How a Fight Over a Black Lives Matter Statement Transformed an Academic AssociationHistorians in the News
tags: Black lives matter, professional associations, Puerto Rican history
Like many academic associations, the Puerto Rican Studies Association is pretty small — fewer than 300 members, and that’s in a good year. But the group erupted in outsize controversy this summer when its entire executive committee resigned after allegations of sexism and misogyny against some members went public.
In a contentious email exchange, a member of the association’s board, Harry Franqui-Rivera, an associate professor of history at Bloomfield College, in New Jersey, accused five women on the board of appropriating his ideas. He attacked their scholarship and accused them of trying to steer the association’s agenda for their own benefit. In one of several Facebook posts describing the situation, Franqui-Rivera, who until recently served as the association’s treasurer, referred to the women as “a clique of abusers and cyber bullies.”
The women who were the subjects of Franqui-Rivera’s outburst — two untenured faculty members and three graduate students — responded with an open letter of resignation charging that there was “a climate of sexism, infantilization, gaslighting, and racism” on the executive council, “which certain Board members have perpetuated with little consequence.”
The dispute might be dismissed by some academics. But the work of groups like the Puerto Rican Studies Association is a key building block in many scholars’ careers. And the meltdown and subsequent remaking of the association shows how one of the academy’s key units can be transformed by academics’ evolving political consciousness.
In this case, a group of senior scholars stepped in and spoke up for the five women, circulating an open letter that was signed by nearly 300 faculty members across the country. The incident has spurred a wave of new and former members to join the association, with many saying they had stayed away because of what they saw as the group’s unwelcoming climate.
“Puerto Rican studies are having a moment of reckoning,” said Yarimar Bonilla, one of four academics who wrote the letter of support and a professor in the department of Africana, Puerto Rican, and Latino Studies at Hunter College and of anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Many of the new members had never felt welcome in the association, she said, “because of their gender, sexuality, or their area of study.”
As protests grew over the killing of George Floyd in May and June, the executive committee of the Puerto Rican Studies Association began to draft a statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
But the discussions broke down over a number of points, including who was or wasn’t getting credit for the idea, whether the statement should include the idea that Black transgender women are disproportionately affected by violence, and whether the association could commit to recruiting more members who identify as Afro-Puerto Rican or LGBTQ.
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