What Lorgia García Peña’s Tenure Denial Means for Other Latina Scholars

Her rejection continues a long tradition in academia of ignoring the brilliance of Afro Latinx scholars and educators

A protest at Harvard University. Photo: Ryan McBride/Getty Images

WWhen the news broke that Dr. Lorgia García Peña, Roy G. Clouse associate professor of romance languages and literatures and of history and literature at Harvard University, was denied tenure, scholars and students rallied in an outpouring of support. One such letter of support, which details her many accomplishments, has more than 4,400 signatures from fellow faculty members, undergraduate, and graduate students.

Dr. García Peña’s teaching is highly regarded; her book, The Borders of Dominicanidad: Race, Nations, and Archives of Contradictions (Duke University Press, 2016) won the 2017 National Women’s Studies Association’s Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize, and she is the recipient of grants and fellowships from a number of prestigious foundations, such as the Ford Foundation.

We know of multiple cases of tenure denial to nonwhite scholars, yet the reasons for the denial are not transparent and, in the case of Harvard, there is no uniform process to evaluate professors for tenure and promotion.

Yet for many of us Latinx, Black, and other scholars of color, the news, although outrageous, was unsurprising. Black, Brown, Indigenous, and other faculty of color are underrepresented in academia. Black women represent 4% of assistant (untenured) professors, Latina professors 3%, and American Indian/Alaska Natives less than 1%.

We know of multiple cases of tenure denial to nonwhite scholars. There is also the case of Amiee Bahng, who was denied tenure at Dartmouth College in 2016, and Albert Laguna who was denied tenure at Yale in 2019. There are many more cases of Black, Latinx, and other POC faculty that never make it into the public eye. Moreover, there is no database that tracks this information; the reasons for the denial are not transparent and, in the case of Harvard, there is no uniform process to evaluate professors for tenure and promotion. What usually follows is that the faculty member has one year to seek employment elsewhere before their contract is terminated.

AA study done at the University of Texas at Austin found that Latina/o professors were paid significantly less than their White counterparts, and are not offered senior administrative positions, such as deanships. Latina women have the highest gender pay gap compared to White males, followed by Black women, and both perform vast amounts of unrecognized emotional labor that goes unnoticed in the tenure and promotion process. Showing up for Black and Brown students and supporting them in navigating the treacherous waters of higher education is simply not part of your worth as a scholar. In research-intensive institutions, neither is teaching, which is ironic since we are talking about professors.

What happened to Dr. García Peña confirms yet again what most of us know: academia was not built for us, especially not for Afro Latina, Black, and Indigenous women.

It is a well-known fact that the tenure track positions available are but a fraction compared to the number of PhD graduates each year, without counting those already in a crowded job market for multiple years. For those that do achieve a job in academia, they are often met with less than ideal working environments. I have heard stories from junior faculty friends that have experienced a wide range of aggressions — from unwanted physical contact to outright racist comments — which Dr. García Peña bore the brunt of herself. One Afro Puerto Rican junior faculty member, who wants to remain anonymous, told me, “One day I was asking a question to the program assistant and the director [of my department] passed by and spanked me. It’s as if a code of ethics is inapplicable towards me because I am a Black junior professor from the Caribbean.”

As a PhD candidate who is entering the job market fully next year, I am not the only one who feels uncertain in the face of inhospitable job prospects. I vented on Facebook about the feeling of terror at the thought of looking for a tenure-track position, and received an overwhelming response of solidarity, the majority from other Latina graduate students. Most of them were in the same situation, and were disheartened at the news of Dr. García’s tenure denial. Tenured women faculty offered their support, fully knowing from their own experiences the hostility of academia. What started as a rant became a rallying cry for creating spaces of support, both academic and otherwise. I suggested we start a writing group to provide feedback to each other and support the tenure track job application process. Navigating these waters in community is less daunting.

What happened to Dr. García Peña confirms yet again what most of us know: academia was not built for us, especially not for Afro-Latina, Black, and Indigenous women. Dr. García Peña gave so much of her time and energy to an institution that did not hesitate to eject her. Dr. García Peña herself wrote about how White supremacy permeates the university: through hiring practices that exclude Black and Brown faculty, syllabi that lack representation by scholars of color and uphold the White canon, and “the photos of White men which hang in the walls of the university.” She wrote these words in the context of Yale’s lack of institutional support to its Ethnic Studies department and Dr. Alberto Laguna’s tenure denial.

Work by Latina and Black women scholars is often disregarded, especially those working with racialized, low income, and/or queer communities. Our fieldwork is questioned by male faculty (including Latino men), and thought to be unrigorous, or lacking theoretical depth.

In the face of this grim reality, what can be done? Tenured faculty in high-ranking positions, such as associate and full professors — especially those who are White — can use their power to advocate for transparency in the tenure and promotion process of others, not just from their departments but all the way up to deans and university presidents.

Student voices are crucial in obtaining gains through the creation of programs such as Ethnic Studies that theorize and study the lived realities of those both excluded from academic spaces, and those that exist at the margins or the interstices of society. It matters to be able to speak truth to power, to write our own counter-narratives, and to leverage resources for those who cannot access them. There is no other way to make it through but to resist, in solidarity, and stand up to those spaces that weren’t made for us.

Social Justice Education Ph.D. candidate studying radical pedagogies and social movements in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. She/her/ella.

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