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Photo: Haley Suh

Penn students and faculty have been working for months to ensure the future of the Asian American Studies Program, but they are growing frustrated with what seems to be a lack of commitment from administrators. 

Despite a student-led protest and petition last spring calling for more resources to be directed to the ASAM program, no professors have been hired to replace former professor and ASAM Director Grace Kao. 

Kao, who was a key founding member of the ASAM program, announced her departure to Yale University last spring. Students held a protest calling for Penn to hire a standing senior Asian-American sociology professor to replace Kao, and to provide a physical space to house the program as well as to increase funding for the permanent ASAM professors.

ASAM’s Undergraduate Advisory Board met with administrators twice in the spring, but members said that they have seen little response to their concerns this semester. 

Some ASAM UAB members also noted that despite the verbal commitments from the administration, there has been almost no progress since Kao announced her departure. College senior and UAB member Daniel Chung said administrators have given off the impression that they've already been doing enough to help the ASAM program. 

The UAB members sent a followup email in May to the Dean of Arts and Sciences Steven Fluharty, former Interim Dean Andrew Binns and Associate Dean Jeffrey Kallberg to summarize their conversations and set up future meetings — but they received no response. 

Students worry that the delayed responses from administrators places ASAM's existence in jeopardy. The program has only finalized interim directors for the next two years, and if a permanent replacement is not found for Kao within this time, students worry that ASAM courses will no longer be available at the University.

“It’s a lot of them pushing it off and not wanting to deal with it and hoping it fades over summer,” College senior and UAB member Lindsey Lui said.

Students aren't the only ones frustrated with administrators.

ASAM Interim Director Eiichiro Azuma said the College deans took months to respond to requests he had sent in April regarding the program. These requests included a tenure or tenure-track faculty member to replace Kao, a physical space for ASAM talks and events to be held, administrative help for ASAM Associate Director Fariha Khan and a full time lecturer. 

Azuma received his answer to these requests on Sept. 19, though he added that the deans’ retreat in June should have given ample time for a response to be given. 

Out of these four requests, the Dean’s Office only explicitly agreed to one. The Dean’s Office has put out an ad for “Lecturer A”: a full time lecturer who can teach two courses for a maximum of three years. ASAM will be allowed to conduct this search and interview candidates in the spring.

The other requests, however, have been left pending or unaddressed.

Despite student and faculty requests, Penn administrators are not looking to find a new ASAM director. However, the deans have permitted the Sociology Department's request to search for a faculty member with expertise in Asian-American studies. 

But after talking to members of the Sociology Department, Azuma said this search is not specifically for someone with experience in Asian-American studies, but a search for a sociologist who looks at education, race and ethnicity. There is no guarantee that this faculty member would teach ASAM classes, and ASAM faculty members have not been enlisted to be part of the search committee. 

Azuma said this incoming sociologist might not be able to fill the vacuum left by Kao, and existing ASAM faculty members do not have the capacity to do so either.

Khan agreed. "It's not that she left and we've taken on some of her duties, because we can't," she said. "I'm trained as a folklorist, Dr. Azuma is trained as a historian. So we can't actually — there's just a gap there."

Despite these complaints, Fluharty said the College remains "firmly committed" to ASAM.

"The Asian American Studies Program is a very important one and we look forward to working together with the program and the appropriate departments to strengthen it," he wrote in an emailed statement.

“I do wonder what would the program be like if there were full time Asian American Studies professors in a vibrant — vibrant as in institutionally funded and supported — program,” College senior Miru Osuga said. “What could that be like?”

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