Ethnic Studies at Yale: Past, Present, and Future

Featured image: Francisco State University students protest at the Third World Liberation front strikes in 2016.

By Alejandro Ortega


[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n 1968, a series of strikes led by California college students front protested a lack of ethnic studies on various college campuses, most notably San Francisco State University and University of California-Berkeley.  These strikes arose from student dissatisfaction with the failure to address the prolonged presence of Eurocentrism within mainstream education. At the time of the protests, academic John Bunzel stated “education from kindergarten to college under the authority of the white community failed to focus on subject matter that was germane to the life experiences of the people in the minority community.” This series of strikes, remarkable for being the second-longest student-led strike, led to the establishment of the first College of Ethnic Studies in San Francisco State University, and the first Ethnic Studies department in UC-Berkeley.

In 1997, nearly thirty years later, the Department of Ethnicity, Race, and Migration was founded at Yale University, allowing for students to pursue Ethnicity, Race, and Migration (ER&M), but only as a “double-major.” In other words, students could only pursue the ER&M major under the condition that they were already pursuing a major in another field of study.  It was only in February of 2012 that the program was granted stand-alone status. As of April 2019, the ER&M program hosts 87 declared undergraduate majors.

The range of roads to the ER&M major are very diverse, but students are united in their dedication to understanding the social phenomena that surround them.  Grace Ambrossi ‘20 came to Yale specifically for the ER&M program. Ambrossi states “ I had been telling my parents for a long time that I am interested in justice and I did not know what it looked like to study it. I remember four years ago, my sister went to a panel and she told me there were these professors, Professor [Ned] Blackhawk and Professor [Stephen] Pitti, who had described everything I had been talking about.” Ambrossi also mentions that she was thoroughly inspired by student organizers in 2015 and felt a sense of inclusiveness within a community led by students and faculty of color. On the other hand, Yuki Hayasaka ‘20 was not initially drawn to the ER&M major. Hayasaka states “Because I grew up in Japan, where ethnicity, race, and migration is not a big issue, I was not interested in the major at first. After taking some classes in ER&M and anthropology, I became aware of the importance of the subject.”

For students and faculty alike, ethnic studies is inherently tied to the very experiences of those who study and the community organizing work conducted by those individuals. Professor HoSang Martinez specifically notes that the academic work conducted within ethnic studies is not separate from “questions of inequality, violence, and the possibility of addressing those.” Professor HoSang speaks from experience, mentioning that many of his mentors during his time at the University of Southern California were scholar-activists.

Students and faculty alike agree that ethnic studies is distinctive as a discipline since it allows those within it to address a plethora of issues not conventionally discussed in academic scholarship. Professor HoSang commented that the ER&M department is distinctive since its work “would not be defined solely by the United States.”  Hayasaka affirms this, stating “Right now, I am really interested in migrant workers’ rights, particularly those who migrate from southeast Asia to Japan, as well as what kind issues they face when they migrate.” ER&M allows students to analyze a variety of phenomena that do not typically take center stage in academic discourse. For example, Ambrossi is currently studying “how food gets to our plates and the racial and gender relationships that exist within food” in “Food, Race, and Migration in the US” class, taught by Professor Tran.

In March of 2019, slightly over two decades since the initial establishment of the ER&M program, thirteen tenured professors announced their withdrawal from the ER&M program in a joint statement. They cited a lack of appointment powers and control over hiring practices, alongside the prolonged absence of administrative support, as the principal motivations behind their decision. Since the department currently has no “tenured faculty or professional leadership,” the future of the program remains unclear.

Professor HoSang Martinez echoes the sentiments expressed by ER&M faculty.  HoSang became Yale faculty in the fall of 201. In regards to his hiring, HoSang says “I applied to a position that was advertised as an ER&M position in 2017. I had been chair of the Ethnic Studies department at the University of Oregon…I presumed naturally that ER&M would have appointment powers. When I talked to administrators and faculty, that is what I was told as well” HoSang mentions that he initially entered his teaching position under the impression that he would hold a joint appointment between American Studies and Ethnic Studies. However, upon beginning teaching at Yale,  he learned that the university administration regarded his appointment as lying solely within American Studies. He says that the lack of appointment powers present a series of constraints on an “academic unit.” Among these, he mentions “the ability to plan curriculum and seek out new scholars.”


President Salovey has previously stated he “regrets” ER&M’s faculty decision to withdraw from the program.


As of mid-April 2019, President Peter Salovey stated that he wishes to resolve the current situation before “the end of the term”, but has yet to issue a formal response to the demands made by ER&M faculty. Ambrossi, who is part of the Coalition for Ethnic Studies mentions that alumni, current students, and prefrosh have reached out to President Salovey asking for him to address student and faculty demands. Given the absence of any administrative response, the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration department is currently at a standstill.  While senior and junior ER&M majors will be able to continue their studies, it is uncertain whether first-years and sophomores will be able to pursue ER&M as a major. Despite these pressing concerns, the University’s ER&M department has received an outpour of support from students and scholars both at the University and at peer institutions. The Coalition for Ethnic Studies at Yale and the American Studies Association are among these individuals. On April 6th, 2019, the American Studies Association wrote to Tamar Gendler, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, stating that it is “crucial that you [Dean Gendler] address them and model a facilitation that would be a crucial transitional point for the field.” Numerous students and faculty have declared their intention to continue advocating for ethnic studies at the University. Ambrossi says “I see myself connected to the people fifty years ago fighting for this [ethnic studies] to be established. We are still fighting for it to be established and will continue to do so.” While the future of the ER&M program is uncertain, it is certain that students and faculty will not let their voices be silenced.


Alejandro Ortega is a first-year. You can contact him at