On the dawn of the Asian American Studies Program’s 20th Anniversary, founding faculty member, Dr. Grace Kao, accepted an offer from Yale University and is poised to leave. With this loss comes great uncertainty for the future of Asian American studies at Penn.
In February of 1990, under the leadership of the Asian American Student Alliance, which later inspired the creation of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, students, staff and faculty rallied Dean Hugo Sonnenschein to demand a program that engaged them and their history. Following this organizing, they began the difficult task of creating a program from nothing. Crafting a detailed plan with the help of consultants and a small advisory committee, they recommended the creation of the Asian American Studies minor, which would be led by three faculty members. Six years later in the fall of 1996, Asian American Studies was declared a program.
One of the first faculty members hired to head this new program was Dr. Grace Kao. Since the birth of the program, Kao has fought for its growth. Serving as director from 2003 to 2009, fighting for and acquiring a space for ASAM in the McNeil Building, and teaching SOCI-006/AAM-006: "Race and Ethnic Relations," she has consistently emphasized the importance of ethnic diversity within Penn and its academic offerings. As a result of all of her many years of work for ASAM, Kao won the Trustees’ Council of Penn Women 25th Anniversary Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Advising in 2015. Furthermore, just this past September, Dr. Kao was awarded a $1.34 million grant from the Academy of Korean Studies with Hyunjoon Park. Her work — cited 7060 times and growing — and her mentorship as an advisor for both undergraduate and graduate students have been groundbreaking.
Despite two decades of Kao’s dedication to the University’s mission for integrated learning, we as a program are still struggling for legitimacy, funding and faculty. Through all of this, somehow interest has only grown. Currently, our courses offered in sociology, history and English are among the largest and highest enrolled classes in their respective departments. Even with this undeniable demand, we have made little progress. As a program, we have done everything right — gone above and beyond — yet we are still undervalued and largely ignored.
ASAM is important more so now than ever. In the wake of a president that spews toxic rhetoric against people of color, immigrants and refugees and removed the Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on the White House website, our program is critical to remind us the consequences of forgetting a history of discrimination, protest and struggle. With Kao’s upcoming departure and continued stagnation of the program, it is tragic to think that Provost Vincent Price and Penn President Amy Gutmann stated ASAM was “a shining example of the value and importance of interdisciplinary education at Penn” and “a superb example of the integration of knowledge and the commitment to global engagement,” respectively. What more must we prove to protect our history?
Ten years ago, the ASAM program went through a similar crisis. The program, lacking in funds and unable to grow, was on the verge of dying. 2009 College graduate Ben Alisuag, a former Chair of APSC and ASAM minor, sent letters to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, staged protests and would not take “no” for an answer. As a result of his refusal to give up, the dean quickly contacted Alisuag and the program, promising more support. Yet, ten years later, we find ourselves in the same exact situation. This time, we will make sure that Penn adheres to its promises.
It is not enough for Dean Steven Fluharty to write, “Penn will continue our strong commitment to the Asian American Studies Program” to the members of our Undergraduate Advisory Board on Jan. 26 after being contacted by our chair a total of three times since Dec. 23. In his email to the UAB, Dean Fluharty asked for suggestions on how to best support and proceed with the program, and for him we have many.
First and foremost, the ASAM UAB demands that Penn hire a standing senior Asian American sociology professor to replace Kao.
It is imperative that we have another permanent faculty member in the ASAM program in order to focus and strengthen this discipline that is repeatedly erased from history. If Penn does not hire another full-time ASAM faculty member, Director of the ASAM Program and Alan Charles Kors Term Associate Professor of History Dr. Eiichiro Azuma, Core Faculty Member of the ASAM Program and English professor Dr. Josephine Park and Associate Director of the ASAM Program Dr. Fariha Khan will no longer have any incentive to keep the ASAM Program alive. This means that the ASAM Program will effectively dissolve, leaving its current and prospective students with no ability to complete the minor and Penn without its only courses on Asian Americans. It is also absolutely absurd that when Kao’s course, SOCI-006, is taught by someone else, it is not cross-listed with Asian American Studies. Despite being a course on race and ethnic relations, it no longer teaches sufficient information on Asian Americans.
The ASAM UAB demands more administrative support for the program.
Currently, Khan is the only person who handles any administrative work related to ASAM, leaving her unable to focus on the growth of the program and limiting her ability to teach. It is unreasonable that Khan, recipient of this year’s Women of Color at Penn award, Board Chair for the PAACH Board of Directors and Ambassador for Penn on the Governor’s Commission for Asian Pacific American Affairs, is not given enough support to continue mentoring and fostering more academic and practical opportunities for students. We want more administrative support so that Khan can effectively grow the programming content of the ASAM program.
In order to grow, the ASAM program requires more physical space for its Program.
Currently, we are able to reserve space in the ARCH, but no space has been formally dedicated to the program on campus other than 2 small rooms in McNeil. When the Economics Department chose to relocate from its current floor in McNeil, ASAM was not offered any of the open space — an absolutely ridiculous outcome, considering its cramped quarters just a few floors below. It is only appropriate for ASAM to have a reading room in the library or a seminar room to host events so that the many resources and books the ASAM department possesses can be accessed and utilized by Penn’s nearly 2,000 undergraduate students who identify as Asian or Pacific Islanders. A formal space will be a concrete exemplification of the University’s support.
ASAM demands space and money for post-doctorates and faculty who can teach disciplines beyond those already offered.
Currently we offer courses in history, English and sociology, but Penn is severely lacking in courses that discuss the Asian and Asian American narratives within cinema and media studies, anthropology and the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program. Critical discussions are happening across the country on the lack of Asian representation in these academic fields of study, and Penn, with one of the largest and most interdisciplinary programs in ASAM on the East Coast and in the Ivy League, must continue being a leader in this intersectional dialogue.
Finally, the ASAM UAB demands more support not only for its own program but for all ethnic and minority studies programs on campus.
The Africana Studies, the Latin American and Latino studies, the Native American & Indigenous studies and the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program on campus experience similar struggles. It is imperative that Penn show increased support for its minority communities and communicate with them beyond the confines of occasional meetings with the 5B and PAGE.
To say that we are “celebrating” our 20th anniversary is a gross irony. We are struggling for our continued existence. We now have a reduced number of core faculty, only one administrative position, and a continuously dwindling number of courses — indeed, this lack of permanence is what has defined our program since birth. What has the University done to help us solidify ourselves these past 20 years?
The ASAM UAB refuses to be representative of the model minority that Penn and America at large have come to expect. We will continue to fight for the integrity and livelihood of our Program, and this is certainly not the last you will hear from us.
The Asian American Studies Undergraduate Advisory Board is comprised of 10 undergraduate students who work with the program’s core faculty members. Members of the UAB range from freshmen to seniors who hold positions in Friars and Oracle Senior Societies, the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, Class Board and more.
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