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  • Writer's pictureGrace Adee

A Department of Our Own

Columbia’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race fights for its future.

By Grace Adee

On April 1, 1996, after months of sit-ins and demonstrations, four students set up a tent on Butler Lawn and began a 15-day hunger strike to secure an ethnic studies department at Columbia. Over the next two weeks, the Ad Hoc Committee for Ethnic Studies, to which the students belonged, and hundreds of supporters held rallies and vigils in solidarity with the strikers, occupying Low Library and Hamilton Hall to demand that University President George Rupp and other administrators dedicate resources to this historically marginalized academic field. Twenty-one student protesters were arrested; one striker was hospitalized.

Two weeks later, six ethnic studies advocates and three faculty members spent a grueling 12 hours negotiating the path forward. Columbia met some but not all of the students’ demands: They agreed to hire three faculty members in Asian American and Latino studies and to form a blue ribbon committee to organize a program on campus. In 1999, that committee’s work resulted in the creation of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, which offers an undergraduate major in ethnicity and race with specializations in Asian American, Latino, Native American, and comparative ethnic studies.

Now, CSER’s Student Advisory Board meets weekly on the fourth floor of Hamilton to discuss their grievances and goals for the Center. It’s been 26 years since student activists congregated in these same corridors, chanting “ethnic studies now!” with the urgency of prayer. The hunger strikers declared in their manifesto that “only with departmental status can such fields be insured centrality in the curriculum”; decades later, the SAB agrees that departmentalization is still the only way forward.

Last February, SAB members including Grace Fox and Karime Sanchez, both CC ’23, participated in Zoom interviews with the Arts and Sciences Faculty’s Academic Review Committee, which periodically assesses academic units to determine their current challenges and future goals. The ARC includes a self-study by the unit, an internal review by other Columbia faculty, and an external review by outside scholars. Interviewed by the external review committee about their experiences at CSER, Sanchez remembered explaining the necessity of departmentalization: “We need more faculty, we need more funding, we need more advertising. We want political power to make decisions.”

“We had this hour-and-a-half long conversation, all of us being very vulnerable in telling these ARC reviewers from different universities, ‘We are speaking to you today in hopes that you can put pressure on the university on our behalf,’” Fox said. “We work really hard internally, but we only get so far.”

Fox and Sanchez hoped that this would be a turning point in the fight for CSER’s departmentalization. Eight months later, they’re not so sure. “We don’t really know what has happened since then,” Fox said. Now, the SAB is left to wonder: Will the ARC report—in which the three external reviewers all advocated for departmentalization—create meaningful change for CSER, or will it get lost in the shuffle of Columbia’s notoriously opaque bureaucracy? And if the report doesn’t change anything, then what will?

The SAB’s argument that CSER has always lacked the resources to support its faculty and students is echoed by many. Associate Professor of History Manan Ahmed has been one of CSER’s core faculty members since 2013.“I haven’t been here long enough to know this institutional history, but my outsider perspective is that CSER has been underfunded and marginalized for the entirety of its existence,” said Ahmed.

Many students and faculty argue that this marginalization is the inevitable—and perhaps purposeful—result of CSER’s designation as a center, as opposed to either a department or an institute. CSER faculty members, owing to the program’s status as a center, each have a home department that prescribes their primary job responsibilities. A CSER affiliation thus often means additional work for faculty members, Ahmed explained.

This center status also means that CSER mostly lacks the budget and the autonomy to hire faculty. CSER co-directors Mae Ngai and Karl Jacoby, both tenured professors in the history department, described how difficult it can be to convince other departments to hire ethnic studies scholars. “Departments have their own priorities,” Ngai said. “Department X will say, ‘Well, we already have somebody who does ethnic studies. We don’t need any more.’” Because of this, CSER relies on adjunct professors to teach about half of its classes. Many of these adjuncts are “extraordinary teachers,” Jacoby acknowledged, but they can’t provide students with the same sustained advising and support as full-time faculty.

