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Lecturer’s departure renews concern over lack of tenured Asian American Studies faculty

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The departure of Asian American Studies (AAS) lecturer William Gow for a tenure-track position at Cal State Sacramento has heightened calls for increased tenure-track funding and resources for Stanford’s AAS program.

In light of the past year’s rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and the mandate of ethnic studies in California State universities and community colleges, Stanford students and alumni are feeling a new urgency in bolstering the AAS program. 

In the past, the University has faced scrutiny over its lack of support for ethnic studies programs. The University’s Framework Task Force recommended the departmentalization of the African and African-American Studies program in February following decades of Black student activism. Stanford’s AAS program is not currently departmentalized.

“Both the AAS faculty and school understand how important it is for Stanford to have a strong AAS program,” wrote University spokesperson Joy Leighton. “AAS is working to build on [its current] momentum.” 

Tenure-track troubles in AAS 

Students have fought for a more robust AAS program for decades — activists interrupted a Faculty Senate meeting in 1994 to push for the program’s establishment. In 2014, former professor of English Stephen Sohn’s denial of tenure sparked concerns for AAS’s future. 

The number of AAS faculty has increased in recent years, and Gow’s revamping of AMSTUD 100: “Introduction to Asian American Studies” in 2019 led more students to major or minor in AAS, according to a June email from AAS faculty director Jeanne Tsai.

Lindsey Chou ’23, the Asian American Activities Center’s liaison for AAS, said, “I’ve gotten some people to take Asian American Studies classes purely because of how much I rave about Dr. Gow.” 

However, with Gow leaving Stanford for a tenure-track position, familiar concerns are emerging among students and alumni who question the sufficiency of the program’s funding and resources. 

“The Asian American Studies Program at Stanford is not as developed as it is at many universities,” Gow said. “And part of that is due to the fact that the University doesn’t provide as many resources as it possibly might, in terms of supporting the program.” 

He compared Stanford’s AAS program to other universities that engage in high-level research: For example, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, Los Angeles, both hire faculty specifically for their ethnic studies or AAS programs, according to Gow. 

Stanford, on the other hand, does not have specifically designated AAS lecturers. Stanford’s AAS lecturers are housed under other programs and consequently split their time between AAS and their home departments, resulting in fewer AAS courses. 

“Honestly, there’s not very many classes in the Asian American Studies program,” Chou said. She attributed the low number of AAS majors and minors to the lack of “a broad enough assortment of classes for them to take and enough opportunities within the program.” 

Even with the increase in student interest, only 10 students were majoring or minoring in AAS in the 2020-2021 academic year, and two recently graduated. Chou said that higher numbers of majors and minors may help demonstrate student interest to the University, but with the insufficient resources, students may hesitate to declare an AAS major or minor. 

News of Gow’s departure reached comparative studies in race and ethnicity alum Anthony Ocampo ’03. Ocampo — now a sociology professor at Cal Poly Pomona — expressed his disappointment in the lack of AAS tenure-track professors.

“To me, it doesn’t really make sense,” Ocampo said. “Except if you make the argument that Stanford doesn’t really care about Asian American Studies.”

Ocampo said that given that Asian students comprise 25% of the undergraduate population alongside Stanford’s $28.9 billion endowment, he questioned the lack of tenure-track positions and resources. 

The University declined to comment on funding and personnel information.

Given Gow’s departure, Chou isn’t sure that interest levels will remain as high as in recent years, but remains hopeful.

“I just fell in love with the class content, with the community that I found within each of my AAS classes, as well as the professors and lecturers who all — from what I could tell — really care about the subject,” Chou said. “So I think we’ll continue to fight so that lecturers like Dr. Gow are able to have more secure positions in the future.” 

The future of AAS 

Stanford plans to hire lecturers to fill Gow’s curricular gaps and create an AAS associate director position to support programmatic development and teaching needs, according to Leighton. The associate director will work with incoming faculty director Stephen Sano after Jeanne Tsai’s three-year term as faculty director ends this fall.

“[T]he future is very promising,” the University wrote of the upcoming changes. 

Yuhe Faye Wang will join as a new half-time lecturer this year, according to Program in American Studies Director Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

“Stanford still needs to address the dearth of tenure-track faculty teaching Asian American Studies, particularly given our large Asian American student population,” Fishkin wrote. “But in the interim, having classes taught by Yuhe Faye Wang can help.”

The Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club’s Asian American Studies Coalition (SAPAAC AASC) is also working to bring change to the AAS program. AASC outreach committee leader Tina Hang ’12 said that alums feel “there hasn’t been much change in terms of promoting Asian American Studies and getting the faculty that we need to keep the major sustainable.” SAPAAC AASC is currently gathering testimonies from Asian American alumni. 

Hang said that many testimonies characterize AAS as particularly important given current events and the personal impact of AAS.

“I met graduate students who were doing work in Asian American history like Dawn Mabalon ’04, and her class pretty much changed the trajectory of my life,” Ocampo said. “Had I never had her, I don’t think I would have actually become a writer, or professor.”

Jasmine Nguyen ’23, co-founder of Diversify Our Narrative, a student organization promoting diverse literature in high school curriculum, said that the AAS program “helped me understand how I got here, and what it means to be a person of color.”

As Gow moves on to Cal State Sacramento, he hopes that Stanford’s AAS program continues to support “great students” and “great colleagues.” 

“I know if Stanford decides to put its full commitment behind the field of ethnic studies and behind the field of Asian American Studies, Stanford really could develop into being one of the centers of Asian American Studies research, not only in California, but across the United States,” Gow said. 

This article has been updated with information about Yuhe Faye Wang, a new half-time lecturer, and comments from Program in American Studies Director Shelley Fisher Fishkin.

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Rebecca Zhang is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact her at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.