The fight for a concrete Asian American studies program at Williams College made significant progress this year when the Williams Curricular Planning Committee, comprised of faculty, staff and students, recommended a renewed push to hire more Asian American studies faculty at Williams. It is notable that the Asian American studies initative at Williams, led by student activists, has often consulted with Amherst’s own Asian American Studies Working Group on how to pressure a college administration to commit to an Asian American studies program. Now, as their efforts continue to make tangible progress — and while the 35-yearlong efforts by Asian American studies activists at Amherst fall on deaf ears — one can only wonder how long the college will hold out to get on the same page as Williams.
With a whopping 20 percent of the members of the class of 2023 self-identifying as Asian American and/or Pacific Islander students, the Asian-American community, now 14 percent of the overall student body, continues to grow at Amherst. Yet, efforts to create a comprehensive Asian American studies major, which would greatly expand academic opportunities for students interested in learning about the Asian-American experience and identity, have been stymied by the college’s unwillingness to establish such a program. In that vein, the Editorial Board urges the current administration to support and create a comprehensive plan to hire more Asian American studies faculty, add new courses concentrating on Asian-American experiences and commit to creating an eventual Asian American studies major.
Despite the activism by students, faculty and alumni to establish a Asian American studies program at the college, the administration remains wishy washy. This kind of attitude is not exclusive to Amherst. According to NBC News, fewer than 50 colleges and universities — one of which is now Williams College — have academic programs dedicated to the history, culture and experiences of the Asian-American identity. As an elite college in the sphere of liberal arts education, Amherst stands in a position to lead by example.
To some, the current offerings at Amherst and within the Five College Consortium might seem adequate. After all, the American studies department offers students a concentration in Asian American studies while the consortium offers an Asian & Asian American studies certificate. While these developments, created from the tireless efforts of student activists, represent strides in the progress for a program on the Asian-American identity, they only scratch the surface. An Asian American studies major would expand academic opportunity for students, faculty and alumni, regardless of their background.
Take the current course offerings related to Asian American studies, for example. For the spring 2020 semester, students interested in Asian American studies can only take two classes that concentrate on the Asian-American identity: “The Asian American Experience” and “World War II and Japanese Americans.” Courses like these are an integral foundation for an Asian American studies major, but as they are now, it is simply not enough. The Asian-American experience is one that encompasses different communities and cultures and centuries of history, starting from the first Filipino immigrants to the United States in 1587, according to istorian Eloisa Borah. Asian Americans face hurdles in the workplace, in schools and throughout larger society. The model minority myth — created by white Americans as a racial wedge between Asians and other minority groups according to reporting by NPR — continues to have harmful effects on the Asian-American community. Asian Americans face what is now called the “bamboo ceiling,” a term coined by Jane Hyun that represents the racism and discrimination against Asians in professional settings. Two classes are not enough to unpack the social, political and historical complexities of the Asian-American identity.
To be clear, this lack of course offerings is not the fault of the faculty members who offer them to the student body. In fact, the faculty, many of whom strongly advocate for the creation of a comprehensive Asian American studies major, has played and continues to play a critical role in expanding Asian American studies. But the number of tenured or tenure-track Asian Americanists at the college — a grand total of four — only reinforces the dearth of Asian-American faculty members at Amherst, especially those who specialize in the broad topic of the Asian-American identity. According to a 2019 article by Shawna Chen ‘20 “A Flawed System” series in The Student, Asian or Pacific Islander faculty members make up 7.8 percent of the overall faculty. By contrast, self-identifying Asian-American students represent 14 percent of the student body, while students of color make up 45 percent. The discrepancy is clear.
At the bare minimum, the college should make a more dedicated effort to hiring more tenure-track faculty members of color and expanding course options relating to identities of color. But the bare minimum is not a satisfactory goal. It’s not enough for the students, faculty and alumni who advocate for an Asian American studies major, and it’s not enough for the “diverse” future that Amherst continues to tout in its marketing and promotional materials.
Despite a lack of support from the administration, the community has demonstrated time and time again its call for an Asian American studies major. This year alone, as of this editorial’s publication, nine seniors are pursuing thesis projects that focus on the Asian-American experience and identity. Having a strong foundation in place would provide these students with the necessary academic and personal support systems to succeed. The Asian American Studies Working Group is continuing to pressure the college to institute more resources, with the help of faculty and alumni. It is now up to the college and the administration to recognize their tireless efforts and commit itself and its vast resources to this fight.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 13; dissenting: 0; abstaining: 0)