Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Students Pressure Princeton for Latino Studies Program

Hispanic Scholars, Students Pressure Princeton for Latino Studies Program

by Ibram Rogers

For more than 30 years, students have been urging the administration to bring Latino studies to Princeton University. Students have met with university officials over the years and staged a famous sit-in with Asian students in 1995, but those efforts didn’t bear much fruit.

“The university has had the opportunity since the ’70s to begin to increase the number of Latino faculty and to build Latino studies and they just haven’t,” says Dr. Raul A. Ramos, assistant professor of history at the University of Houston and 1989 Princeton graduate. “There is a huge student demand and it’s a demand that has been there a long time.”

It appears that Princeton may finally defer to the three decades of demands due to the latest efforts by Hispanic students, aided by a group of Latino alumni. A Center for Latino Studies with a certificate program modeled after Princeton’s nationally renowned Center for African American Studies could come on board as earlier as the fall of 2009, says Victoria C. Laws, who led the student movement for Latino studies and helped write the proposal for the center.

“We are dealing with a new administration, one that is open to change and a little more cognizant of the need for a Latino studies program, and also the changing demographics in this nation,” says Laws, who graduated from Princeton in the spring. “It is undeniable now that not having Latino studies would really leave Princeton students in a deficit in terms of their education.”

The adding of one or two Latino courses will not “cut it” this time, adds Dr. Aldo Lauria-Santiago, a 1981 graduate of Princeton.

“There is a pressing need to provide Latino students at Princeton with a sense of their own presence in the curriculum, which is something that was very hard to find when I was there,” says Lauria-Santiago, associate professor and chairperson of Rutgers University’s department of Latino and Hispanic Caribbean Studies.

The most recent efforts to initiate Latino studies began in the fall of 2006 when Latino students were discussing their frustration with Hispanic Heritage Month. That discussion mushroomed into in a series of meetings in which students talked about the lack of resources, lack of knowledge about how to access resources and not having a Latino studies program, among other issues.

“These meetings would go on for hours,” Laws says. “And people would come with their laptops and take notes. We had 70 pages of notes that came out of those meetings.”

Over the summer of 2007, the students took those notes and wrote a 16-page report on the state of Hispanics at Princeton, mentioning the lack of access to mentors and the meager 1.9 percent of Hispanic full-time faculty at Princeton, Laws says. They released it during the first week of school in September 2007.

“It was really a way of getting the administration’s attention, getting faculty members attention, so that they would be more supportive of it instead of just demanding something out of nowhere,” Laws says. “It wasn’t just complaining. There was a set of clear and structured recommendations as to how the university could address the problems that were raised.”

In November, students talked about the report in a campus wide forum, and the following month Laws and Princeton sociology professor Marta Tienda began working on a proposal for the center that the university is now reviewing. Tienda and Princeton administrators did not want to comment on the issue until the discussions progress further about the center.

While student pressure intensified from the inside over the last academic year, Bob Hernandez, a Boston-based civil rights employment litigator and Princeton alum, formed a group of alumni that is now putting pressure on the university from the outside.

The group of mostly academicians, which now exceeds 20, had a series of conference calls during the last few months, the product of which was a letter sent to Princeton President Shirley M. Tilghman at the end of May. Eleven alumni, including Ramos, Lauria-Santiago, Hernandez, and professors at institutions like the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Texas at Austin, signed the letter.

“That was our effort to indicate to the university that at this time it is not appropriate to not have a Latino studies program,” Hernandez says. “That’s very important because most of the best schools in the country recognize the importance of having a defined Latinos studies program. They don’t define them all the same, but they have coherence, an identity and vision. And that’s plainly lacking at the university at this time.”

The group of alumni, many of which conduct research in Latino studies, has presented itself as a resource that Princeton officials can use as they develop the center. But that development must come in the next two or three years, Ramos says.

“Princeton just needs to get started,” he says. “You want to make thoughtful hires and you want to build programs and its going to take 10 years before you have anything established. So the longer they wait, the more difficult the task is going to be.”