From the community | Stanford should get serious about building Asian American Studies

Jan. 3, 2022, 9:25 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 www.sapaac.org (Stanford Asian Pacific American Alumni Club) to find out more about the coalition’s efforts to advocate for Asian American Studies at Stanford.

We urge Stanford to provide funding and resources to hire and retain a diverse body of faculty to teach Asian American Studies (AAS) courses. We graduated Stanford as AAS majors in the early 2010s and experienced the program’s institutional challenges. Especially given the recent departure of Dr. William Gow — who taught several popular courses, including Introduction to Asian American Studies — we are disappointed that a decade after our graduation, difficulties attracting and retaining instructors who teach AAS courses persist.

To this day, AAS at Stanford cannot hire its own tenure-track faculty. AAS depends on professors from other departments and lecturers, primarily from other universities, to teach courses. When we were students, the quantity and availability of AAS classes each year was uncertain. The breadth of courses was limited. Few instructors taught more than one AAS class a year or could provide stable, long-term mentorship in the field. 

We had to be very intentional to major in AAS. We wanted to study a field driven by social justice and that teaches our histories. Majoring in AAS at Stanford, however, comes with institutional challenges. To ensure we completed our AAS major in addition to our other academic and extracurricular interests, we designed and redesigned four-year academic plans meticulously, with the support of many outside the program, such as the Asian American Activities Center, starting from the end of freshman year or the beginning of sophomore year. This process included self-advocating for independent research units so we could meet unit requirements and seeking mentors from other disciplines to conduct our research. This careful calculus is not possible for many students. Many peers told us that they were discouraged from majoring, minoring or taking a class in AAS because of these institutional hurdles.

Majoring, minoring or taking a class in AAS at Stanford should not be difficult.

Even more frustrating was when Stanford denied tenure to Professor Stephen Sohn in 2013. Professor Sohn was an Assistant Professor in English who taught many classes cross-listed with AAS. He was well-published and a mentor to us and countless other students. He won numerous awards for his teaching, including the Walter J. Gores Award, which is Stanford’s highest award for excellence in teaching. Students and communities rallied around reconsideration of Professor Sohn’s case for tenure, but his case was not reopened. Professor Sohn left Stanford in the summer of 2014.

Stanford’s professed goals of increasing faculty diversity, teaching inclusive curriculum, and developing global leaders is lip-service.

In 2018, we started hearing about a wonderful new professor who was teaching AAS courses, and that students were very excited about him. Dr. Gow dramatically helped increase the number of AAS majors and minors, and he taught foundational courses like “Introduction to AAS,” which had not been taught in over a decade.

Funding for Dr. Gow’s AAS courses was scarce and cobbled together from different sources. Dr. Gow was initially hired on a one-year contract through American Studies. The initial job announcement in American Studies did not request any AAS courses, and it was Dr. Gow who proposed that he teach them. AAS and History provided the additional funding that enabled Dr. Gow to teach AAS courses. Further, at the end of the academic year, Dr. Gow did not know if his position in American Studies would be renewed. AAS cannot and should not be sustained this way.

It is clear that Stanford drastically underfunds AAS. With an endowment of $41.9 billion as of October 2021, Stanford itself should be funding multiple tenure-track positions and multiple full-time lecturers in AAS, and any additional fundraising monies should be used for endowed chairs and programming. Instead, Stanford has so far not provided funding for even one full-time lecturer position in AAS. It is an embarrassment that Stanford depends on alumni donations, financial good-will from departments and the initiative of individuals who offer to teach AAS courses just to eke out one or two foundational AAS courses a year.

Dr. Gow left Stanford for Cal State University, Sacramento (Sac State) in the summer of 2021. Sac State recognized the importance of attracting and retaining faculty like Dr. Gow, and offered him a tenure-track AAS position. In response, Stanford offered Dr. Gow a three-year Associate Director position of AAS. The position had a reduced teaching load, but could later disappear, at which point Dr. Gow only might be able to return as a lecturer on a limited-term contract. After it was announced, Sac State’s Ethnic Studies Department felt the applicant pool was so strong that it asked to hire a second tenure-track AAS position, which the Cal State University administration approved. Therefore, Sac State was able to give two tenure-track job offers: Dr. Gow and Dr. Wendi Yamashita. At the time, Sac State already had three tenure-track positions in AAS along with a number of full-time lecturers. 

In contrast, Stanford, an institution that conducts and publishes research about the benefits of ethnic studies, has no tenure-track or full-time lecturers in AAS. 

Professor Sohn left Stanford nearly seven years ago. He continues to mentor us and others, however, by advising us about navigating the workplace as young professionals and connecting us with his undergraduate students who are interested in learning more about our careers. Professor Sohn is currently an endowed chair at Fordham University, and his latest book won the 2020 Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities and Cultural Studies. By failing to retain Professor Sohn, Stanford deprived generations of Stanford students incredible opportunities to learn and conduct cutting-edge scholarship. We can only imagine the loss that comes with Dr. Gow’s recent departure.

Stanford is losing brilliant instructors who can teach AAS, and actively facilitates that attrition.

Stanford has a history of undervaluing the contributions of professors who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) or whose scholarship focuses on BIPOC people, such as Aishwary Kumar and Akhil Gupta. If Stanford capitalizes on the labor of instructors in fields like AAS and wants to practice what it preaches regarding its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, then it needs to treat the people who teach these courses with respect and offer competitive packages that attract and retain them.

There are many ethical, academic and competitive reasons to hire and retain a diverse body of faculty to teach AAS courses at Stanford, especially when the University is located in California, where ethnic studies is a required class to graduate from high school and from Cal State Universities and community colleges. In the end, it is up to Stanford to stop systematically undermining AAS and start a good-faith investment in faculty who contribute to its vibrancy. Anything less is an affront to Stanford’s students and scholarship.

Victoria Yee, Esq. (she/her) graduated Class of 2013 with a B.A. in Asian American Studies with honors, a minor in Chinese, and an M.A. in Sociology. Thuy-Van (Tina) Hang, M.D. (she/her) graduated Class of 2012 with a B.A.S. in Asian American Studies with honors and Biology.

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