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Kate Gerhart / Senior Staff Illustrator

At 7 p.m., on the first day of the strike for a department of ethnic studies, there was a candlelit vigil—it moved from the sundial to Low Library Rotunda because of rain and ended with a prayer. More than 40 activists assembled—inclement weather, and all—in solidarity with four students, who at 8 a.m. of April 1, 1996, had declared a hunger strike.

A flier—simple black Times New Roman print on blank paper—promoting the vigil voiced why:

“Ethnic Studies provides an outlet for the interdisciplinary study and discussion of the contributions of people of color in the United States. The strikers feel that these issues are traditionally ignored by academia and hope to communicate that the time for Ethnic Studies at Columbia and other institutions is Now.”

Activist Elbert Garcia, on the second day of the hunger strike, told Spectator, “This is not a debate about names; this is about having the administration fully commit to giving ethnic studies a house.”

Among the many activists who were part of the protest were the hunger strikers who ate and drank nothing but an electrolyte water solution for 15 days. They slept in blue tents that sat on the lawns by College Walk and left only to go to class. When the weather was bad—some snow, some rain—they moved to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. Heather Starr, Barnard College class of 1996, was hospitalized a few days in.

On the 10th day, 22 students were arrested after over 100 students sat in at Low Library. The protest moved to Hamilton, where it remained for another six days. And then, at last, the University was ready to make a deal. Joaquin Ochoa, at the time a first-year at Teachers College, broke the strike at Ollie’s.

Courtesy of Marcel Agüeros

Twenty years later, Marcel Agüeros, a hunger striker in 1996 and now an associate professor of astronomy, stands before a class of over 150 students in Havemeyer 309, where General Chemistry, Introduction to Computer Science, and Introductory Biology (as well as Spider-Man and Ghostbusters) often find their home. On this Tuesday in September, he is the guest lecturer in professor Frances Negrón-Muntaner’s Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies class.

Last semester, I found myself in this lecture hall twice a week, with students of all academic backgrounds dispersed throughout the broad atrium. Some, like me, were there pursuing a major or concentration through the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, while many others had chosen this class to fulfill their Global Core requirement. Only 20 years ago, ethnic studies was not considered a legitimate field of study by the University.

Alondra Aguilar

“Going to the class and seeing that there’s that much interest in the subject, and that students are excited to tackle some of these ideas,” Agüeros recounts a few weeks after speaking to my class, “it’s really exciting.” He even had TAs take pictures to send to his friends “as a testimony to what can happen over a couple of decades.”

Agüeros and I sit in his Pupin office, where traces of his activism—binders of fliers and photographs—are inconspicuously wedged between books about stars and the universe and the galaxies.

The strike ended on April 16—then-President George Rupp appointed faculty to a blue ribbon committee, which, at last, negotiated with the students. Gary Okihiro was appointed founding director of the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in 1999.

In their “Ethnic Studies Manifesto,” Agüeros and his fellow organizers wrote that “only with departmental status can such fields of study be insured centrality in the curriculum. Only with departmental status can Columbia attract leading scholars in Ethnic Studies.” An ethnic studies department, they argued, was integral in establishing Columbia’s place at the forefront of national academic leadership.

They concluded, “We call on our institution to take the leadership role in this area, as it has in others, and to create a solid and institutional home for Ethnic Studies—a Department of Ethnic Studies.”

In the end, though, they were given a center, not a department.

Courtesy of Marcel Agüeros

The center—although a legitimization of the discipline and an institutionalization of space—lacks the structural and curricular support of a department. And whether a center can be the “solid and institutional home” that students hoped for is a question that goes beyond mere designation. CSER offers more than mere curriculum—it is, to many faculty and students, more important than ever.

“Is ethnic studies seen as too political?” Jane Sung E. Bai, a member of the negotiation committee—the “Ethnic Studies Six”—and a doctoral candidate in comparative literature during the protests, asked in Spectator in 1999, the year the center was established. “Well, what do we think the Core Curriculum is?”

CSER offers the University a medium of critical inquiry that is largely underrepresented in other departments and programs, including the Core—understanding the way race and the structures that construct race affect our politics, economics, and society. Its role at Columbia is “underscored by the complexities of the times we live in,” Neferti Tadiar, the director of CSER, says, as CSER is a “critical intellectual force” that “hones our perspectives on the role and impact of racism in U.S. society and globally.”


The designation of “center” is not simply a nuance of title.

