As New Latinx Studies Programs Stall Nationwide, Berkeley Offers an Answer
Latinx people, who today comprise roughly one in five U.S. residents, are forecast to soon account for three-quarters of net new workers and are increasingly pursuing higher education.
But despite a growing need for research on everything from public policy to the history of Latinx communities, less than 4% of all four-year colleges and universities in the U.S. offer a Latinx studies major, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley.
In addition to a dearth of new programs, those that do exist are often underresourced and sometimes staffed solely with temporary lecturers instead of core faculty. Such “shell programs” stymie program planning, hinder recruitment of top scholars and inhibit research that would otherwise inform policies affecting more than 62 million Latinx people in the U.S., said G. Cristina Mora, a UC Berkeley associate professor of sociology and lead researcher on the study.
“If you don’t know your community, if you don’t know your history, if you don’t know these aspects of where it is that the community has come from or how it’s doing or whether it’s a community at all,” Mora said, “it’s hard to know the future.”
In a first-of-its-kind assessment, which was supported by UC Berkeley’s Latinx Research Center and will be published in the journal Latino Studies, Mora, UC Berkeley associate professor Nicholas Vargas and UC Berkeley undergraduate researcher Dominic Cedillo used U.S. Department of Education data and a survey of Latinx studies program websites across the country to analyze how much the universities had invested in those degree-granting programs.
Such initiatives, largely concentrated in the West, surged 50 years ago amid Mexican American and Puerto Rican student movements. But the number of new programs at public universities since the movements of the 1960s and ’70s has largely flatlined.
Many programs were established with great promise of transformative research. But of the small number of programs established since 2000, nearly half have one full-time faculty member — or none at all.
“These preliminary findings,” the study authors wrote, “suggest a troubling paucity and stagnation of the academic field that, more than any other, was established to operate in concert with justice, transformative change and a full recognition of humanity.”
“The trajectory hasn’t been healthy,” Mora added.
Having an established academic program that explores issues affecting the Latinx community is more than just an intellectual exercise. Social scientists like Mora and her colleagues are among the scholars whose fieldwork, reports and datasets about deeply rooted social problems affecting Latinx communities inform legislation and taxpayer-funded policies that aim to fix inequities.
Those problems ripple across society. Whether it’s how Head Start programs are utilized in Bay Area Hispanic neighborhoods or how inequality affects food scarcity across the Central Valley, organized research — often born from universities — is where the rubber meets the road.
A lack of researchers committed to solving those problems is a problem for all, Mora said.
“What you want to have, especially for social scientists, is a community of interlocutors,” Mora said. “You want to talk to the people that are collecting similar data. You want to be able to create these major interdisciplinary projects.
“You want to be able to not start from scratch every time you meet someone new.”
At Berkeley, a $1 million grant to boost Latinx research
The challenge is personal for Mora. When she joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 2011, only about 7% of her peers were Latinx. More than a decade later, the number is unchanged, Mora said.
While Berkeley offers a Chicanx Latinx Studies major, Mora said the campus lags behind peers like UCLA, which has more Latinx scholars in the social sciences.
The room for improvement is no secret. It’s why Chancellor Carol Christ in 2018 announced an effort to make Berkeley a Hispanic Serving Institution with at least 25% of full-time undergraduates identifying as Latinx by 2027. The goal designation has since been renamed as a Latinx Thriving Institution, but the fundamental purpose remains the same: to create more equitable and responsive opportunities across campus.
Mora, who co-leads Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and is influential in policy circles, has wondered for years how she could help bring that goal to fruition. While she can’t easily affect undergraduate admissions, she said she increasingly saw the potential to implement faculty changes at UC’s flagship campus that might make an institutional difference.
“If anyone should be leading this cause, it’s certainly us,” Mora said. “Especially in the state of California, which has the highest number and highest percentage of Latinos in the country. If we’re not going to lead the way on this, it’s really a missed opportunity.”
Her effort to make a change recently received a major shot in the arm.
UC Berkeley’s Social Sciences Division won a $1 million federal grant to establish the infrastructure that will help support mentoring Latinx studies and scholarship. The grant, which was included in the federal budget at the request of Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Barbara Lee, will help develop a training pipeline of predoctoral and postdoctoral scholars focused on issues affecting the Latinx community. It’ll also help establish the country’s first postdoctoral fellowship program for the most promising social scientists in Latinx studies. Additionally, it will support social science workshops, inform community engagement and influence local policy.
Eventually, the goal is to create an institutionalized Latinx research hub at Berkeley.
“There are some communities that are used to being overlooked by the ivory tower and used to not being seen as members of the research process,” Mora said. “Among those communities, Latinos are pretty high up there. And so I think when you see a grant that is about Latino research, I think some communities might finally feel like they’ve been seen.”
Raka Ray, dean of the Social Sciences Division of the College of Letters and Science, said the program will help to fill a longstanding void, both in getting information to communities that need it and in Latinx representation in academia. Ray said it is our responsibility to ensure a deeper pipeline so we can all benefit from an enriched community of scholars.
“Despite the Latino community’s importance to the nation’s future, most Americans receive relatively little fact- or evidence-based information about their contributions in business, government, law or sciences,” Ray said in a letter of support for the pipeline grant.
Mora is joining her new UC Berkeley colleagues, Vargas and associate professor of sociology Michael Rodríguez-Muñiz, in supervising the effort. UnidosUS, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, also helped prepare the application.
“This grant provides an opportunity to better serve the next generation of social scientists dedicated to understanding and addressing the pressing issues our Latino communities face,” said Vargas, an incoming associate professor in the Department of Ethnic Studies. “I’m excited about the work we will be undertaking.”
The grant is just a start, but it’s one Mora is optimistic about.
“I do think,” Mora said, “that this is an important opportunity to get people together to really coordinate and collaborate in a way that’s funded and forward-thinking, to consider institutionalizing programmatic initiatives here that can make the chancellor’s mission come to fruition.”
Grant latest effort to change research landscape
The grant and the new study are evidence of other ongoing Latinx research on campus.
In 2021, UC Berkeley officials launched a plan to hire “intellectual clusters” of scholars. By hiring experts with similar interests at the same time, the goal is to foster collaboration in a small, working group format aimed at solving some of the most pressing global problems, Ray said.
“Berkeley has always had an interest in and a belief in cross-disciplinary initiatives, and they’ve usually been done through centers and institutes,” Ray, who helped lead the faculty cluster initiative, said at the time. “Clusters are a different way of doing the same thing.”
The first to be filled was a five-member Climate Equity and Environmental Justice cluster.
Another, called the Latinx and Democracy cluster, soon followed. Three members of that cluster are in the process of joining UC Berkeley, including co-lead Vargas, but the collaborations have already begun. Case-in-point: the forthcoming examination on the lack of Latinx studies programs.
The cluster’s expertise is wide-ranging, too, from research on solidarity among older Latinx and Black adults to examinations of health care and political integration among Latinx communities.
Rodríguez-Muñiz, who was also hired through the cluster initiative, is studying race and the politics of knowledge within Latinx communities and movements. He said the combined efforts from UC Berkeley’s cluster and grant will help advance research on Latinx communities for years to come
“I’m excited,” he said, “to work with my colleagues at UC Berkeley to advance research on Latinx communities, locally and beyond.”