Major Problems, Minor Solutions: Student Struggle and Solidarity for Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora Studies at Tufts

Art by Audrey Njo and Aidan Chang

Editor’s Note: The authors of this piece are both members of the Tufts Asian Student Coalition, are engaged with Tufts Ethnic Studies Now, and are RCD majors and Asian American Studies minors. Billy Zeng is the other co-teacher of Radical Roots of Asian American Boston: In Solidarity and Struggle with Nacie Loh. Emara Saez, the Features Section Editor, is the other co-founder of Somos, engaged with Tufts Ethnic Studies Now, and an RCD major and Latinx Studies minor.

Between March 29 and 31 of this year, over 500 students, alumni, and parents signed a letter demanding support for ethnic studies faculty and courses at Tufts. In addition to signing the letter, 130 community members submitted personal testimonials about the importance of ethnic studies to them. Ethnic studies are primarily housed in the Department of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora, established in 2019. Under the RCD Department, it is possible to major in American Studies, RCD Studies, and Africana Studies, and minor in Asian American Studies, Latinx Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, Africana Studies, and Colonialism Studies. 

A Vulnerable Department: Losses in RCD Faculty

The letter was born out of the dire situation in which the RCD Department found itself this spring. Student concern over the diminishing size of the department began in December 2022 when Princeton University announced that Professor Lorgia García-Peña, current Chair of the RCD Department, would be leaving Tufts to join their faculty at the end of the Spring 2023 semester. She is the only tenured professor in a department of otherwise junior faculty, the majority of whom are women of color. She is also the only professor of Latinx Studies in the department, meaning that her departure from Tufts will leave the department without senior leadership and Latinx studies courses taught by tenure-track or tenured faculty. This presents a problem, according to senior and RCD major Madeline Tachibana, who said, “It’s difficult to have a department that’s only junior faculty because who does that faculty go to when they have questions? They also need to be mentored, just like students need to be mentored.” 

García-Peña’s exit came as a surprise to the university, according to Heather Nathans, the dean of Academic Affairs and associate dean for Diversity and Inclusion in Arts and Sciences. She said the departure “was unexpected news that we got in the winter, which is very sad for the department, and I know it’s sad for her.” However, students feel that the gap in RCD goes far beyond losing García-Peña.

Student concerns increased when course offerings were released for Fall 2023, as there were no tenure-track or tenured faculty in Latinx Studies and Asian American Studies teaching courses for the upcoming semester. There is only one tenure-track Asian American Studies faculty member in the department, who will be on sabbatical for the 2023–2024 school year.

There are only three Asian American studies courses listed for the Fall 2023 semester, including one based in the Department of Child Studies and Human Development, an Independent Study, and Introduction to Asian American Studies. None of the courses will be taught by tenure-track faculty, and none of the courses are upper-level, which will impact upperclassmen’s ability to complete their degrees. 

Yunzhu Pan, a fifth-year undergraduate triple majoring in RCD, History, and Anthropology said, “Students are struggling…to complete the requirements of their curriculum to get the education that we came to Tufts for.” 

Ethnic Studies Now: Students Respond to Institutional Failures

Within days of courses releasing, RCD students organized a response to the lack of courses and full-time faculty members for the Fall 2023 semester. 

These student organizers refer to themselves as the Tufts Ethnic Studies Now Coalition. Nacie Loh, an RCD junior involved in the group, said in a testimonial included in the original letter, “Three years ago, I chose Tufts because of the promise of a growing Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora studies department… I am deeply disappointed and frustrated by the constant instability in course offerings and resources available to me as an RCD student because of the lack of institutional support for the department.” 

The coalition’s strategy is to focus on the RCD Department as a whole rather than its tracks individually. The student organizers have made solidarity and collaboration central to their advocacy. The coalition includes students from Tufts Pan-Afrikan Alliance, Tufts Asian Student Coalition, and several Latinx Studies minors, who continue to work closely with each other.

However, Dean Nathans maintained that RCD is a priority for the administration. “Institutions don’t take the creation of departments lightly,” she said. “When you make a department, you are making a commitment to developing it, to make it succeed. And so I think that the choice to bring all of these [tracks] together and say this is a department now was a really serious and significant commitment on the part of the university.”

