Across the country a number of collegiate-level Asian American studies programs are feeling the heat as schools slash budgets and, for some programs, the threat of being cut entirely looms.
Faced with budget cuts, the University of Texas’ Asian American Studies department is just one of many Asian American programs grappling with funding cuts, with a projected 25% cut to be phased out over three years.
“Older and larger programs have more clout on campus,” said Madeline Hsu, director of the Asian American Studies program at UT. “Because Asian American Studies and programs such as Vietnamese language are less established on campus, comparatively speaking we are much more vulnerable.”
The University of Texas is not alone. Due to the economic recession, ethnic studies programs at the University of Pennsylvania, University of California – Santa Cruz and California State – Los Angeles have faced similar problems in the past.
And in Arizona, ethnic studies as a whole are being threatened under the premise that the program is divisive.
With limited funding, programs are forced to compromise their curriculum.
“The integrity of the program is under question when things are defined by [a] budget,” said Jaya Soni, who was a full-time adviser for the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective at UT. “I think the faculty and administration might feel a pull to follow research interest that might be more beneficial to university interest rather than their own research interest or the benefit of knowledge.”
Robyn Rodriguez, a faculty member at the University of California – Davis’ Asian American Studies program had similar concerns.
“We are a field of study and a[n] approach of teaching that came really out of democratic movement,” Rodriguez said. “I worry that we will lose sight of our origins. What happens is that people might take a[n] accommodating type of strategy to these sort of attacks.”
The reason for Asian American studies to be threatened in particular is because there is not a strong enough constituency, said Ramey Ko, an associate judge at the Austin Municipal Court and a lecturer at UT.
“(The current) Economic recession coupled with heavy cuts in education funds have really created a situation where a lot of people feel that Asian American programs are on the chopping block,” said Ko. “There’s a feeling that we’re not as well organized and that we don’t need the funding.”
Soni felt that the “model minority” stereotype contributed to a sense that Asian Americans aren’t as in need.
“Particularly within the Asian American community, folks that think there is no need for the program because there’s high retention at school and their academic achievements are fantastic,” she said.
But the nation’s Asian population is the fastest growing race according to the 2010 Census, and experienced a 43% increase over the decade.
As the constituency base for Asian Americans grows, many in the field feel that the only way to stay relevant is to cater to the community.
“Asian American studies isn’t just about sitting in the classroom and holding hands and talking about a group of people,” said Adriel Luis, an alumni of UC Davis’ Asian American Studies program, but rather, an understanding of how Asians have gotten where they are now.
But insiders feel that there is much more work to be done.
Larry Shinagawa, the director of Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland said that he hopes the program at Maryland will grow to accommodate more community-based research.
“We’re focused on a lot of post modern and cultural studies because that tends to give you much high[er] status in terms of academia, but it’s really not that relevant to the modern issues and concerns of Asian Americans,” Shinagawa said.
Advocacy groups have since realized the importance of staying relevant and have been pushing for the growth of Asian American studies on college campuses.
Students in Rutgers University and Williams College have drafted petitions to convince their respective administrations to add an Asian American Studies concentration to their campus.
“Most Asian American students fall into the stereotype of the submissive and studious math-science student and so most just don’t see it as a priority to push for on campus,” said Melinda Wang, who is part of the attempt to bring Asian American studies to Williams College.
Wang has been holding meetings with the administration and hopes to eventually make a breakthrough by utilizing student petitions and urging alumni pressure.
“The main struggle is student engagement,” said Luis, who was heavily involved in student activism during his time at UC Davis. “Even though there are a lot of Asians in some colleges, it’s hard to get people to care.”
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