Trustees hold forum featuring Asian American studies debate

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On Saturday, the Board of Trustees held an open forum for students. Alongside issues including the endowment and mentorship, the chief topic of discussion was the push for an Asian American studies program at the College and the role the board ought to play in that process. 

The forum, held in Griffin 3, was attended by about 35 students. It was moderated by trustee Kate Queeney ’92, chair of the board’s committee on student experience. It was also attended by President of the Society of Alumni Thomas Gardner ’79, Dean of the College Marlene Sandstrom and four other trustees: Greg Woods ’91, Tim Belk ’77, Cooper Jackson ’89 and Betsy Andersen ’87.

After an initial question from Kai Cash ’19 about opportunities for students to practice peer mentorship on campus, the discussion turned to Asian American studies. As one student, Kevin Yang ’22, rose to speak, roughly 30 other students wearing red ribbons in support of Asian American studies stood as well. Yang implored the trustees to focus on “completing the curriculum of a liberal arts institution with the creation of an Asian American studies program.” 

Queeney responded by noting that the issue was of high importance to the board, but that the curriculum rested solely with the faculty. “The curriculum is very clearly something that the faculty is in charge of and we want it to be that way, you want it to be that way, and that’s great,” Queeney said. “The way that we have acted on that is to continue to ask questions … [Asian American studies] was the first thing, the first day of our meeting this time, that President Mandel talked to us about. We’re equally excited to see it moving through the process that something has to move through to become a new academic initiative at the College.”

Students responded, however, that they were concerned that adhering to this faculty-led process has failed to create progress towards an Asian American studies program in the past. “We do have a history of going through this process…through the faculty, CEA [Committee on Educational Affairs], CAP [Committee on Appointments and Promotions] process,” Annalee Tai ’21 said. “The outlined way of going about this has proven to fail Asian American studies twice. Twice the CAP has failed to make a decision that would meaningfully bring in more faculty in Asian American studies; in 2001 and 2013 we went through this process and the process failed…what else can we do? We’ve gone through this process for thirty years and it’s gotten us nothing – at this point it’s urgent.” 

Queeney, who is a chemistry professor at Smith, expressed particular reservations about interfering in faculty decision-making as a trustee. “I had an experience at Smith where a trustee told us in a very public way how we should teach chemistry…that was not effective.” 

Students also asked questions about whether or not the trustees might lend more pointed support to the hiring of Asian American studies faculty, as a distinct though connected issue from a curricular change, and how the current no-growth period for faculty hiring might affect this. Andersen expanded upon the role the trustees envisioned for themselves in the process. “It involves asking questions about the decisions that are being made,” she said. “We are also looking closely at the work of the curricular planning committee, which takes the long view and overarching view of the curriculum and advises both the CEA an CAP on which lines we should open for new positions.”

Several students highlighted that the establishment of an Asian American studies program, beyond representing the experiences of Asian American students in the curriculum, would bring distinct educational benefits to all students. “I think that it’s relevant to say that in my experience at Williams, the most important part of my education at Williams are the classes I’ve taken in Africana studies,” Nick Gardner ’19 said. “The establishment of Asian American studies or any form of ethnic studies…is an important part of the education of all Williams students.”

The forum then turned to topics concerning the College’s fiscal stability and practices. First, Adam Jones ’21 asked how the new endowment tax and decreased deductions for charitable giving might affect the College’s endowment and alumni donations. The trustees noted that the College has planned for this and other scenarios that could alter donation patterns. “I wouldn’t say it’s threatening in any way to our way of life as a liberal arts college,” T. Gardner said.

Other questions focused on the College’s planning for climate change, environmental investments and the broader implications of student activism and change at the institution. Reflecting on this process of change, Queeney noted its difficulty. “This is an old and in many ways traditional and conservative institution by design,” she said. “You’re thinking in a very different way about change, and about your responsibility to those not here and those yet to come … that’s a really important part of what you’re doing.”

She also noted that the trustees will be planning further public engagement events with students. While the form of these is still undecided, she noted that they will strive for a mix of public and targeted events with students. “We want to balance giving everyone access and doing it in ways that allow for students to interact with trustees in meaningful ways,” she said.