Letter for fas dean search
June 12, 2018
Dear President-elect Lawrence S. Bacow, Provost Alan M. Garber, and the FAS Dean Search Advisory Committee:
We, the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance, urge you to select a Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences who will establish comprehensive undergraduate and graduate-level degree programs in Asian American Studies—and in ethnic studies more broadly—within FAS. We wholeheartedly endorse the letter sent to you on June 4, 2018, by the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition and 46 other student and alumni organizations, but wanted to highlight some specific issues regarding Asian American Studies.
Asian American students at Harvard College now comprise more than 22% of the incoming class. Despite the growing ranks of Asian American students at Harvard, however, courses and professors who can contextualize their experiences and teach their history are few and far between. We applaud the recent decision to grant Professor Ju Yon Kim tenure in the English Department, which has enjoyed new attention and investment from students enriched by her Asian American Literature course. Asian American Studies, like other ethnic studies disciplines, provides analytical frameworks that seek to answer fundamental questions about how power is crucial to our understanding of race and ethnicity and how the study of American society can be enhanced by theorizing from the margins. Asian American Studies has a unique role to play within the constellation of ethnic studies, from theorizing about exclusionary immigration acts to contextualizing modern debates about Asian Americans’ relationship to policies like affirmative action.
Asian American alumni and students have spearheaded a number of the campaigns for ethnic studies at Harvard since the 1970s. Some major recent efforts include:
● Asian American alumni raised the funds for the first endowed professorship in ethnic studies in 2008. Along with student activism and advocacy by faculty and administrators, this helped lead to the creation of the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, Rights (EMR) in 2009, which began offering a secondary in ethnic studies.
● Since 2008, Asian American alumni, in an attempt to ensure consistent teaching of Asian American Studies in the absence of permanent faculty, have raised and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Visiting Faculty Fund for Ethnic Studies in FAS.
● The Harvard University Ethnicity, Migration, Rights Fund was founded by an Asian American alum in 2016 to support Asian American Studies programs sponsored by EMR. This includes support for the Asian American Studies Working Group.
● More than 1,000 students, alumni, faculty and staff, as well as 27 student and alumni organizations, signed the most recent petition for ethnic studies sent to Harvard’s President, a 2016 effort led by Asian American student and alumni organizers.
● Asian American alumni and students, including the undergraduate Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies (TAPAS), authored and built support for the proposal last fall for a Center on Race and Ethnicity, which became the most popular proposal on the Solution Space forum created by the Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging.
● This year, Asian American alumni proposed and funded the first two Summer Thesis Research Grants in Asian American Studies, administered by EMR.
We hope this sampling of the advocacy of Harvard’s Asian American alumni community in this area—which has taken place collaboratively with students, and in consultation with supportive Harvard faculty and administrators—helps demonstrate the depth of our belief in the importance of Asian American Studies and ethnic studies at Harvard. But the University must take full responsibility for these programs; Asian American Studies should not be dependent on student and alumni labor, contributions, and support for its survival. Many of us who graduated in the 1970s and ’80s, with fewer than 100 Asian American peers in our classes, fondly remember the single seminar on Asian American Studies that was offered then. We are frankly shocked that with more than 1200 Asian Americans enrolled in the College, and with Harvard’s stated increased commitment to diversity in its educational mission, the offerings in Asian American Studies are still meager. Last fall, there were zero classes in Asian American Studies at the College. The attached sampling of testimonials collected from students and alumni over the past couple of years speak to significance of the academic gap that Harvard has failed to fill for decades.
In these challenging times of increasing polarization and racialization, Harvard must offer its students the opportunity for in-depth exploration issues of race and ethnicity, which will be of critical importance no matter what paths they choose. It must offer its few ethnic studies faculty a community of peers who can create a hub of research and teaching that will inform society’s debates and policies at the highest levels. In the area of ethnic studies, as in every other vital academic field, we expect Harvard to lead.
President, Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance
cc: Provost Alan Garber
FAS Dean Search Advisory Committee
Student and Alumni Testimonials regarding the value of Ethnic Studies and the ongoing campaign for Ethnic Studies at Harvard
(collected from 2016 to 2018)
Within my concentration in Sociology and Government... there has been almost no mention of the Asian American community and its unique set of needs. The lack...has prevented me from building the knowledge I need to advocate on behalf of my community after graduation, as an aspiring lawyer and policy-maker. In my opinion, this situation perpetuates long-running cycles of disproportionately low API representation in politics, government, law, and media, as we never have a chance to understand our own story. — Avni Nahar AB ’17
I'm lucky to have taken nearly every course on Asian American studies at Harvard, and have worked with many thoughtful and brilliant professors in the process of doing so. On the other hand, it was extremely difficult to pick up on Asian American theory, history, historiography, major literary developments, etc. in the few short classes—most of my undergraduate work consisted of Google searches and self-study to immerse myself in this information. This is certainly not for lack of trying on the part of many professors, but I would also point out that Asian American studies itself was not conceptually introduced to me until halfway through college, and also that the professors themselves were tasked with dealing with a huge influx of student interest but not proportionately supported with resources...I am confident my research could have been more nuanced and detailed given the time and guidance to delve further into a field I discovered slightly later than I would have liked. — Anita Lo AB ’16
During my four years at Harvard College, I was only able to take one course related to Asian American Studies. It's odd and strange that in my government courses I never heard about United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind...I never considered the relationship between colonization, globalization, capitalism, and race together until taking Asian America in the World... I am in the process of applying to a masters of education with the intention of teaching high school history through the lens of Asian American/Ethnic Studies in low income communities of color, similar to the one I grew up in...As a first generation student who had mediocre grades and struggled with the anxiety of my intellectual capacity at Harvard, this course made me feel comfortable trying out new ideas and speaking vocabulary I never used before. I went to office hours; I connected with my peers; this class felt like the CLASS I should have taken as a first year!...I wanted to write a thesis after this class! Ultimately, I didn't because of the lack of faculty familiar with Asian American political communities. — Diana Nguyen AB ’15
Even more so than with the Women, Gender, and Sexuality courses I've taken, being able to participate in rigorous classroom discussions on Asian American scholarship and issues has been a fundamental and pivotal experience in my undergraduate career...Exposure to ethnic studies in general has reshaped my navigation of the world because of its insistence on the field not as an identity-obsessed subsidiary to traditional academic disciplines but as a distinct framework, lens, and analytic... [It] has concretized and affirmed the importance of Asian American studies through the presence of Asian American scholars on Harvard's campus, without whose time, encouragement, and support I would have never reached the point where I stand now, a senior about to graduate with hopes of pursuing a PhD that will allow me to continue to delve into Asian American studies...I am certain that without both the symbolic and material importance of Asian American classes that I have taken this semester, I would've been more likely than not to characterize my experience at Harvard as unpleasantly white-washed and utterly insensitive to the specific needs of a woman of color. — Ashley Zhou AB ’17
...as a result of the few ethnic studies courses that were offered at Harvard...I began to realize that Asian American Studies, along with African American Studies and Latinx Studies, etc., is not merely about expanding your "world view" or of "building perspective." It involves the transfer and discovery of knowledge similar to learning that 1+1=2. You hear voices that never made it into the archives and learn about events that the history textbooks ignored. It is about continuing the long-running humility of social science that one cannot know all and that "truth,” as an ongoing project, will and should always remain subjective to an individual learner... All disciplines, no matter how much we’ve grown to take them for granted, are inherently and necessarily political and “activist” in favor of their own underlying assumptions.
All of this led me to partner up with a few like-minded peers on campus and lead the effort in rekindling a very old movement to institute Asian American Studies (along with other ethnic studies) on campus. Every challenge that we've encountered on the way—skeptical peers that have not been trained to think critically about knowledge systems and the reticence of our four-century-old institution to institute what they see as a political and "activist" field while it approved a secondary in European History, to name only a few—has reaffirmed the convictions and the reasons that we desperately need to succeed, all as laid out above. Respectfully submitted, Jenny Choi AB ’16
I was lucky enough to take Asian American History with a visiting Charles Warren Center Postdoctorate Fellow my senior year. As a Chinese American woman who grew up in Indiana, it was the first time I had the opportunity to learn the nuances in my history and the way that theorizing race and American-ness from the margins is able to illuminate the whole. Understanding the connectedness between Asian American history and broader shifts in immigration law, labor history, and race was invaluable in my position with an immigrant rights nonprofit after graduation. Making those connections between history, policy, and power provides the building blocks for coalition building and creating effective narratives in advocacy. Now as a law student, having the framework of power analysis that my ethnic studies classes taught me allows me to see the cases I read in multiple layers. Not just the words in the opinion, but the ways in which the legal reasoning connects to historical context, the socioeconomic backgrounds of the parties, and the judges on the court. This has made my legal education deeper and I look forward finding more opportunities to incorporate critical race theory and ethnic studies into my three years at HLS. — Ivy Yan AB ’15, HLS ’20