Illustration by Nayeon Park

As of now, the only faculty member who works solely in CSER is Bahia Munem, a lecturer in the discipline; other professors have half or quarter appointments. So while CSER’s faculty may look sizable on the website, Ngai and Jacoby said, the Center only has the equivalent of 6.5 full-time professors, a number that hasn’t risen significantly in years. Meanwhile, the number of CSER students roughly doubled in the last five years—as of last year, there were 84 declared majors or concentrations in ethnicity and race studies. This high student-to-faculty ratio limits the Center’s ability to provide students with consistent course offerings. After four years as co-director, Jacoby describes feeling “a little bit burned out” by the outsized effort it takes to keep CSER afloat. “It’s been very, very hard to get the resources that we need to get the kind of program that the undergraduates deserve,” he said.

That CSER is not a department also means that it has no doctoral students. “What a department does is that it produces PhDs—it produces new specialized knowledge,” Ahmed said. “Columbia, then, by not making CSER a department, has not been producing new scholarship in a field that has been growing across the United States in the last 30 years.”

The fight for ethnicity and race studies programs in the United States began in the 1960s in the wake of the civil rights movement and subsequent organizing from Asian American, Latino, and Indigenous activists. But because these protests were concentrated on the West Coast, it has taken much longer to establish robust ethnicity and race studies programs elsewhere.

Debates over the expansion of ethnicity and race studies programs have roiled many of Columbia’s peer institutions. In March 2019, 13 senior faculty members at Yale withdrew from its Ethnicity, Race, and Migration program, citing administrative apathy toward the program. Since its founding in 1997, they argued, ER&M’s status had remained precarious, lacking the autonomy and continuity of other units. Two months later, those faculty members agreed to return after Yale granted the program hiring power and made faculty positions more permanent.

Ahmed expressed concern that CSER will continue to fall behind other universities in ethnicity and race studies if it fails to take similar steps. “Because CSER is not a department, it cannot invite or attract top scholars to Columbia as a department can,” he said. Jacoby provided one example of how this played out a few years ago when CSER tried to hire Hawaiian Kanaka food studies scholar Hiʻilei Hobart: “We really wanted to find a place for her, but we couldn’t find one for her here because there was no department where you put someone with food studies.” In March, she joined Yale’s Ethnicity, Race and Migration program as an assistant professor.

CSER’s lack of resources has had tangible effects on undergraduates who choose to major in ethnicity and race studies. Grace Fox, a double major in psychology and ethnicity and race studies with a concentration in Native American studies, spoke to the particular challenge of finding classes to complete her degree “because there are so few Native professors and Native classes.” In Modes of Inquiry, the required senior seminar that prepares students to write their theses, Fox and Sanchez described how their classmates have struggled and scrambled to find thesis advisors. “There [are] simply not enough CSER professors,” Sanchez said.

Many CSER classes are extremely popular with undergraduates, with waitlists stretching into the hundreds. Two core classes for CSER majors—Colonization/Decolonization and Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies—count toward Columbia’s Global Core requirement, attracting undergraduates to CSER who might not otherwise encounter the Center. Ahmed recalled 150 students vying for 15 seats in the Colonization/Decolonization course he taught last year, and lamented turning away passionate students to prioritize CSER majors. Sanchez expressed frustration with CSER classes’ inclusion in the Global Core because they lack enough sections to meet the demand. “If Columbia wants to make those count as Global Cores, then they need to supply the faculty, the staff, the time, the funding to be able to supply both your majors in CSER and the people who are trying to take it as an interest or as Global Cores,” Sanchez said.

With groundbreaking interdisciplinary scholarship and a palpable sense of community, the Center punches above its weight. “It’s an under-resourced, marginalized center that has also basically kept the intellectual mission of this university when it comes to questions of race and ethnic studies, largely without the type of support you should get in a university of this caliber,” said Ahmed.

Frances Negrón-Muntaner, professor of English and CSER core faculty member, directed the Center from 2009 to 2016. During her tenure, she wrote annual reports for the administration tracking CSER’s growth, eager to show what they were able to accomplish with a budget that had barely increased after a decade. (From 2010 to 2013, the number of CSER majors increased from 20 to 55 and the number of course offerings tripled.) Negrón-Muntaner also prioritized expanding CSER’s engagement beyond the classroom: While she was director, she said, CSER provided small grants and other support to seed several successful student projects, some of which are still active today.

