BY NICOLE VILLACRÉS ’18
In response to the Academic Priorities Committee denying the request for a tenure-track line in Latina/o studies, students have mobilized to form “La Lucha for Latinx Studies,” a petition calling for four tenure-track positions.
The petition calls for a major in Latinx Studies with a commitment to phase it into an independent department. Students also want to formally change the name from Latina/o studies to Latinx studies, which is not only gender neutral, but makes space for queer politics in the field. They are calling for four tenure-track positions for the department, all of which would be filled with Latinx faculty members. The students contend that two of these should be given to Ana Soltero-Lopez and Vanessa Rosa, who are the two postdoctoral fellows in Latinx studies. Their contracts expire at the end of the 2018 academic year.
A merger in 2008-2009 between Latin American Studies and Spanish had the condition of creating Latinx studies in the department, according to professor Nieves Romero-Díaz, a representative to the APC. The new entity thus became the Spanish, Latina/o and Latin American studies department. Spanish emphasizes the study of the language and examining its use in Latin America, Spain and Latinx populations, with a specific goal of developing language proficiency. Latin American studies explores the region’s histories and cultures while Latinx studies is the study of the experiences of latinxs in the United States.
For a brief time, the department had two-tenured track professors and began offering a minor in Latina/o studies. One professor left and since then, professor David Hernández has been the only tenure-track hire and chairs the department. The department has had a few two year postdoctoral fellows, who teach a reduced course load. The department requested two positions this year, one in Latinx studies and one in Latin American studies.
A subcommittee of the Academic Priorities Committee makes the decisions on offering new tenured track lines. Five faculty members sit on the APC subcommittee. There is one faculty member each to represent the humanities, sciences, social sciences, languages and the creative performing arts, according to Jon Western, Dean of Faculty. This year, the five faculty members reviewed 22 proposals from all departments and had the budget to approve four allocations.
“The faculty engage with colleagues in [the] departments and really try to identify where the critical needs are. As students come in, we want to make sure we have tenure-track lines to support student interests. I think you can tell [from] 22 allocation requests and only four lines, we obviously have more needs at the moment than we can afford,” said Western.
The petition states that the APC’s decision to deny the request for a tenure-track position is an “act of disinvestment [that] displays the institution’s unwillingness to adhere to the needs of its tuition-paying students, leaving our Latinx program in jeopardy of erasure.”
“By expanding the Latinx Studies department (and consequently supporting the research and teaching of Latinx history, politics, culture and more), [the] administration would be tangibly demonstrating their interest in challenging the power relations/inequalities affecting Latinx populations on campus and beyond,” said Alondra Reyes ’18, who helped write the petition and is a member of the movement. “The administration’s pro-diversity rhetoric means nothing without concrete initiatives to support students of color.”
Students hope that through their petition, they can demonstrate how deeply student interest in Latinx studies resonates.
“It is unfair to introduce us to such amazing and transformative professors during our time at MHC, only to have them leave two years later,” said Kimberly Mota ’18, who intends to create a special major in urban planning with an emphasis on Latinx communities. “Latinx studies courses have become an integral part of who I am and who I want to be.”
“Latinx classes are what shaped my major. I’ve never taken classes that I have felt so engaged in, or taken so much interest in,” said Sim Serhan ’17, who has a special major in American Studies with a focus on Latinx populations. “MHC needs a Latinx [department] with Latinx professors because it is unacceptable to allow the erasure of ethnic studies happen at a school that prides itself on diversity.”
Students strongly feel that beyond shaping their focus, Latinx studies are empowering.
“The thing that makes these courses unique is that they are made for Latinx students. I loved the courses I have had the opportunity to take or observe because I learned about my culture, my history and myself; there is nothing more empowering than that,” said Karen A. Fernandez ’17.
Aside from being distinct from Spanish and Latin American Studies, Latinx studies is unique in providing insight on current social conflicts and brings to the forefront the largest non-white population in the United States. According to Hernández, they also play a crucial role in social justice.
“Latina/o/x studies is especially crucial in helping us to understand current political dynamics in the U.S. and abroad. This field offers a critical lens to engage with some of the most pressing social issues of our time, including mass migration and citizenship rights, as well as inequities across various societal contexts,” said Rosa. “Latina/o/x studies can play a central role in efforts to understand the shifting social and political fabric of this country [and] can contribute significantly to the reimagination of equitable futures.”
The organizers of La Lucha for Latinx Studies feel that Mount Holyoke could become the central node for Latinx studies in the Five-College Consortium. Their fight against the APC’s decision mirrors how most ethnic studies programs were created out of student demand and interest.
“I admire what they’re doing. It’s in the vein of ethnic studies activism,” said Hernández. “We [Latina/studies] never really got to get off the ground so far. We hope we can regain our momentum.”
Western commented that when selecting professors to receive tenure, diversity is not considered as much as the future of a department when it comes to allocating tenured track lines because “the expectation is that whatever line is allocated, we will get a very strong pool of diverse candidates. Every field has candidates that help us address our priorities on diversity,” Western said. He said that it’s up to the departments that are given a tenured track line to cultivate a strong and diverse applicant pool.
“Our goal is to make sure that every department can provide the student experience that we want them to and sometimes that’s with tenure-track lines, sometimes that’s with visitors. Over time, ideally we want to move towards more tenure-track lines,” Western said.
He explainedthat visiting professors bring new energy and excitement into the classroom and give the school new ways of thinking about scholarships and different forms of pedagogy, while the school provides them with an opportunity to develop their own research and build a teaching portfolio.
For some, the upset over denial of the line is also about the potential loss of Soltero-Lopez and Rosa. Hernández laments that a position did not arise during their time, as it is “unfortunate” and would have “ facilitated the move toward strengthening diversity.”
“From the moment I took my first Latinx studies course [Latina/o Urbanism] with professor Rosa, I knew my academic goals would forever change,” said Mota. She sites that these are amazing professors “whose courses and way of being have truly transformed my academic career.”
Serhan has taken classes with both Rosa and Soltero-Lopez and was able to get into the classes despite a waitlist of over 15 students.
“Not only did I love these classes, but I loved these professors. I have never had a professor that invested so much effort and time into the lessons they taught. They taught us things that were refreshing and informative, unlike any other classes at MHC,” said Serhan. She feels that the other students that get to experience these professors are honored.
Fernandez is confident that the three professors currently in the department would provide a good base for an “extraordinary department.” She hopes that the administration will see the need for maintaining and expanding the Latina/Latino studies program in order to benefit its students.”