Stanford cut its only Cantonese lectureship. Now, organizers are campaigning to secure its future

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Student and alumni organizers have launched an initiative that aims to establish an endowed Cantonese instructor position to amplify the language and cultural education at Stanford for years to come. The organizers say their campaign is a grassroots effort to highlight the importance of Cantonese and minority language education — affected not only by budget shortfalls but also by a political climate that has abetted anti-Asian racism.

News broke in December that the Language Center had cut the Cantonese program’s only lectureship — held by Sik Lee Dennig Ph.D. ’92 since the program’s founding in 1997 — and replaced the spot with an hourly instructor. Sadness and outrage quickly turned into action, and an advocacy effort led by students and alumni was born. Their primary goal has been restoring the full-time lectureship to avoid high turnover, which organizers say would put the program in a state of perpetual flux.

Advocates are calling their new blueprint the Cantonese Studies Initiative, which would protect the program from future financial strain and permanently tie Cantonese to Stanford’s teaching mission. The initiative also aims to financially support faculty and graduate student research that intersects with Cantonese studies.

It emphasizes what Cantonese brings to Stanford, according to Jamie Tam ’10, who is coordinating the Save Cantonese coalition, “because Cantonese is not just a language. It’s a culture, it’s a community, and it’s a people.”

Tam, an assistant professor of public health at Yale University, has an emotional connection to the program: The Cantonese courses she took with Dennig as an undergraduate were instrumental in reconnecting with her grandmother and heritage, she said.

Before the launch of the Cantonese Studies Initiative earlier this year, around 2,000 Stanford affiliates and non-affiliated individuals each signed onto a petition that urged the University to reestablish a full-time Cantonese instructor position, offer the same number of courses and allow those courses to fulfill the language requirement.

The University partially acquiesced to the calls by committing to offering at least two of the four existing Cantonese classes next academic year. But Stanford has refused to reinstate the salaried Cantonese lectureship.

Tam said that while the group’s efforts are building momentum, “by no means is the future of Cantonese guaranteed.”

Only after the petition garnered media attention and social media traction did Tam and other organizers — including Maciej Kurzynski, a Ph.D. student in Chinese, and Jocelyn Lee, a Ph.D. student in anthropology — feel that they made inroads in their outreach to administrators.

Tam, Kurzynski, Lee and other organizers recently met with R. Lanier Anderson, the Senior Associate Dean for the Humanities and Arts to discuss the petition demands. While the group did not receive any promises of funding or expanded course offerings, the meeting signaled to Tam that the University was willing to engage in dialogue.

One promising outcome, according to Tam, was that Anderson indicated that the University would be open to considering an endowed teaching position if funding under certain conditions can be secured.

School of Humanities and Sciences spokesperson Joy Leighton told The Daily that following Anderson’s meeting with alumni of the Cantonese language program, the “school has incorporated their ideas about funding alongside several other priorities that best meet the needs of our students and faculty in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures.” Leighton added that faculty members will continue to keep the organizers’ proposals in mind.

Tam said that the Save Cantonese campaign has been searching to identify outside donors who could support a Cantonese program at Stanford. She added that Anderson made clear in the meeting that the University would not accept crowdfunding to endow the Cantonese lectureship.

The University declined to comment on whether it considers crowdfunding as a legitimate source of funding, but did say that the dollar amount needed to endow a position would be dependent on the specific details of the program, which is determined by the department, the Language Center, Stanford administrators and donors in consultation with the Office of Development.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned from our campaign is that it’s not necessarily getting the money — it’s about getting the money in a way that the University is willing to accept it,” Tam said.

Although the search for funding is ongoing, chemistry Ph.D. student and Save Cantonese organizer Tao Large said that the campaign remains focused on “articulating the urgency behind and the importance of the program,” adding that over 35 Stanford faculty members —  including political science and sociology professor Larry Diamond and history professor Gordon Chang, the senior associate vice provost for undergraduate education — have expressed their support for the Cantonese Studies Initiative by signing the petition or through email.

Tam also said that more courses, in addition to the two that the University has already committed to teaching, may be offered depending on the number of student requests the Language Center receives. She urged interested students to contact the Language Center’s student services officer by June 1, the deadline set by the Language Center to prepare for courses taught in the next academic year.

Amid a surge in hate crimes targeting Asian Americans, the Save Cantonese organizers said that institutions had an obligation to center Asian and Pacific Islander (API) communities. Tam said that when she heard the responses to the attack in Atlanta, she reflected on the discrepancies between political, business and education leaders’ public statements and actions.

“Speaking out against hate while not investing in Asian American communities strikes me as hypocritical,” Tam said. “If you want to support and uplift API communities, invest in them.”

Although Stanford leaders have condemned the acts of violence, the University could be unconsciously engaging in other forms of oppression, according to Tam.

“When you minimize minority languages, make cuts to programs that serve ethnic minorities, you’re committing a kind of cultural violence as well,” Tam said, adding that it should not have taken a surge in racial violence “to get people to care about investing in API communities and language education.”

When asked whether the University planned to invest in the Asian American Studies program in light of the uptick in violence, Leighton declined to comment but condemned the violence and racism against Asians and Asian Americans.

Large, a fourth-generation Chinese American, said that although anti-Asian racism is deeply rooted in American history, the attention surrounding the issue provides the University an opportunity to “use this moment and acknowledge a history of scapegoating to prepare students to interact with other cultures and avoid the backlash that comes from not understanding other cultures.”

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Cameron Ehsan is a staff writer for the News section covering faculty affairs. He is studying biology and American studies. Contact him at cehsan ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.