In July 2019, the RCD Department was formed after years of student and faculty advocacy. Throughout the past four years, the RCD Department has been characterized by significant changes in faculty, leadership, and major requirements. These changes have made students hesitant to be involved, despite their interest in RCD.

Grace Acton, a current freshman, said, “I’d love to be involved in RCD, but I don’t want to join a department that’s so unstable. If current seniors don’t even know how to finish their majors, why would I want to start a major that is so up in the air?”

The Burden of Being “The One”

This instability is largely caused by having only one faculty member specializing in each RCD track. Professor García-Peña wrote about how she experienced this in her recent book, Community As Rebellion, inspired by her tenure denial at Harvard University in 2021. She describes the burden of being “The One”—the only professor of each racial identity in a department, used to represent a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. She writes, “The existence of The One allows the university to maintain the status quo… The One is the perfect representation of the deferred project of inclusion, a project we know is not about justice or equity. To have The One allows institutions to say, ‘See? We are not racists. See? We are moving forward.’” Professor García-Peña writes that professors of color are forced to be “the Band-Aids [universities] hope to put on their hemorrhaging racial wounds.” Students, too, feel that a track cannot be represented by only one faculty member. The Ethnic Studies Now Coalition is demanding three faculty hires each for Asian American Studies, Africana Studies, Native American and Indigenous Studies, and Latinx Studies, for a total of 12 hires, by 2025.

Current seniors have been unable to pursue their research interests due to a lack of faculty across RCD. Sibi Nyaoga, a senior majoring in Africana Studies and Political Science, said, “One major challenge I had at the beginning of the semester was finding a capstone that really felt like a capstone—something that culminated everything I’d learned over the past three years… There was only one upper-level course being offered, and that wasn’t in relation to what I was interested in. And so I was hoping to pursue an independent research project, and that wasn’t possible… [The RCD Department was not] able to find someone who could adequately advise me in my area of research.”

Current juniors are also left unsure about how they will pursue a senior thesis. Tate Schutt, a third-year RCD major, wrote in a statement to the Observer, “With the departure of my advisor Professor García-Peña, I am struggling again to find a departmental advisor to the senior honors thesis I have been hoping to complete since my freshman year.”

Dean Nathans discussed the university’s plans to address the immediate shortage of courses and professors next semester. As of the time of publication, the RCD Department has hired one part-time and one full-time lecturer, with hopes to hire a third faculty member between now and the fall. Dean Nathans, in a written statement to the Observer, said these faculty will have “advising explicitly included as part of their loads so that there will be coverage in the interim.” However, these faculty will only be contracted for two years, and students are concerned about whether they will be able to provide adequate support. Acton said, “I don’t necessarily want to be taught by someone who’s just hired for the [short term] and who I am never going to see again.”

According to Dean Nathans, these gaps were not unique to the RCD. “I have seen this with my other departments when they have critical faculty who are going on leave—you fill in what you can and then you sometimes have a year where you just can’t offer every single thing, which is disappointing,” she said. 

RCD students, however, do not feel reassured. Loh wrote, “I am frustrated with being told that this is normal. My friends in other departments do not have these issues with the lack of courses and advising opportunities. They do not look at the course catalog and wonder if they will be able to complete their degrees, or if they can write theses because there aren’t enough faculty to support them.”

Schutt wrote, “We are paying just as much tuition as those in well-funded departments like Computer Science and International Relations, and we deserve the same educational opportunities. We cannot proceed without more faculty. Students are being pushed out of the program because of the lack of institutional support.”

Student Agency and Power: Filling in Gaps of Tufts Ethnic Studies

In 2019, when Professor Jean Wu retired from her lecturer position in American Studies, some of her previous students offered a course through the Experimental College titled Asian Americans in Boston to continue the legacy of her teaching and to ensure that undergraduate students had course options in the field of Asian American studies. 

Pan said of this student-led initiative, “That’s how they kept Asian American Studies alive when there was no instructor able to teach. That was not a university initiative. That was students who were just so passionate about the intellectual political community that they formed.” 

Now, in 2023, the lack of ethnic studies courses for the upcoming academic year has motivated current RCD students to follow in the footsteps of the students who came before them. Loh is preparing to co-teach a version of Asian Americans in Boston, called  Radical Roots of Asian American Boston: In Solidarity and Struggle in Fall 2023 for incoming first-year students through the Experimental College Explorations program.

