Dartmouth Students Petitioning University for Asian American Studies Program

After a year that put a spotlight on anti-Asian racism, students around the country have been petitioning their schools to create curriculums that reflect the moment.,

After a year that put a spotlight on anti-Asian racism, students around the country have been petitioning their schools to create curriculums that reflect the moment.

On a Saturday afternoon in September, the kind of day most college students would spend sprawled on a quad, soaking up the moments that still feel like summer, the Dartmouth Asian American Student Collective was getting organized. Its members had gathered to finalize a mission statement and a petition to circulate across campus.

Their goal? Persuade the administration of Dartmouth College to create an Asian American studies program.

Lily Ren, who led the meeting with her classmate Maanasi Shyno, said that taking classes that centered Asian American experiences at Dartmouth helped her better understand her own identity. “Because I was so transformed by these classes, I thought: How many other students didn’t have the opportunity to also learn so much, just because there were so few of them offered and you couldn’t major or minor in it?” she said in an interview in November.

In the group’s statement, which was released in October with the petition, its members outline why they believe such a program is necessary today, citing widespread incidents of anti-Asian racism and violence. To date, the group has collected nearly 1,200signatures from students, parents and faculty.

The fight for Asian American studies at Dartmouth dates back several decades and is part of a larger academic movement that began in the 1960s. Though there have been minor victories at Dartmouth — new classes, new hires — change has been incremental, and a full program has yet to be formalized.

But this time could be different. After all, Asian American studies programs have often come into being during times of social unrest and change, as a result of student activism.

Ms. Shyno and Ms. Ren, both 20 and double majors in sociology and gender studies, were not always student activists. In April, however, they were attending a virtual town hall with Asian American alumni and faculty when, halfway through, someone asked who was leading the student movement at Dartmouth today. The response was a long silence, they said.

“All the students working on this prior burned out or graduated, which is unfortunately what happens with student movements,” Ms. Shyno said. “That’s when we decided that we could be the ones to start it up again.”

The Dartmouth Asian Pacific American Alumni Association has compiled a history of such activism in a timeline that dates back to 1979. The timeline also refers to peer institutions, like Cornell University, which started the first Asian American studies program in the Ivy League in 1987, and Northwestern University, which introduced its own program in 1999 — a few years after students participated in a nearly monthlong hunger strike, in which they refused to eat meals.

In 2001, seven Dartmouth professors proposed a list of initiatives, including an Asian American studies minor and a building to serve as a centralized hub for related programs. At the same time, the issue was gaining attention among students.

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Ms. Ren and Ms. Shyno decided to take up the Asian American studies cause when they realized “all the students working on this prior burned out or graduated.”Credit…Lauren O’Neil for The New York Times

“When I arrived on campus, it was probably the first time, like many other Asian Americans, where I was really exposed to the history and study of our community,” said Morna Ha, who graduated from Dartmouth in 2004 and now serves as the alumni group’s chair of the subcommittee on Asian American studies.

As an undergraduate, Ms. Ha led an Asian American studies task force. “The work that we were doing then was similar, unfortunately, to a lot of the work that’s being done now,” she said.

After Ms. Ha graduated, several professors were hired to focus on Asian American studies. “But unfortunately,” she said, “Dartmouth has a really terrible track record of retaining these experts.”

Aimee Bahng, who started teaching in Dartmouth’s English department in 2009 and specialized in Asian American literature, was denied tenure in 2016. Students, concerned about the prospect of losing a mentor and faculty member of color, started organizing, posting on Twitter under the hashtags #Fight4FacultyOfColor and #DontDoDartmouth. The story made headlines, and there was even a Change.org petition written by Dartmouth faculty that received close to 4,000 signatures.

Diana Lawrence, the associate vice president for communications at Dartmouth, said in a statement: “Mathematically, there is no significant difference in tenure rates between women and men or between white and BIPOC faculty at Dartmouth.” The statement added that the college is “making notable progress in its efforts to recruit and retain faculty of color.”

Ms. Lawrence also wrote that “Dartmouth students who wish to major in Asian American studies may choose to do so regardless of whether there is a program currently in place. The College offers many courses in that area, including opportunities to study abroad.”

Ms. Bahng, now an associate professor of gender and women’s studies at Pomona College, said that the status of tenure holds the stakes of defining whether “a faculty member will be protected and job-secure in their effort to teach these subjugated knowledges and marginalized histories.”

“The push that Dartmouth is currently in,” Ms. Bahng added, “is informed by students and faculty members who’ve been through this before.”