As an undergraduate from 2011-2015, I was committed to studying societal disparities and history of Latin@s in the United States. My advisers and I initially thought that pursuing a Social Studies concentration and Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights secondary would be sufficient in supporting my academic areas of interest, but they were both lacking in course offerings, advisers, and relevant research opportunities. One of my academic advisers suggested I would have better luck finding support in my academic areas of interest had I gone to a UC or UT. In connecting with peers at Yale, Stanford, University of Southern California, among others, I witnessed how readily their institutions supported them in connecting with resources, networks, and opportunities to study disparities in Latinx migration, mental health, economic development, etc. Harvard has the opportunity to create something truly great. Please do not keep relegating the study of race and ethnicity to under-resourced committees, limited course offerings, and well-meaning, but ill-prepared advisers. — Veronica Gloria AB ‘15
My foray into ethnic studies was in African American Studies and the one Asian American Studies course at Harvard. I wanted more Asian American Studies classes. It was these classes that influenced my switch from being an applied math major to pursuing a doctorate in sociology. Sadly, back then ethnic studies courses were few and far between, at other universities too; most were just one-time offerings. And because of that I had to search hard for courses to give me enough background knowledge to start work on my dissertation comparing Latino and Asian immigrant garment workers. — Margaret Chin AB ’84
After Harvard, in graduate work in clinical psychology, I was fortunate to be in a program that had an unusually strong focus on cross-cultural work and examined race, ethnicity and power. This and other post-Harvard training in race, gender and multiculturalism has been central to my work experiences, including working cross-culturally as an Infant/Parent Therapist, and also as a parent raising biracial children. As I see my teenagers navigating their community and such challenging times in our country, I know they and their peers will need a deep and broad understanding of both their own histories and identities and how they intersect with others. — Kristin Penner AB ’89
When I arrived at Harvard–Radcliffe, ethnic studies courses were so eye-opening to me that I decided to study the sociology of race relations. Eventually, I became an advocate and lawyer for homeless people, and my studies were key to helping me understand the role that race plays in shaping communities and institutions and in driving public policy. Promoting cross-cultural understanding should be at the core of every Harvard student’s education and central to Harvard’s mission of training citizen-leaders. — Jane Bock AB ’81
Ethnic studies helps us understand our own backgrounds but also helps allow for greater empathy as you better understand one's paradigm and the historical context that has informed one’s perspective and decision making. This becomes very apparent in the world of Medicine where we as doctors are often trying to educate patients about the specifics of their diseases and the pros and cons of their therapeutic options. — Mukesh Prasad AB ’93
As Harvard educates its students, a vital part of that education is to have all students leave the school with a greater understanding and appreciation of other cultures than they had when they arrived. Part of that education can come from interactions with students of different backgrounds, which is why it is continually important that Harvard admit a diverse student body. But another part of that education should come from students having the opportunity to participate in ethnic studies. The availability of a wide range of ethnic studies opportunities would demonstrate that Harvard is in the forefront of educating students to prepare them for a more diverse future. — Michael Williams ’81
It was only many years after graduation from Harvard, in conversations with the late Peter Kwong, a pioneering Asian American Studies professor at Hunter College, that I began to think about how the lack of cohesive networks among Asian Americans had held us back in attaining political power. This learning from Professor Kwong led directly to my founding Harvard’s Asian American Alumni Alliance in 2008, long after Harvard had begun graduating hundreds of Asian Americans per year. If my classmates and I had had access to ethnic studies professors like Professor Kwong, we would have been awakened to the historical imperative for organizing, to the benefit of both Harvard and the Asian American community. This is the kind of education that Harvard students need as they seek to make a difference in the world . — Eric Yeh AB ’98, SM ‘98
This is an area of study that is so obviously lacking at Harvard. Harvard should want to be a leader and innovator in the area Race and Ethnicity studies, just as it is in so many other areas of research. This should have been a no-brainer a long time ago. — Chasity Jennings-Nunez, HMS ’95 and HU Parent 2020
In June of 1993, UCLA's Chancellor Charles Young approved the Cesar Chavez Center for Inter-Disciplinary Instruction in Chicano Studies and allocated a budget of $300,000 to fund it. Since this time to the present, Harvard's executives have manifested a total neglect for Chicano/Latino Studies and related Ethnic Studies. This must be changed and the time is now. As a leader in education, Harvard must lead and establish the standards of excellence in Ethnic Studies that others can follow. The next president of Harvard University must [be] one who understands this need, sets it as a leadership goal, and works collectively with other stakeholders to realize it. — Gus Frias, Ed.M. ’94
I honestly can't believe we don't have this yet. Back in the early 1990s I helped organize campus visits and lectures by Asian American studies professors to try to get an ethnic studies concentration started. Such centers exist at many of our peer institutions, including Stanford, Yale and Columbia. Harvard lags way behind. — Nicole Woo AB ’92
Additional student testimonials can be found in the TAPAS-sponsored photo project “Our 45-Year Struggle.”