For many students, this public-facing approach to higher education distinguishes CSER from other academic programs on campus. William Shammah, CC ’23, a political science major with a concentration in Middle Eastern studies, is currently enrolled in Elizabeth OuYang’s CSER course on Post 9/11 Immigration Policies. He emphasized the value of taking a class that felt grounded in the real-world impacts of theoretical work. For their first assignment, Shammah and his classmates were asked to go to Midtown to greet the asylum seekers who were sent to New York City by Texas Governor Greg Abbott. “We are doing things where there’s an element of practice,” Shammah said. “It lines up much more with what I was hoping or imagining political science to be.”

In addition to engaging with the larger world through fieldwork, the CSER program is interdisciplinary not only because it brings together professors from various departments, but also because its professors tend to draw on diverse methods in their scholarship and teaching. Audrey Oh, CC ’21, said that her professors encouraged her to make use of diverse sources and modes of expression in her work, an approach critical to disrupting the “hegemonic thinking” often found in traditional academia.

SAB member Antonio Rodriguez, GS ’23, found much of Columbia incredibly alienating as a non-traditional student from a low-income, Latinx background. When he asked other liberal arts faculty what the “return on investment” of a Columbia education would be for a student like him, many of them told him that if he had to ask that question, he might be in the wrong place. CSER was different. “There was an understanding of that background that allowed them to respond to my questions in a way that was useful to me and inspired me to interact more rigorously with my academic life than ever before,” Rodriguez said.

Andrea Salamanca, CC ’23, described the feeling of belonging that professors create in the classroom—the consistent reiteration to their students, many of whom are students of color, that “You guys deserve this space, you’re not the exception, you have every right to be here—and don’t forget.”

When it was time for Oh to write her senior thesis, she decided to create a website on CSER’s history, collecting archival materials and interviews from the 1996 hunger strike to the present. “It really was a kind of thank you letter for CSER,” she said. Oh chose to create a website instead of writing an academic paper, hoping that it would be the most accessible to current and future CSER students. It seems to have been a good choice: Almost every student I interviewed proudly cited Oh’s project.

That history matters to CSER students—it’s fundamental to their vision of CSER’s potential to disrupt and reimagine the entrenched systems of the University. “The founding documents of [CSER] include a space for the CSER SAB,” Rodriguez said. “We are not a club. We are a foundational part of the department. We are written into its bylaws.”

In mid-October, orange and teal posters started cropping up across campus, imploring students to “Join the CSER SAB!” Recruitment is a top priority for the SAB. “We want this to live on past us,” said Fox. From its inception, CSER has relied on students who devote themselves to its success year after year. But this only works if the students retain an institutional memory, said Negrón-Muntaner—if they can learn from the successes and failures of past CSER advocates. “Then you are not starting from zero. You actually can build.”

The SAB hasn’t been active for all of CSER’s history. Negrón-Muntaner said that a student advisory group existed when she first came to Columbia in 2003, and she sought to revive and institutionalize it when she became director. The SAB was most recently resurrected in 2020 and recruited several more members in the fall of 2021, when Fox and Sanchez joined. “We realized that what we had been handed was something in its infancy, and it was something we needed to severely work on if we wanted it to be a real thing,” said Sanchez. Associate Director of CSER Josephine Caputo serves as the main point of contact for their activities. CSER provides the SAB with some funding for projects and events, including an alumni panel last year that featured some of the 1996 protesters.

But the SAB strives for greater input and insight into CSER’s inner workings. “When all of the CSER faculty have their monthly meeting, one or two of us from the SAB will try to sit in there,” Fox said. “They’ll let us talk for 15 minutes, and then they’re like, you have to leave now.” Though Fox and Sanchez appreciated the opportunity to speak to the ARC reviewers, they expressed frustration with the lack of clarity around the purpose and impact of the report. It turns out that the faculty share many of their concerns.

Jacoby and Ngai received the final ARC report in May. Ngai said that the report described CSER as “a vibrant intellectual space and teaching space”; it also noted that the program “suffers from invisibility and neglect.” The three external reviewers—ethnic studies faculty from Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley—ultimately recommended that CSER become a full academic department. They pointed to Columbia’s creation of the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies in 2018 as a potential model for a structural change for CSER that would maintain its interdisciplinarity.

But in the past, the impact of the Academic Review has been negligible. CSER’s last Academic Review took place just as Negrón-Muntaner became director in 2009. Ngai acknowledged that the last ARC report recommended many changes to CSER—such as hiring significantly more faculty—that were not implemented.