Twenty-one percent of Dartmouth’s class of 2025 is Asian American, according to the college’s admissions site. And across the United States, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group, almost doubling in size to 18.9 million from about 10.5 million between 2000 and 2019, according to the Pew Research Center.

Still, Asian American identity has been fraught in education. Because Asian Americans have been viewed as the “model minority” — stereotyped as high academic and financial achievers — institutions have not always considered them a protected class.

In 2020, a Washington State school district was the center of a controversy for excluding students of Asian descent from a category labeled “students of color” in a 2019 performance report. “While our intent was never to ignore Asian students as ‘students of color’ or ignore any systemic disadvantages they too have faced, we realize our category choices caused pain and had racist implications,” the district later responded in a statement.

Eng-Beng Lim, an associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Dartmouth, said that same attitude could in part be why the college has yet to form a program. “My students have reported stories of how the pushback from the upper administrators included sentiments about how Asian Americans are not a minority group,” he said.

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Dartmouth is one of several schools where students have petitioned administrators to hire more Asian American professors and expand the curriculum.Credit…Lauren O’Neil for The New York Times

In March, after shootings at several Atlanta spas that resulted in the deaths of eight people, six of whom were women of Asian descent, Mr. Lim led an effort to press the college to hire a tenured professor in Asian American studies and also provide funding for the field. “We ask that the College address the urgency of anti-Asian violence across the U.S. that has only intensified during the pandemic by examining the paucity of Asian American offerings on our campus,” read the petition, which received hundreds of signatures.

Dartmouth’s Asian Pacific American Alumni Association held a meeting with the college’s senior administrators, including the college president, Philip Hanlon, in April, where they discussed the petition and the history of this advocacy. Ariel Xue, a 2008 alumna who attended the meeting, recalled the administrators saying that “the president has an agreement with the faculty to allow them intellectual freedoms so that they govern the curriculum, that this is basically considered purely within their realm, and there’s really nothing that the college can do to influence that.”

But Ms. Xue said that she and other alumni don’t buy into that logic. “What is the administration’s duty, morally and intellectually, if not to address systemic racism in this structure?”

Ms. Lawrence, the Dartmouth spokeswoman, reiterated that new courses and programs of study are the domain of educators, not administrators.

“Faculty members who have an interest in — or who are currently teaching courses in — Asian American studies are exploring the possibility of developing an Asian American studies minor, including assessing the number of established course offerings in this area and how many additional courses would need to be offered to constitute a robust minor,” she wrote in an email. Dartmouth also noted that a search is underway “for a faculty member in Asian American literature.”

The movement at Dartmouth is one of several that amassed support on campuses last year. After the Atlanta shootings, students at Davidson College in North Carolina gathered for an event called Why Davidson Needs Asian Studies Now More Than Ever. That same month, Georgetown University’s student newspaper, The Hoya, published an editorial urging the university to establish an Asian American studies program, given the rise in anti-Asian violence.

“What happens in the academy often follows what happens on the streets,” said Diane Fujino, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and an editor of the forthcoming anthology “Contemporary Asian American Activism.” “This is a moment that’s unprecedented in terms of national attention to Asian American issues and concerns, rising out of Covid and the attacks on Asian Americans and, of course, Atlanta.”

There are several precedents for the current wave of activism. During the 1960s and 1970s, as the Black Power Movement, the women’s movement and anti-Vietnam War movement were gaining momentum, Asian Americans began organizing too. In 1968, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, two graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, started the Asian American Political Alliance, which historians often cite as one of the earliest uses of the term “Asian American” to unite the ethnic subgroups of Asian descent.

That same year, the Asian American Political Alliance joined the Black Student Union and other student groups at San Francisco State University to form the Third World Liberation Front coalition, resulting in one of the longest student-led strikes in U.S. history. Subsequently, the university formed the first college of ethnic studies in the country.

In 1969, the University of California, Los Angeles, established its Asian American Studies Center. The University of California, Santa Barbara, formed the first academic department devoted to Asian American studies at a major research university, in 1995.

The students at Dartmouth see their current efforts as a continuation of this legacy. After a winter break spent planning future campaigns, Ms. Shyno and Ms. Ren are hoping to meet with upper administrators and share the work they’ve done.

“We really want to pull the administration more into these conversations,” Ms. Shyno said. “We’re very confident that this premier institution has the capability and expertise to build Asian American studies, and we need to make sure that it happens.”

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