The difference between a center, an institute, and a department at Columbia is complicated, especially because it manifests differently in theory and in practice. Centers are officially considered research facilities by the University, while institutes “combine research and teaching,” according to the 2008 Columbia Faculty Handbook. Both, unlike departments, lack the power to tenure faculty.

Since its conception, CSER’s size and impact have grown dramatically—today, the center has 63 majors and concentrators. Negrón-Muntaner speaks with me over Skype the semester after the Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies class. She was director of CSER from 2009 to 2016, when Neferti Tadiar took her place. Under Negrón-Muntaner’s direction, and in collaboration with Barnard, the number of course offerings tripled, and the number of majors and concentrators increased from 20 in 2010 to 55 in 2013. Négron-Muntaner was also the founding director of CSER’s Media and Idea Lab.

“Our success in consolidating the program, in expanding the number of students working there, in expanding in every way, might become a success that comes to haunt us, because we’re not given the resources,” Negrón-Muntaner explains of her time as the director of CSER. “We grow, but we’re not given the resources to support that growth.”

Robin Kelley, who became the interim director of CSER after founding director Okihiro stepped down in 2005, remembers being “appalled by [CSER’s] small budget, and the lack of resources.” He says this was especially surprising given the “miraculous work” of Okihiro and the students. Kelley left Columbia in 2006 and now teaches at UCLA.

“It seems that there’s still much more work to be done in terms of institutionalizing ethnic studies,” Jane Bai told Spectator in 2006.

“The existence of the center is a great success story, but our fear about the lack of independence in hiring was confirmed,” Agüeros noted in the same article. “The center is just not able to go out and hire the best people to fulfill its intellectual mission.”

Courtesy of Marcel Agüeros

Okihiro notes that the protesters understood why a department status was important, that departments have a “greater power to define themselves.” “That is, they hire faculty, they tenure faculty, they have a curriculum and so forth,” Okihiro explains to me in his Kent office, dimly lit by a desk lamp.

Today, CSER’s faculty must be tenured through another department. For instance, Karl Jacoby, a professor in CSER and the history department, is on CSER’s Core Faculty and Executive Committee with a half appointment. This means he is tenured through and a full member of the history department but teaches half of his classes through CSER. Professor Mae Ngai has a “quarter appointment”—she’s not part of CSER’s Core Faculty, though she’s on the Executive Committee, and is also tenured through the department of history. Ngai was a graduate student at Columbia in 1996 during the hunger strike, so when she came back to teach at Columbia in 2006, she approached CSER about teaching classes there. She developed CSER’s core course Colonization/Decolonization.

Negrón-Muntaner offers a hypothetical hiring situation to explain the difficulty posed by lack of hiring power. If CSER wants one candidate, she says, and the department another, the center often “tends to defer to the department, in order to save a hire.” In other words, it does not want to end up without any hire at all. She emphasizes that this has become less of a problem in the last few years, however.

Departments, for a variety of reasons, are often reluctant to work with and hire faculty with CSER. In the early years of CSER, this was also the case, Okihiro explains. Departments were “reluctantly cooperative” when offered a junior position joint with CSER, but when offered a senior position with CSER, they were completely resistant. As a result, no junior faculty that were hired in those years were tenured, and they have all since left the school. Since leaving, Okihiro considers himself disassociated with the center.

Alondra Aguilar

In regard to major and concentration programs, requirements, and courses, “we have the same oversight as departments,” Ngai says. But, like Jacoby, she emphasizes CSER’s lack of autonomy in hiring. Still, Ngai feels this could be positive—departments have a “buy in.” This is to say, in theory, they are actively involved in hiring CSER faculty and will be more committed to mentoring them. In practice, this has not materialized in the way many CSER faculty would have liked.

Some departments, Jacoby explains, are active in collaborating, while others are not: “They have a different set of priorities.” For instance, there is no one from political science or economics at the center, he notes.

Negrón-Muntaner adds that when she was hired as director, the first professor tenured in history was hired. Since then, the history department has been one of the more willing to coordinate hires.

Ngai agrees that CSER’s limited disciplinary diversity results from a lack of cooperation from certain departments. “History, anthropology, English, these are some departments that have historically been very supportive.” Economics and psychology, she points out, have had less interest.

The lack of hiring power means many of CSER’s classes are taught by adjunct faculty—temporary and hired for less money. “They can’t really advise students in the same sort of prolonged way that we can,” Jacoby observes.

But adjuncts offer something other professors may not, Negrón-Muntaner is quick to note. They are often professionals in fields outside academia who may offer diverse ways of approaching knowledge.

