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Students and faculty gathered on College Green to demand support and recognition for the Asian American Studies program. 

Credit: Haley Suh

“Know your history, know yourself! We are not your model minority,” students declared at a protest held in front of College Green on Monday afternoon.

The protest group, largely comprised of Asian-American students, was demanding increased legitimacy and funding for the Asian American Studies Program at Penn.

Marching past Locust Walk and onto Walnut Street, students held posters and raised their voices to express frustration over the current levels of funding, administrative support and number of faculty dedicated to the ASAM program. In particular, students demanded that Penn hire a standing senior Asian American sociology professor to replace professor Grace Kao, a key founding faculty member of the program who will be leaving Penn for Yale University.

“We are all gathered here today because we are not some docile model minority afraid to make noise,” Wharton junior and Asian Pacific Student Coalition chair Yen-Yen Gao said. “We already know that our stories and experiences matter. And it’s time for this school to realize that once and for all.”

The protesters also called for the administration to provide a physical space to house the program and to increase funding for the permanent ASAM professors.

The protest came after an editorial column the Asian American Studies Undergraduate Advisory Board wrote in The Daily Pennsylvanian. The article included similar complaints — a lack of funding and faculty for ASAM, they said, despite growing student interest in the program.

The ASAM UAB also created a petition around the same time they wrote the editorial column calling for College Dean Steven Fluharty, President Amy Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price to address their concerns. The petition has so far gained over 1,000 signatures from students at Yale, Drexel University, Harvard University, University of California at Berkeley and other schools.

“For many of us, Asian American Studies is our first opportunity to realize the power of our voice, the richness of our history and take pride in our race and culture,” Gao said during the protest. “Without ASAM, the legacies of key Asian American figures like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs and Vincent Chin would not be preserved.”

“We would not remember the gross injustices this country has committed against Asian Pacific Islanders in the past,” Gao added.

The struggle to keep the Asian American Studies Program alive and growing is not a new issue. In fact, a handful of the posters used during Monday’s protests were reminiscent of some used during a similar protest a decade ago. Implemented in 1996, the program has had a history of decreased funding and lack of growth, Nursing graduate student and chair of ASAM UAB Christian Perucho said.

“Ever since the program’s inception ... all of the things that the Asian American Studies Program has, none of it was ever given to us. We had to fight for all of it,” Perucho said. “It’s a gross irony because we are celebrating our 20th anniversary this year but it’s sad that we have to [protest] ever single decade...always having to keep fighting for the same thing.”

According to Perucho, the administration did not reach out to Kao upon hearing that she received an offer to teach at Yale until a month later.

“The administration didn’t try to actively negotiate with her until the end,” Perucho said. “The fact that they care so little that they just let a faculty member slip away, is huge.”

Fluharty responded to the ASAM UAB’s demands in an email, writing that “Penn will continue our strong commitment to the Asian American Studies Program” and asking for feedback in how best support the program.

Fluharty, however, only responded after being contacted by the UAB three times since Dec. 23. In a written statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian, Fluharty said that he was slow to respond to Perucho’s emails due to the holidays and travel schedule as Dean.

“The departure of Grace Kao is a significant loss of a distinguished scholar and teacher, not just in Asian American Studies, but also the Sociology department and the Graduate School of Education,” Fluharty said. “I am not able to discuss confidential personnel matters, other than to say that Arts and Sciences did work to keep professor Kao at Penn.”

In his last email to Perucho, Fluharty said that he “welcomed the opportunity to meet with [Perucho] and the [ASAM UAB] to discuss the future of this important program.”