Working within our means: Evaluating the College’s curricular priorities

A student initiative to introduce an Asian American studies concentration to the College’s curriculum has recently gained momentum following a series of informational events, the passage of a resolution of support by College Council (CC) and the circulation of a campus-wide petition. While we praise the students and faculty leading this initiative for their dedication, we also recognize that the decision to add an Asian American studies concentration must be evaluated in terms of the College’s current financial resources.

The College must make difficult decisions as to how it can best allocate its limited budget in a manner that reflects its liberal arts mission as well as the needs of the student body. In light of the recent financial climate, the College has enacted a hiring freeze that has negatively impacted many departments, preventing them from increasing their course offerings and even forcing some departments to cut back on offerings. Given the sacrifices already being made across academic departments, it is not reasonable to demand the immediate creation of a new concentration that would require the addition of a faculty member. Such a concentration would not only prevent other departments from hiring, but it would also draw professors in existing departments away from their present roles to allow them to teach courses in the new concentration.

When this hiring freeze is lifted, however, the College will have the opportunity to make thoughtful decisions regarding which departments should be prioritized in the hiring process. Organizers for an Asian American studies concentration should not assume the end of the hiring freeze will naturally lead to the addition of an Asian American studies concentration. Restraints on the College’s resources and the very nature of the liberal arts curriculum suggest that a new major cannot be developed in every area of study that students are passionate about, nor can a concentration program be created to address every type of diversity.

Despite this reality, students and faculty members have correctly located a weakness in the College’s current curriculum: The College offers a limited number of classes that focus on Asian Americans, and the few courses that are offered tend to be restricted in scope. The addition of an Asian American studies program in some form could improve such course offerings and thereby provide students with the opportunity to explore the history and culture of an important and underrepresented group, following in the tradition of concentrations such as Africana studies and Latino/a studies. In particular, the value of an Asian American studies program has gained increasing recognition after the revealing conversations following the November hate crime: Course offerings in Asian American studies could be useful in providing an academic setting in which the community can address sources of racial or cultural tension.

However, we are concerned that the scope of Asian American studies might be too narrow to merit an entire concentration. Rather than developing a new program, it might be worthwhile to integrate a reinforced Asian American studies curriculum into a larger department as a distinct track of courses. This model is in line with the College’s current hiring practices, in which departments often hire professors with specific specialties that correspond to weaknesses in the department’s course listings, and there are certainly a number of current departments and programs capable of integrating Asian American studies offerings. Adding a professor who specializes in Asian American studies could help meet student demands for increased course offerings focused on the ethnic group without necessitating the establishment of a new department. By strengthening an existing department in this manner, the faculty can gradually develop an Asian American studies curriculum while limiting the risk of misallocating resources due to an overestimation of demand.

Even within the Record board, we could not reach a consensus as to whether Asian American studies should be prioritized once the freeze is lifted. However, the College does have the resources necessary to make these decisions, and close coordination between the student body and the Committee on Educational Policy can help the faculty reach an informed decision that will both value student opinion and address the College’s academic needs.

Students have commendably organized to rectify what they perceive as a gap in the College’s current curriculum, even proposing a thoughtful and comprehensive list of classes that could potentially form the core of a concentration. This movement helps highlight and reflect students’ concerns about the academic resources offered to them during their time at the College. The unfortunate reality of the current economic situation makes hiring a new faculty member an unlikely possibility in the near future. When funding does again become available, however, we urge the College to carefully consider not only the utility of the new concentration but also the needs of existing departments before approving the creation of an Asian American studies concentration and committing substantial financial resources to this project.

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