“Having said that,” Negrón-Muntaner admits, “I think what the proportion of adjunct to tenure track or tenure faculty tells you is that not enough resources are being placed in the unit. Therefore the unit needs to cover a number of things with the minimum amount of resources available.”

Students majoring and concentrating in CSER perceive the difficulties the center faces in terms of faculty hire and retention. For Lael Tate, a sophomore double majoring in CSER, on the Native American studies track, and human rights, the limited number of classes taught makes completing the major a more arduous task.

“With the Native studies track, which I am interested in,” she explains, “it’s just really been hard to have a consistent class every semester.” Tate was convinced to pursue a major in ethnic studies after stumbling upon the Introduction to Comparative Ethnic Studies course last year.

Gray Tuttle, an associate professor of modern Tibetan studies tenured through the department of East Asian languages and cultures and a member of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, is an affiliated faculty member at CSER. Until the summer of 2017, he served on CSER’s Executive Committee. All of this is to say he is familiar with all three structures of programs at Columbia. And he feels very strongly that CSER’s “center” status does not fit the program.

Kelley concludes that the center’s limitations hinder “the center’s ability to reproduce itself, to have a larger intellectual impact on both the student body and the faculty and the world.” He feels, though, that CSER was able to withstand resource deficiency in his time there, because of the strong group of students and faculty. Kelley chaired the search for the new director to replace Okihiro, something he only just remembers when we speak.

Courtesy of Marcel Agüeros

“Oh, wait a second,” Kelley remarks. “I can’t believe this! I chaired that search!” He reveals that he had an apartment in Los Angeles at the time, and commuted to New York as CSER’s interim director and chair of the search for the new director while teaching at Harvard at the same time. “And I’m still alive!”

The lack of resources, Kelley recounts, was because the center’s creation was not the result of the University’s support for the visionary ideas behind the center, but rather a response to the pressure from student strikers. It wasn’t as if the administrators, he sensed, felt the activists were persuasive. “There was always a kind of reluctance to fully support it.”

“I believe that after 14 years of being at Columbia,” Negrón-Muntaner admits, “I can say by virtue of my own experience, my own work and that of others, that Columbia does not historically provide much support to the development of ethnic studies and related fields.”


There is another option, one that is already being pursued—that CSER become an institute, continuing to lack hiring power but gaining ideological and tangible recognition by the University.

The distinction between both isn’t always clear, as evidenced by CSER. “I believe CSER is already an institute,” Negrón-Muntaner states, “and it’s been an institute since its inception because it has the same functions and abilities as institutes.” Acting on this belief, during her time as director, she put forth a proposal to the Office of the Provost for the official change.

Tuttle, who sat in on negotiations with the office of the provost, says faculty who belong to both institutes and CSER are “stunned” that despite CSER’s offerings it is not an institute, especially since “it does so much more than the institutes do.”

Tadiar agrees, citing her experience in the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality. “There’s really nothing that distinguishes us from IRWGS. We teach a full undergraduate major, in fact we have a huge major and concentration. We even have an MA, so we have a graduate program.” She also mentions public programming and projects like Negrón-Muntaner’s Media and Idea Lab.

Negrón-Muntaner presented a proposal for the establishment of CSER as an institute in 2015. The proposal remains on the table, according to a University official. Recently, dialogue with the administration has been renewed. This development is motivated by a change of leadership at CSER, a new Dean of Social Science Fredrick Harris, and a new political climate. “It’s not as if the administration is uncooperative,” Tadiar emphasizes. “We’re all beginning the conversation again,” she notes, “under different circumstances, under new leadership, but also under changing circumstances in the sense that a year ago Trump wasn’t president.”


When he accepted the position at Columbia, leaving Cornell, Okihiro was under the impression that ethnic studies was supposed to be part of the American studies program. “The reason was a good one intellectually,” he notes. This is because American studies as of late, has focused on ethnic studies, feminist, and queer theory. Columbia’s approach, however, is different, according to Okihiro, who categorized it as an “archaic version of American studies.”

At Brown University, where Jacoby used to work, ethnic studies is encompassed by the American studies department. When he was there, Brown’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America tenured faculty through the department of American studies. Since Columbia’s American studies program is also supported by a center—the Center for American Studies—there is no central tenure home for CSER faculty.

During initial negotiations in 1996, Columbia suggested that ethnic studies become part of the Center for American Studies. This was met with fervent opposition from the student activists, who saw the two fields as fundamentally distinct. To them, Agüeros explains, American studies was about culture, and ethnic studies about subverting structures of power and dominant modes of knowledge production.

