Members of the Asian-American Students Association and several faculty members have renewed a decades-old push for the administration to establish an Asian-American studies program at the University. AASA representatives voiced their concerns at a Feb. 18 meeting of the University’s ad hoc committee on diversity, which was called to discuss issues affecting the Asian-American community on campus.
According to James Chang ’14, the outgoing president of the Asian-American Student Association and one of the undergraduates present at the meeting, it will take a long time for the results of the meeting to be put into effect despite having the meeting and that “a lot of uncertainty” still exists.
Chang is a former news writer for The Daily Princetonian.
The ad hoc committee on diversity is tasked with concluding whether or not the University provides a welcoming climate for minority groups. The committee members hope to present their findings to the University’s Board of Trustees by April before the June retirement of President Shirley Tilghman, who originally put the committee together.
Chang speculated that the next president will decide whether to pursue efforts to create a more welcoming climate for minorities, especially for the Asian-American community, on campus.
Undergraduates and faculty involved in the push for the Asian-American studies program, including Chang, new AASA co-president Linda Zhong ’15, and English and African-Americanstudies professor Anne Cheng ’85, have drawn attention to the fact that no such program yet exists even though other minority groups have successfully obtained funding and support from the administration in launching and expanding their programs.
When the committee held its initial meeting in January 2012 to examine diversity on campus, the absence of prominent Asian-Americans in attendance at the meeting upset alumni, faculty and students, Chang said.
The committee is led by psychology department chair Deborah Prentice, along with committee members Trustee Brent Henry ’69, Associate Director for Academic Planning and Institutional Diversity Aly Kassam-Remtulla, Vice Provost for Institutional Equity and Diversity Michele Minter and Trustee James Yeh ’87.
According to an email sent to those invited to last week’s meeting, the meeting’s agenda addressed the question of whether the institutional climate is welcoming to Asian-Americans at the University, what challenges and opportunities exist for retaining Asian-American faculty and what challenges and opportunities exist for increasing the number of Asian-Americans in senior administrative staff positions.
The meeting began with a discussion of an issue that was not on the agenda, but an issue that has been considered since the 1970s: the creation of an Asian-American studies program at the University, said Chang and other undergraduates who attended the meeting.
Campaigns for the program culminated in 1995 with a 36-hour sit-in at Nassau Hall, which ended when University officials promised to meet with the protestors and commit to hire several new faculty members for both Asian-American studies and Latino studies.
The University’s Program in Latino Studies was launched in 2009 to “expose students to the dynamic and socially complex U.S. Hispanic population,” according to the program’s website.
Prentice said in an interview that although the possibility of an Asian-American studies program was not specifically noted on the agenda, the absence of the program might make the Asian-American community feel “disenfranchised,” and a discussion of this academic program is important to the University’s mission.
However, the committee is only tasked with writing a report that will then be reviewed by the Board of Trustees and the administration.
“We will certainly represent our conversations with the group in the report,” Prentice said. “But the fate of Asian-American studies lies with Nassau Hall and West College.”
The administration believes that “there’s always room for improvement” regarding diversity at the University, University Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83 said.
According to Chang and the four other AASA members who attended the meeting, their request for a program is the same as it has been in the past but grows more urgent and stronger year after year.
“Every other Ivy League school has this program,” said Zhong. “They can’t all be making a mistake. I know Princeton is conservative, but if Princeton doesn’t get on it now, it will be embarrassing.”
Cheng, the professor in the English department and the Center for African-American Studies, said AASA’s struggle for recognition and support ran parallel to her own personal experience at the University. Cheng came to the University in 2006 as the first and only faculty member specializing in Asian-American studies with the assurance that there would be other faculty hires in the department. She said she feels frustration at the lack of progress in the creation of the Asian-American studies certificate program.
When Cheng arrived at the University, she drafted a 10-page original document co-signed by Director of American Studies Hendrick Hartog and Director of the Program in Creative Writing Chang-Rae Lee titled “Building Asian-American Studies at Princeton University.” The proposal was addressed to President Shirley Tilghman, Eisgruber, Dean of Faculty David Dobkin and then-Dean of the College Nancy Malkiel.
A petition with over 600 signatures supporting the document and sponsored by the Asian-American Alumni Association of Princeton accompanied the proposal. However, Cheng said the administration did not respond to either the proposal or the petition.
“We don’t make these sorts of decisions based on petitions,” Eisgruber said but added he was unable to comment on the University’s response in 2008.
“I just don’t understand the resistance,” Cheng added. “Is it indifference?”
Lee said he shares Cheng’s confusion about the slow progress in establishing an Asian-American studies program and the administration’s response to the 2008 petition.
“It is an intellectually rigorous proposal, and so I am puzzled,” Lee said. “I would hate to believe that the administration is against it.”
In order to assess interest in an Asian-American studies program, Eisgruber explained that the administration first has to review the response to courses funded by the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation and Undergraduate Education. The fund supports teaching initiatives for gateway classes.
One of these courses will be taught by Cheng next fall and will be titled “Too Cute: America’s New Asia-mania.”
In assessing whether a new academic program ought to be created, the administration looks for three things: “the strength of scholarly inquiry in the area, depth of faculty interest and strength in the area [and] existence of student interest in the courses that are offered,” Eisgruber said.
However, he noted that the consideration process is ongoing.
“Different people have different expectations as to how fast academic programs can move,” Eisgruber said.
Given this process, Cheng’s ENG 224: Asian American Literature and Cultures and the Law, which was offered last fall, would be evaluated by these criteria as the first class offered by the University in several years based on Asian-American subject matter.
However, for Cheng and the AASA undergraduates involved in the push for a certificate program, simply creating a few classes isn’t enough.
“It is important for the University to know that one person cannot be a program,” Cheng added in reference to herself.
Eisgruber said that he was unable to comment on faculty hiring issues because hiring is handled on a department-by-department basis.
While the faculty members and students interviewed for this article generally said they thought that the creation of an Asian-American studies program is inevitable, Eisgruber said in response to a question about the program’s creation that “those are questions we have to approach with an open mind and with respect for the evidence.”
In the meeting on diversity on Feb. 18, the five AASA undergraduates said they outlined to the committee several first steps they would like to see from the administration. These steps include creating a searchable course label for Asian-American studies in the course registrar page, empowering professors to teach such courses outside of their main department, hiring more faculty across disciplines in Asian-American studies and hiring more administrators who are Asian-American.
“There are no visible senior administrators who are Asian-American, and this absence sends a distinct message,” Chang said.
However, Chang said he is optimistic that there will be change, even if it takes time. He said his impression from the meeting is that the administration is not satisfied with the current state of diversity on campus.