Faculty votes to approve Asian American studies program

Tali Natter, Cameron Pugh, and Julia Goldberg

At the Dec. 7 faculty meeting, faculty voted to approve the creation of an Asian American studies (AAS) program that establishes a concentration beginning fall 2023, with 81 voting in favor, five voting against, and three abstaining. The vote marks the culmination of 34 years of activism by faculty members, alums, and students. Since the 1980s, the Asian American Studies in Action (AASiA) advocacy group has hosted teach-ins, celebrations, protests, demonstrations, and forums to encourage instituting AAS at the College. 

The vote makes Williams “the first small liberal arts college in New England to establish such a program,” following similar programs at the Five College Consortium and the Claremont Colleges, according to Chair of the Committee on Educational Affairs (CEA) and Professor of English Stephen Tifft. 

AASiA co-Chair Frances Leung ’25 expressed her excitement about the program to the Record after the vote. “In our op-ed from a couple of months ago, we wrote that we hoped that this movement wouldn’t ever reach its 35th year,” Leung said. “Even when we wrote that, there was this sense of reality that it probably might reach its 35th year. The fact that it won’t, because it just got passed today, is proving my doubts wrong… It’s very happy and very surreal.” 

The new five-course concentration will require one 100- or 200-level introductory gateway course, a 400-level senior seminar in which students will complete a capstone project, and three electives across at least two academic divisions. Of those three elective courses, one must be a core elective; one must take a country-of-origin, transnational, diasporic, or comparative ethnic studies approach; and one must be at the 300-level or higher, though these attributes are not mutually exclusive. 

While the meeting was not open to the public, Leung and two other AASiA board members read a short statement at the beginning of the faculty meeting. AASiA and the Black Student Union (BSU) plan to co-host a Goodrich Coffee Bar tab at 8 p.m. following the meeting, where they will answer questions about the proposal and celebrate both the new Africana studies major and AAS program.

According to the program proposal, in the early 1990s, several students applied for contract majors in AAS. They drafted the first proposal for an AAS program with support from a faculty sponsor and submitted it to the now-defunct Committee on Educational Policy (CEP), which rejected it. In 2012, the CEP reviewed a second proposal for AAS. It approved a cluster listing in Asian American studies for the 2013–14 course catalog, but this listing was later removed following an exodus of AAS faculty members, according to the proposal. 

In February 2019, a Curricular Planning Committee (CPC) working group recommended that the College hire two tenure-track professors with specialized training in AAS and, following these hires, formalize an AAS program that offers a concentration. As a result, the College hired Chair and Associate Professor of American Studies Jan Padios in February 2020 as its third tenured Asian Americanist.

In November 2021, Padios and Professor of American Studies Dorothy Wang submitted a proposal for an AAS program to the CEA. “There were some conversations after it was submitted and read by the CEA and the CAP [Committee on Appointments and Promotions], but nothing concrete came of it,” Padios said of the November proposal. Last month, a student survey showed high interest in AAS, and its data was cited in the current proposal.

The accepted proposal argued that the “curricular importance” of AAS is “indisputable” amid a long history of anti-Asian racism in the United States and the spike in attacks against Asian people following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, pointing in particular to a March 2021 shooting in Atlanta that killed six Asian American women. After the shooting, students and faculty members renewed calls for an AAS program. 

“Indeed, this legacy has structured Asian American racialization not only politically and legally, but also culturally, intellectually, psychologically, economically, and symbolically,” the proposal reads. “A strong and well-supported Asian American studies program can teach the history merely touched upon here, thereby impacting communities large and small.”

The proposal also argued that students could benefit greatly from more robust programming in AAS. “Students taking Asian American studies courses time and time again remark on how significant the courses are for learning about identity; how vital Asian American community-building is for mental health and coping with racism; and how an AAS program would be a formal acknowledgement of the lived experiences of Asian Americans by the institution,” it states. “These are aspects of institutionalization we consider inseparable from their academic import.”

In a memorandum sent to the faculty on Nov. 28, the CEA wrote that it “strongly endorses” the proposal. At the meeting, Tifft said he was impressed by “deep investment and thoughtful work of all involved” in putting together this program, pointing particularly to the work of Padios, Wang, and Assistant Professor of American Studies Kelly Chung.

“The proposal mounts a strong argument that AAS — a field distinct from both Asian studies and American studies and offering its own theories, methodologies, and topics — will nonetheless allow from its own vantage point for a fruitful overlap with and enrichment of those fields and will stimulate processes of reconceiving the many disciplines it shares,” Tifft said. “The CEA feels that a robust AAS program would serve Williams’ commitment to equity and to its educational mission.” 

The CEA also noted that the courses students need to fulfill the concentration — including both the introductory and capstone courses, as well as approximately two dozen elective courses across 11 departments and programs — already exist. The CEA pointed out that there are currently three core AAS faculty members — Wang, Padios, and Chung — at the College and that the history department expects to hire a professor of Asian American history next year. Roughly a dozen faculty members in other departments currently or plan to offer courses that will be cross-listed with AAS, according to the CEA, which wrote in its Nov. 28 memo that it was “confident that there is adequate staffing for launching the program.” 

Padios shared that AAS classes also contribute to the content offered by American studies; Africana studies; Latino/a studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; and Native/Indigenous studies — should a program come to fruition in the future. 

At the faculty meeting, Dean of the College Gretchen Long asked Padios how the creation of the program would affect American studies, given the overlap in staffing between the two programs. Padios replied that AAS would require careful curricular planning, which she and her colleagues are willing to do. To Padios, the overlapping faculty members, such as herself and Wang, can successfully meet the curricular goals of both departments. No other faculty asked questions about the proposal. 

After faculty approved the program, President of the College Maud S. Mandel said that when she first arrived at the College, students approached her at an event and shared their desire for the AAS program with her. “They told me this was the No. 1 agenda item for the years ahead,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to celebrate the moment. Thank you all for the hard work.” 

AASiA Communications Manager Ashley Shan ’26 reflected on the benefits that the program will provide her and future students at the College. “As a freshman, being able to take Asian American studies as an actual program for the next three years is something that I think will be really impactful for both my academic life and also [for] being able to understand myself socially and where I am in relation to the world,” Shan told the Record

“I’m still trying to absorb everything, just from all the past student activists, their participation, their work, also the faculty,” AASiA co-Chair Sunny Hu ’24 said. “There’s nothing else I can really say right now beyond that I am so happy and grateful — and that I really want to cry right now.”