Alumni petition for Asian-American studies department

by Sonia Qin | 2/4/16 8:33pm

On Monday, Alice Liou ’13 started a petition on Change.org pushing for the immediate creation of an Asian-American studies department. As of press time, 316 people have signed the petition, which has been widely circulated on social media sites such as Facebook.

The petition specifically addresses chairman of the Board of Trustees Bill Helman ’80, College President Phil Hanlon, Provost Carolyn Dever, Dean of the College Rebecca Biron, as well as faculty, staff and other members of the Dartmouth community.

The petition makes note of the numerous unsuccessful attempts over the past years to implement this program. It states that in contrast to its peers, the College “has not taken any action to become a leader in ethnic studies and diversity outreach and pedagogy.”

The petition further states that an Asian-American studies program would fall in line with the College’s community values, the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” initiative and the need for more diversity and inclusiveness at the College.

Liou wrote the petition letter together with Huang He ’13 and Damaris Altomerianos ’13, she said.

“Diversity is a noun, but it’s something we have to enact and actively do,” Liou said, adding that the responsibility of diversity advocacy often falls on student groups rather than administrators.

“If Dartmouth is really committed to diversity, we need to see institutional support for this,” she said.

Liou said that Asian-American studies would be beneficial for all students, not just those who identify as Asian-American. She cited a Stanford University study from last month which showed that students who take ethnic studies courses perform better than those who do not take them or who do not have the option available to them.

History professor Annelise Orleck said she has worked with many students over the years who have urged for the implementation of the Asian-American studies program.

“It’s baffling to me why there has been resistance to establishing an institution-wide presence in Asian-American studies,” Orleck said.

Orleck said that there also needs to be a presence of Asian-American studies in the social sciences and the humanities.

“Our position in history in Asian-American studies has remained empty, and we should be filling that position,” she said.

Orleck said that it is very difficult to create a new department or program in a short period of time, but an Asian-American studies program can follow in the footsteps of Jewish Studies, which was established in 1997 with the help of a donation and remained probationary for a number of years. She said that one option is to get outside funding.

“This has been going on for the whole 25 years that I’ve been here,” Orleck said, referring to the activism surrounding the issue. “It’s a rich field and one that Dartmouth really ought to have represented in our curriculum.”

Orleck said one reason the College has been reluctant to implement this program is a fear there will not be enough student interest, but the repeated attempts by students over the years to establish Asian-American studies at Dartmouth is proof of ongoing student interest.

“You do need to stir up interest,” Orleck said. “You also need permanent faculty to establish the field on campus and draw students.”

Last spring, a student group submitted a faculty cluster hiring proposal calling for the strengthening of existing ethnic studies programs and the establishment of a formal Asian-American studies program at the College.

Orleck said that cluster hiring would help diversify the faculty and reach 25 percent of underrepresented minority tenure track faculty in the next few years, a goal stated by the College in its first annual report on faculty diversity released in January.

The petition has garnered the support of many alumni as well. While the response is encouraging, Liou said that she hopes to continuing garnering attention to the document, particularly from influential alumni.

“Three hundred people is a drop in the overflowing bucket of Dartmouth alumni,” she said.

Laurel Anderson ’14, who signed the petition, said she was happy to see that somebody had taken steps to try and get a response from the administration about the issue of Asian-American studies.

“As an institution that strives to be as good as we can be, it would be good to support students in pursuing whatever course of study they’re called to at a liberal arts institution,” Anderson said.

Even if the program ultimately does not get implemented, Anderson said she believes the administration should still respond to the petition.

“An Asian-American studies program would open more awareness about issues that different ethnic groups face, beyond just viewing Asian-Americans as a model minority,” Anderson said. “I think that part of the reason why universities exist is so we can undertake intellectual pursuits not based on economic viability, but on serving the needs of the community.”

Anderson said she would like to see administrators meet with students and maybe alumni as well to discuss what the possibilities are for creating an Asian-American program, or even creating a track within another department.

Kameko Winborn ’14, a member of Asian/American Students for Action also known as 4A during her time at Dartmouth, said the group has been advocating for Asian-American studies at the College for a long time. She said that this advocacy has been in the works since the 1990s.

“Despite the support of the student body, it’s never been able to get through because of the administration,” Winborn said.

Winborn said she hopes this petition will succeed. The implementation of an Asian-American studies program is important because the current classes in the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies department focus more on ancient subjects like Confucius, with less concentration of contemporary studies and the importance of Asian-American perspectives on these issues, she said.

Liou said one of her motivations for starting the petition was demonstrating to students such as those in 4A that their activism was being supported by a broader alumni base outside of Dartmouth, especially as movements calling for Asian-American studies have been ongoing at the College since the 1990s.

4A member Kevin Bui ’17 said he has met with professors and administrators to talk about Asian-American studies during his time at the College.

The petition’s page features pictures of current students from the College holding up whiteboard signs in support of the petition’s contents. Bui said the pictures were part of a photo campaign last year to raise awareness about the lack of Asian-American studies at the College. 4A asked alumni to write the letter of support, he said.

“I think Asian-American studies, as an ethnic studies program, is really important for understanding the history, literature and culture of our country,” Bui said, adding that the history of Asian-Americans is no less important than the history of other groups of Americans.

“Ethnic studies as a whole is really important for intellectual excellence at Dartmouth,” Bui said.

He said that as the United States is always touted as a “melting pot,” it’s important to actually learn about this diversity and push for diverse content within the College’s intellectual body.

“We want tenure track for Asian-American studies professors and we want them to have institutionalized support and be given time to build up their classes,” Bui said.

He said that a formalized major and minor in Asian-American studies would show that the College considers this to be a priority.

Winborn said the College needs to acknowledge the students who are invested in this issue.

“The administration needs to really see and understand that this is what students are asking for and they’ve been asking for this for a really long time,” she said.

Assistant Dean and Advisor to Pan-Asian Students Shiella Cervantes wrote in a statement to The Dartmouth that a new program would require a commitment from both the College and the students involved.

“Many of our peer institutions have Asian American Studies programs, and most if not all were established as a result of students advocating for themselves and an equitable education,” she said. “This petition shows that the interest is there in the student community.”