“Even as an astronomer I can tell the difference between them,” Agüeros recounts. The offer, he says, was “misguided from the start.” Further justification for separating the two fields is that the boundaries of ethnic studies aren’t contained to the Western Hemisphere, Kelley adds. It has a more global vision. While the ethnic studies scholars I spoke with disagree on how global the scope of ethnic studies should be, many maintained Columbia’s American studies was not an academically valid home for ethnic studies.

“When the administration throws American studies in our faces, it is not without a strongly crafted agenda to bottom out any gains in establishing ethnic studies, which fundamentally—if it is legitimate—is about being a counter-hegemonic force to a curriculum which trains us to believe that race is about multicultural performance of cultural appreciation,” Bai told Spectator in 1999.

While designations of programs—centers, departments, institutes—often suggest structural permanence, this is not always the case. The Institute for Research in African-American Studies has announced that it is transitioning into a department. Jacoby explains that this offers CSER two opportunities. First, it would provide CSER a department through which to tenure faculty. Additionally, it could serve as a model through which CSER can expand.

Furthermore, increased faculty appointments garnered by the 2007 strike reveal that institutions are not static, but products of the University’s changing priorities and orientation. On November 8, 2007, five students declared a hunger strike, setting up three blue tents on South Lawn. Among other demands, students advocated for increased resources for CSER, IRAAS, and Multicultural Affairs. The protesters secured three senior faculty hires and increased student participation in the hiring process for CSER, as well as increased resources for “strengthening ties between CSER, IRAAS, and [IRWGS].”

Isabel Wong

Still, some feel departmentalization isn’t the perfect solution. A downside to departmentalization, Ngai notes, is that an ethnic studies department may lead to lack of diversity in other departments. “There are many cases where universities have formed ethnic studies departments and then the traditional disciplines feel they don’t have to bother, they don’t have to deal with these questions [of race and ethnicity].”

Moreover, ethnic studies is an inherently interdisciplinary field, and a center is interdisciplinary in nature, combining schools of thought and curricular approaches. Jacoby feels he has less flexibility in what he assigns to his history classes—predominantly papers—as opposed to his current CSER class, Troubling the Color Line. He describes his multimedia approach: work includes reading memoirs and watching films, all within the interdisciplinary context of CSER.

Often, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary programs tend to be centers or institutes due to Columbia’s hierarchical nature. This hierarchy of disciplines over interdisciplinary fields of study stems from “what is [it] the University thinks deserves more resources and a more coherent and supported administrative unit,” Negrón-Muntaner says.

Tadiar similarly notes the discrepancy between the fields that get to become departments and those that become institutes or centers. “If you notice,” she says, “all of these fields that have some measure of race and ethnicity or gender and sexuality like IRWAGS, IRAAS, CSER. They’re either institutes or centers.”

“The center versus department debate, to me,” Tadiar explains, “is just a broader debate about what is the status of interdisciplinary studies.”

Because CSER hires faculty through other departments, their curricular methodology is more intersectional, Dr. Sayantani DasGupta explains. DasGupta, who was a pediatrician and now teaches in the School of Professional Studies’ Narrative Medicine graduate program, became part of CSER’s Executive Committee last year. She has taught the senior undergraduate research seminar Modes of Inquiry for the past two years. While CSER focuses on ethnicity and race, this interdisciplinary approach allows them to address questions of gender, sexuality, class, politics, and the environment as well, DasGupta explains.

Even Agüeros, whose 1996 manifesto called for a department, agrees that a department’s rigid curricular scope may mean it’s an imperfect space for a discipline like ethnic studies.

Negrón-Muntaner offers another perspective on CSER’s predicament—one that does not just address the manifestations and effects of the center status, but rather that the University structures that create this level of division, prioritization, and disciplinary confinement in the first place.

A center is not an ideal option for a program of CSER’s size and impact—on this, there is much consensus from CSER faculty. An institute, while a more significant legitimization of curriculum, and both ideological and practical impacts, continues to lack hiring power. A department, while perhaps the most desirable solution within the University’s structure, has its own drawbacks as well—pigeonholing disciplines in a way that is not conducive to interdisciplinary modes of thought.

So is there a fourth option?

“The other question,” Negrón-Muntaner asks, “is whether there’s another alternative that gets us out of this logic.”