During her tenure, Negrón-Muntaner turned to other tactics to advocate for CSER. She started creating annual quantitative reports to communicate CSER’s growth and needs to the administration. She presented one such report to Pierre Force, the Dean of Humanities at the time, and secured a minor budget increase. In 2015, she submitted a proposal to make CSER an institute—she has argued for many years that CSER is much closer to an institute than a center in terms of its function and output. While securing institute status might not drastically increase its faculty or funding, it would be a symbolically important step. “It’s a recognition of the University that this is a permanent part of the institution and that it deserves its support into the future,” said Negrón-Muntaner.

At the beginning of the ARC process, Ngai and Jacoby also sought institutionalization, but the external reviewers changed their minds. “They kept asking us, what do you gain from being an institute? Why are you asking for that? And frankly, we didn’t have a good answer,” Jacoby said. Ngai and Jacoby brought the report to CSER’s Executive Committee, which is composed of CSER faculty members. “We had a retreat and a prolonged discussion and a vote on all of this,” Jacoby said. Now, the Executive Committee is starting to imagine what the path to an ethnic studies department might look like. Renzo Aroni, a Humanities Fellow and CSER affiliate, spoke to the growing support for departmentalization among the faculty. “It’s in the everyday life of the academic context right now,” he said, expressing confidence that the University will eventually grant CSER departmental status.

While Negrón-Muntaner underscored the many academic advantages of departmentalization, she also worries that CSER stands to lose elements that contribute to its current prowess if it were completely absorbed into the traditional academic structure. “Whereas department status could mean a more robust and stable roster of courses, departmentalization may also mean that CSER may lose some of what makes it a transformative space,” Negrón-Muntaner wrote in an email, highlighting the experimental and public-facing focus that has defined the Center. Recognizing that an atypical program might require an atypical structure, Negrón-Muntaner suggested that departmentalization should not be the alpha and omega of CSER’s reforms. Advocates could potentially build new academic configurations—for instance, the University could establish a department devoted to training new ethnicity and race studies scholars in addition to an institute committed to social impact.

But Negrón-Muntaner recognizes that these solutions are ambitious and would take significant investment from the University. After the Academic Review is finished and filed away, what will incentivize the University to commit the funding and resources the department would need?

In late October, Ngai and Jacoby had just met with Dean of Social Science Miguel Urquiola and Executive Vice President of Arts and Sciences Amy Hungerford to discuss the ARC report’s findings. “We told them that we agree with the report that we should become a department, and that’s what we want to pursue,” Ngai said. She described the administrators’ response as “noncommittal.”

In an emailed statement to The Blue and White, Hungerford wrote that the ARC report “sparked a new conversation in CSER” about the Center’s future form, though she did not directly comment on whether the Faculty of Arts and Sciences will support the Executive Committee’s goal of departmentalization. “I look forward to working alongside CSER’s faculty and students as they build on the ideas emerging from the review in a way that best fits Columbia’s unique strengths and best promotes the essential—and thriving—fields and programs that CSER leads,” Hungerford wrote.

Still, the professors see this as a potentially pivotal moment for CSER. Not only did the ARC report clearly articulate CSER’s problems and propose tangible solutions, it did so at a time of university-wide transformation as new administrators take charge and 2020’s nationwide racial reckoning continues to reverberate across the institution. “I think they have to decide to put their money where their mouth is,” Ngai said. “They all talk about diversity and combating racism. So let’s do it.”

Professor Ahmed believes that the key to CSER’s future lies in its origins: “How will the University do it? My personal belief is 100 percent from students’ advocacy,” he said. But this advocacy can’t just come from a handful of students or professors asking for a department, Negrón-Muntaner noted, as this would cast CSER to the bottom of a long list of University priorities. Rather, she said, there has to be “a critical mass of invested people in the outcome of making CSER a more sustainable, better space that is also exemplary for the University.” It will take the kind of ardent coalition that first envisioned CSER for the University to recognize the crucial contribution of ethnic studies to Columbia’s engagement beyond the ivory tower.

“CSER is the only center or department at Columbia that came to be purely from student protests,” Sanchez said. “We got CSER out of it, which has, since that day, still been a center. Their needs were not fully met.”


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