Asian American Studies: A Harvard Aspiration

During the 1980s, Asian American students at Harvard University staged a noisy protest petitioning the university to hire an Asian American studies professor. Hundreds of student signatures were collected. No professors were hired.

Twenty years later, Asian American students at Harvard University are still protesting for a permanent Asian American studies professor and ultimately a full-fledged Asian American Studies concentration.

Student advocacy related to the issue has surged and subsided over the years but never disappeared. As Harvard University continues to stress its commitment to diversity, student groups such the Asian American Association are becoming increasingly anxious.  

Yuting P. Chiang, co-chair of the Asian American Association education and politics committee, told Harvard’s student newspaper, “Harvard prides itself on its diversity, but there’s a huge gap in discussion on Asian American Studies.”

Professors say undergraduate advocates have failed to provide the steady pressure needed for change in Asian American studies, and, according to members of the Asian American Association, the administration also doubts the program will lure many students to the field. Another significant complaint among faculty is that the school does not have the appropriate funds or resources to institute a full Asian American Studies concentration.

Harvard University’s course guide for this academic year lists only four Asian American Studies courses – all of them taught by the same visiting professor, Eric Tang, from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Tang suggests that Harvard’s reluctance to develop an Asian American Studies program stems from its conservative curricular background

“Asian American Studies is an inherently political field; it’s a field born out of students’ struggle. It is not something that universities value. They don’t see it as essential to the core curriculum,” Tang says.

Phoebe Zen, a senior and the other co-chair of the committee, says, “For us, inclusion of Asian American Studies goes beyond just being a part of our identity; it’s an important part of academia that will give students what is necessary to help society progress in the future.

“Asian Americans continue to play an integral role in the history of the United States. [The] omission [of Asian American Studies] affirms dominant structures of society while continuing to ignore the very real experiences and contributions of Asian Americans,” she adds.

In 1995, students at Northwestern University began a hunger strike that led to the establishment of a program in Asian American Studies. That same year, students at the neighboring University of Illinois at Chicago induced similar tactics to force university administrators to develop an Asian American Studies program.

Students at Harvard have yet to embrace such drastic measures. The political committee of Harvard’s Asian American Association considered hunger strikes in the past, but the current campaign is different from that of their predecessors.

“They asked for a stronger and more structured Ethnic Studies committee, while we are ultimately asking for an independent Asian American Studies program,” Zen says.

Harvard students aren’t the only ones to face difficulty in trying to persuade administrators to approve an Asian American Studies program.

“No one has had it easy,” says Tang, who has helped to facilitate Asian American Studies student movements at New York University and Columbia University. “Only within the past seven years has the University of Illinois, Chicago hired full-time faculty for the Asian American Studies department.”

Indeed, Harvard’s history department has attempted to locate a permanent expert in Asian American History. It came close to hiring a permanent Asian American Studies expert last year for a joint full professorship in history and ethnic studies. But the prospective candidate, Mae M. Ngai, accepted a position at Columbia University.

Narrowing their focus from full-fledged concentration to simple inclusion, the Asian American Association is working with the East Asian Studies program to create an Asian American Studies track within the department’s secondary field as a precursor of sorts to an Asian American Studies concentration.

Tang, whose contract expires in May 2008, notes there is imminent danger in placing the onus on students [to propel faculty]. The danger, he says, is that you begin to characterize Asian American Studies as a field that should only be brought to a university because it is popular among a student demographic. 

“It’s great that students show interest, but the administration has to understand the value of Asian American Studies as an intellectual field of inquiry,” Tang says.

–Michelle J. Nealy

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