She explains that “those that emphasize the issue of recruitment of faculty and resources” tend to “believe that departmentalization was what the University was offering as a pathway to more stability and more resources.” But, there are also faculty that feel that “the problem with that idea is that a department is a very different type of atmosphere and space than an institute or center, at least at Columbia, so a department spends an enormous amount of time engaged in questions that are much more narrowly administrative, about recruitment, promotion, jobs.”

And, so, the question of name resurfaces.


“To me, at the end of the day,” Negrón-Muntaner concludes, “we call it a department or we call it an institute—might be not irrelevant because what we call things matters—[is] not the only issue we have to be concerned about. We also have to be concerned about whether how we design this space promote[s] the kinds of projects that we would like it to do, one and two that the University supports it with adequate resources.”

Ngai feels that CSER’s ability to be a robust program “academically and programmatically” depends not on departmentalization, but rather on the University giving the center more funding to alleviate the “out of whack” ratio of faculty to students.

“There’s not enough of us,” Jacoby laughs. “That’s our big problem.”

Kelley agrees—classification may hold practical significance, but it’s not the fundamental factor in an ethnic studies program achieving its mission of subversiveness in relation to structures of power.“The issue rests on the University’s priorities,” Kelly asserts, whether they prioritize the study of racial regimes and the production of difference, of knowledge, and of power. If they do, they will put resources behind it. “They will recognize the intellectual importance of these units as opposed to seeing them as concessions to protesters.”

Okihiro notes that CSER’s limitations aren’t merely a product of status. “Some centers can work, depending on their institutional climate,” he explains, like support from key departments and faculty who share a commitment to the center.

Name changes are not unheard of. In fact, when Negrón-Muntaner was director, CSER faculty voted on changing CSER’s name to “the Center for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Indigeneity.” A factor in the decision not to pursue the name change is the potential—the hope—of CSER soon becoming an institute and needing a name change either way.

Negrón-Muntaner feels that changing CSER’s name to “the Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, and Indigeneity” would be an important step to take. The change would have two effects, she explains. “You recognize that, administratively, this space is valuable to the University, that it has all the functions of an institute. And, you also recognize that once the space [was] incorporated, or created, became a site for indigenous study, it also became something different, and in my mind more compelling, because there is an enormous amount of vitality in the field of indigenous studies.”

“Why CSER is a center and not an institute is a little unclear to all of us,” Jacoby admits. It seems the force behind the name means more than the designation itself.


“[CSER is] essential for political dialogue in our world,” Negrón-Muntaner says. “Imagine if it wasn’t there.”

For Tate, CSER’s mere existence is powerful. It “gives more power and backing to these topics that are taught in a lot of CSER classes,” and offers “respect for that within the University.” To her, the field of ethnic studies allows students to understand others’ experiences.

“I think students seeing that’s something you can major in is powerful,” Tate says.

According to Negrón-Muntaner, CSER’s faculty diversity is also a significant asset to the program and the University. CSER is over a majority faculty of color. “When you sit in most departments and you’re a person of color, particularly Latino, you might be the only one, forever, the whole time you’re at Columbia.”

When I ask DasGupta whether one of the discipline’s fundamental objectives—to subvert normative and Eurocentric research methods that replicate the racialization they work to deconstruct—is possible with CSER’s current level of autonomy, she flips my question. She’s new to CSER, she admits, and can’t accurately account for what the University has to offer to CSER. But, she can tell me what CSER can offer the University.

In true interdisciplinary fashion, she first references bell hooks’ feminist theory—starting from the margins of identity and discourse and moving toward the center as a method for social change—and compares it to CSER’s work, which serves as a catalyst for a paradigm shift within the University. And, then, she refers to the scientific method to elaborate on her idea.

She starts by going over the steps of the scientific method—not in depth, because she says she’s sure I remember them from high school. I don’t, but I appreciate the undeserved confidence in my scientific abilities. “What comes at the very end [of the scientific method],” she relates, is “the ethical problematics.” In the senior research seminar she teaches, she says, she instead starts first and foremost with the ethical premises of research practices.

The praxis, she says, of creating oppositional methodologies has a lot to offer when compared to “what we traditionally call normative ways of thinking about research.” CSER is a space for radical imagination, she concludes. “CSER is a place that the world needs right now.”

She assures me she’s not being cheesy, then admits that maybe it’s a bit cheesy, but that she’s being cheesy in the most genuine way possible.

This age of hyper-racism and Trumpism, Kelley concludes, is, in part, a reaction to the study of racialization, race and ethnicity. He calls on the University to rethink its project, its mission. “These are dangerous times,” Kelley contends.

“And we need the center, or something like it, more than ever.”

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