019, when García-Peña, whose courses covered topics such as immigration and Latino literature, was denied tenure. The decision led to swift and fierce backlash from scholars in her discipline. About 50 students staged a sit-in in protest and called on the university to create a more formalized ethnic studies program, The Harvard Crimson reported. More than 5,000 academics and students inside and outside of Harvard signed a petition calling the denial “a disavowal of Harvard’s recent commitment to invest in Ethnic Studies.”

“It was clearly wrong what happened,” García-Peña said. “Everybody knew it.”

Claudine Gay, Harvard’s dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, agreed to a review of the school’s tenure process in December 2019. In February 2020, García-Peña filed a formal grievance regarding her denial, according to The New Yorker, after learning that a professor on her tenure committee had referred to her scholarship as “activism” rather than research.

Throughout the process, a majority of her colleagues, with a few notable exceptions, didn’t support her, García-Peña said.

“While the students were protesting, they would literally cross the street, to not be seen, to not be interpolated, to not have to engage,” she said. “Their silence was complicity.”

A spokesperson for Harvard would not comment on García-Peña’s book, or any of the specific incidents she alleges in it, and referred NBC News to the school’s most recent faculty diversity report. 

In October 2021, the school released a 106-page report from the Tenure-Track Review Committee that found the system overall to be “structurally sound.” The report recommended several changes, including increasing transparency in the tenure review process and mitigating potential bias in the system. The review made an effort to focus on how the tenure-track system affects women and faculty of color, according to the school’s website.

By the time the report was released, however, García-Peña was gone. She left Harvard that spring for a tenured position at Tufts University, about 10 minutes away, where she is as an associate professor and chair of the department of studies in race, colonialism and diaspora.

Her time at Harvard did bring about some small victories though, she writes, including the creation of a minor in ethnic studies for undergraduates and a graduate certificate program in Latino studies. She also said the controversy spurred new urgency around the importance of ethnic studies programs and the need to increase faculty diversity in academia.

“Before the Nikole Hannah-Jones case, there had not been a case so public,” she said.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine journalist and creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "1619 Project" on the seminal impact of slavery on the country's formation and history, was initially not offered tenure in April 2021 by the University of North-Carolina, after landing the school’s prestigious Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Fierce backlash prompted the university’s board of trustees to eventually offer her tenure, but Hannah-Jones decided instead to accept a tenured position at Howard University, a historically Black school, rather than UNC, her alma mater.

The cases of García-Peña and Hannah-Jones brought national attention to the harsh realities faced by women and faculty of color in academia, even as many colleges and universities committed to anti-racism in the summer of 2020.

In fall of 2020, nearly three quarters of full-time faculty at degree-granting colleges and universities in the U.S. were white, according to the latest available data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Four percent were Black females and 3 percent were Latinas.

Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa / AP file)
Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (Charles Krupa / AP file)

That dynamic has informed much of García-Peña’s experience in academia. A first-generation college student born in the Dominican Republic, she said she seldom saw her life experiences reflected in the courses she took and the faculty who led them.

“The message that I received from the courses I took, the professors I had, was, 'Your people are not creators of knowledge; your people are objects of study,'” she said.

In recent years, potential solutions to improving faculty diversity have cropped up across the country, including cluster hiring and new postdoctoral fellowships.

While García-Peña believes some of those innovations can have beneficial impacts, she says academia needs to think bigger. She's calling for a “revolution” that diversifies public funding so that schools are less dependent on rich donors.

She said what gives her hope is not the institutional initiatives she sees, but rather, the next generation of students and faculty, who are “questioning things” and “doing things differently.”

“The more open conversations we have about what is wrong with academia," she said, "the more people can come into these career positions with their eyes wide open and knowing what to expect."

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