From the community: What is Stanford’s responsibility in a time of racial reckoning?

Opinion by Judy Tzu-Chun Wu
Oct. 21, 2021, 5:01 p.m.

This series from the community features members of the SAPAAC Asian American Studies Coalition from different generations, sharing their first-hand experiences as Asian Americans on campus. Visit (Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club) to find out more about the coalition’s efforts to advocate for Asian American Studies at Stanford.

It is with great excitement and some disappointment that I approach my 30th reunion at Stanford. When I was a sophomore, I was arrested for engaging in protest, staging a takeover of then-President Donald Kennedy’s office. I did so with African American, American Indian, Asian American, Chicano/a and white allies. We had engaged in a year-long campaign to advocate for the hiring of ethnic studies faculty, the review of ethnic studies programs to bolster their resources, full-time deans for all the student centers that support students of color, among other issues. These changes could have helped us find a home at Stanford, a place where we could flourish instead of being tokenized and marginalized. 

I became inspired to take action when Ujamaa, the Black theme dorm, was attacked. Assailants defaced fliers in the dorm, scrawling the N-word and drawing derogatory caricatures. I wasn’t living there, but I believed it was wrong for these acts of hatred to take place and for our University community to not take a stance. 

In my mind, Stanford should be a place where people of diverse backgrounds could learn together. But what we were learning was inadequate. How much was the University supporting courses, faculty and programs that could teach us about race and cultural differences? These classes could help us understand how racial divisions have fundamentally structured our collective society and our respective identities. 

Most of the faculty and administrators at Stanford patronized us by agreeing with our general goal but not making any financial commitments. It was only after our collective arrest that Stanford leaders made substantive changes, including hiring the first two Asian American Studies professors. As an undergraduate student, I served on the search committee that appointed Professors Gordon Chang and David Palumbo-Liu. I was also on the committee that hired the first full-time dean for the Asian American Activities Center.

When I reflect on my life, I know my time as a student activist at Stanford has fundamentally defined who I am. I stayed at Stanford to study with Professor Chang, becoming his first Ph.D. student. Currently, I am a professor in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine and also the faculty director of the Humanities Center. I am a scholar and educator, invested in exploring pressing social issues, particularly those focused on race, class, gender, sexuality and citizenship. My forthcoming book is a co-authored biography of Patsy Takemoto Mink, the first woman of color in Congress and the namesake for Title IX.

So, why am I disappointed in Stanford, a place that has in many ways molded my identity? Instead of flourishing, Asian American Studies has largely remained stagnant. Other universities have grown their faculty, established departments and created research institutes. In contrast, Asian American Studies at Stanford continues to be unstable with sporadic course offerings. The program relies on lecturers and the volunteer labor of faculty whose departmental appointments are elsewhere. There also is a rotating exit of dedicated professors who do not receive tenure. Asian American Studies at Stanford is like a rickety house, propped up and buttressed, rather than standing on a solid foundation that will allow it to flourish. 

For a university on the West Coast, particularly one that was established with wealth accumulated through the exploitation of Chinese railroad workers, this state of affairs is inexcusable.

We are experiencing a racial reckoning in this country and around the world. What has Stanford done to prepare generations of students to become future leaders? How many students have had to acquire their own knowledge through activism, classes taught by other students or temporary instructors and independent study in spite of the University? Stanford prides itself on being an academic leader that can help solve the grand challenges of the 21st century. These issues include climate change, healthcare, technology and our ability to live with one another across racial divides. Isn’t it time for the University to seriously invest in the educational and research infrastructure of Asian American Studies and other ethnic studies fields? Stanford should be at the forefront, instead of on the back heels, in addressing the racial crises of our time.

Judy Tzu-Chun Wu ’92 M.A. ’93 Ph.D. ’98

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