In a statement to the Observer, Loh wrote, “Our class, as of now, is the only class with a specifically Asian American studies lens that is confirmed to run next semester… Although Tufts is not giving the [RCD] department the resources to thrive, we, as students, are also capable of teaching and sharing what we have learned. We will create the education we want to see, and hopefully inspire a new generation of students to understand how crucial Asian American studies and ethnic studies are within this institution.”

Students minoring in Latinx Studies have also created their own intellectual spaces. As a response to the lack of Latinx Studies courses this semester, some of these students formed Somos, a new student zine dedicated to uplifting Latinx creatives at Tufts.

Paola Ruiz, a sophomore majoring in RCD and minoring in Latinx Studies, is one of the co-founders of Somos. In a written statement to the Observer, Ruiz said, “Somos is a space to be in community with other Latinx folks and to learn from Latinx folks… It allows me to actually put into practice many of the things we’ve learned and people we’ve learned from in RCD.”

RCD students have taken it upon themselves to teach the knowledge and content they want to see in Tufts classrooms, but this solution is not sustainable. The same students who are taking on this extra labor are often those who cannot afford to. Alexandra Ward, a senior majoring in American Studies and Sociology, said, “We should just have the privilege to be students, not students who have to worry about fixing a broken [department].”

The Future of RCD

Current first-year students have been keeping a close eye on the RCD department and weighing the stakes of majoring in a discipline that does not have adequate support at Tufts. Despite the lack of courses, Rita Dai, a prospective RCD major and current first-year, said, “I want to continue my journey of learning about my history, identity, and how to help my community.” Dai continued, “I understand that because the administration does not care about us, we must advocate for ourselves. I hope to be a part of that fight.” 

Similarly, Donovan Sanders, another prospective first-year RCD major, said, “We can’t just come into these spaces and do what we’re told. This is our education. We’re paying for education. It should be what we want it to be.” 

Students believe the fight to improve the RCD Department will be an uphill battle, especially since many demands depend on significant financial investments. According to Dean Nathans, “Each senior line [tenured hire] is a multimillion-dollar commitment because it’s not only the salary, it’s the research funding, but particularly when you bring a senior person you’re usually bringing them in with tenure.”

Dean Nathans described the university’s commitment to building RCD through its initiative to build a more expansive physical space for the department. “We’re doing a major multi hundred thousand dollar renovation to the RCD this summer, so they will have a beautiful new conference space, they’ll have a student lounge area, a kitchenette, and new faculty offices because we anticipate growth. We don’t build new faculty offices just to stack stuff in—that is happening because we know that the RCD is going to grow because we are committed [to] it.” 

Yet students are not convinced these solutions will create real change. Tachibana said, “Tufts administration seems to believe that…committing to funding a physical space will solve problems with the lack of continuity within the department.”

Dai stressed that Tufts has a responsibility to meet student needs on a greater scale. “We hope to hold the administration accountable for the promises they made in institutionalizing RCD as a department,” Dai said. “We want to create a robust RCD department that will provide students and faculty with the resources they need and will last for decades to come.”

Ward said, “I think only changes can be made when you cross those lines that people don’t think to cross, and you need to be a little bit aggressive… This [is] at the bottom of [the administration’s] list. So if you’re not pushing them, they’re not going to do anything. Please don’t be nice to them. They don’t deserve your kindness. They’re grown adults. We’re paying them.”

“RCD can be a leader to other schools for a department that can do incredible and really urgent work,” Pan said. “Tufts can afford to invest in RCD, and not only can they afford it, I think their future relies on it. It’s not about RCD’s future. It’s about Tufts University’s future, especially with the kind of image it wants to project to its customers.”

Students involved in Ethnic Studies Now Coalition will continue to meet with the Tufts administration into the summer and Fall 2023 semester, and their demands remain more urgent than ever.

As Dai said, “Our long-term demands are to ensure that the RCD department stays strong and stable for decades after we are gone. We want the administration to acknowledge RCD as a field of study—and marginalized students’ wants in general—as valid and worthy of institutional recognition.”