Demanding Asian American Studies: A 27-year long struggle for curricular equity

It is Previews weekend, and the College will repeatedly call itself the number one liberal arts college in the nation to prospective students and families. Make no mistake, Williams College has not yet earned that title: we lag far behind our peer institutions, such as UCLA, Columbia, Pomona, Stanford, USC, Wellesley and many others in that we have no Asian American Studies program. As long as we lack an Asian American Studies program, the College has failed to offer a complete education to its students.

While Asian Studies focuses on the history and culture of Asian people living in Asia, Asian American Studies is concerned with the experiences of Asian citizens and immigrants living in the United States, the Americas and areas of the Pacific. Asian American Studies is a multidisciplinary area of study that spans (but is not limited to) English, art, sociology, history, legal studies, political science and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. This array of subjects empowers and enlightens both Asian American and non-Asian American students. Furthermore, Asian American Studies would inherently promote diversification of our faculty through the hiring of Asian Americanist professors into an established program. A well-rounded curriculum and a diverse faculty will benefit the entire student body, not merely a choice few. Ultimately, no curriculum in American Studies is complete without the inclusion of all Americans’ histories.

In Williams’ own self-study from 2017, the authors wrote 1) that “diversifying the faculty is not just a matter of broadening perspectives for students; the benefits extend to the entire College community,” and 2) that “it’s important that faculty diversity keep pace with student diversity.” (Williams Self-Study, Office of the Provost, pages 68-69, 2017) While the school champions the diversity of its faculty to potential donors and prospective students, only two tenured Asian Americanists remain on campus, compared to the 17 percent of the student body that identifies as Asian/Asian American. One, Professor Scott Wong, is retiring in four years; the other, Professor Dorothy Wang, is on sabbatical until 2019.

Furthermore, professors outside our institution have readily critiqued our American Studies department as incomplete due to the absence of an Asian American Studies program.

From the University of Washington: “A hire [in Asian American Studies] is crucial for Williams, particularly in the context of the call from undergraduates for Asian American Studies.” (External Review of American Studies, Professor Chandan Reddy, 2012)

From Amherst: “The absence of an Asian American Studies program [is] particularly glaring and problematic.” (External Review of American Studies, Professor Karen Sanchez-Eppler, 2012)

From the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “It seems to me untenable to continue to have programs in Africana and Latina Studies and not organize one in Asian American Studies.” (External Review of American Studies, Professor Laura Briggs, 2012)

Over a 27-year period, students have asked for Asian American Studies; the administration has failed to meet our requests. They have utilized the rhetoric of “support;” they have said they will form working groups and committees, and they have said they will bring visiting professors – but they have not hired anyone permanently to establish an Asian American Studies program. Never have they given us anything close to an Asian American Studies program. Most egregiously, they have told us to have “faith” in them, and we have waited for 27 years. And where are we now?

We have met with the administration and delivered the following demands: that the administration publicly commit, in writing, to the hiring of four Full-Time Employee (FTE) lines for Asian American(ist) professors in the social sciences  and humanities over the next five years and to the establishment of an Asian American Studies program at the end of this time period. The administration has, in response, stubbornly pointed to low existing numbers of permanent Asian Americanists as a reason not to hire more Asian Americanists: “I’m sorry, but there are not enough Asian Americanists to create a program, and without a program, we cannot hire or support incoming Asian Americanists.” Thus they protect themselves from spending on further hires, and so the cycle continues.

Though we critique the administration and its failures, we deeply care about the College and its future. We know what it has the potential to be. The administration has not upheld its responsibility to its students, the alumni and the faculty; therefore, we resist, we demand and we fight on behalf of our entire student community. We hope our actions will persuade this administration to take concrete, tangible actions towards bettering our community. We hope they will prove, not just say, that they care about the marginalized student body as much as we do and that the voices of students on this campus matter. We matter.

Join the movement by emailing asamcommittee@gmail.com. 

Please see our flyer for a quick list of questions and answers, answering inquiries such as “who are we?”; “what is the difference between Asian and Asian American Studies?”; and more: https://bit.ly/2vKtifo.

This op-ed was also written by members of the Asian American Studies Movement under Asian American Students in Action (AASiA): Audrey Koh ’21, Amber Lee ’21, Rhea Jiang ’20, Jason Liu ’20, William Chen ’19, Grace Fan ’19, Devin Helle ’19, Kristina Hwang ’19, Anna Kim ’19,  Suiyi Tang ’19, Tyler Tsay ’19, Kathy Bi ’18, Ayami Hatanaka ’18 Candy Lu ’18 and Phuong Vo ’18.

One comment

  1. Keep fighting. Keep strong.

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