The Demise of Michigan’s A/PIA Studies Program

For over two decades, the University of Michigan Asian/Pacific Islander American (A/PIA) Studies Program has drawn local and national acclaim for its mission to educate and empower students, while drawing attention to critical issues that impact Asian American and Pacific Islander communities on and off campus. While the A/PIA Studies Program was never granted more than a tiny fraction of the resources other programs and departments received, we made creative use of what we had to build a sense of community within a historically-white institution where people of color are routinely marginalized. Rooted in the struggles and sacrifices of our communities and our ancestors, students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community supporters fought to build up the program as a vital space to develop critical anti-racist strategies and advance movements for social justice.

Tragically, this has all been undermined by the university over the past 1.5 years. This is part of a pattern of U-M paying lip service to “diversity” while failing to take actual steps to achieve equity. The attacks on A/PIA Studies are an increasingly common sign of institutional racism, corruption, and opportunism in the corporate university. They will ultimately harm the entire university and damage its reputation, as one of the key sites of student success and leadership development evaporates.

It has become evident that the people put in charge of running the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LSA) and the Department of American Culture (AC) have no commitment to preserving what we all built — let alone providing the kind of expansion that we all know is needed. A/PIA Studies has no dedicated staff or office space, and it needs more classes, more faculty, and a real budget.

The result is that A/PIA Studies is nearly defunct. We need to make this as clear as can be:the organizing of A/PIA Studies programs or events has nearly ceased for three semesters running.

What is now at stake is the permanent loss of what all of us have created.

SEVERE CUTS TO FACULTY A/PIA

Studies has lost 6 full-time faculty members whose expertise has not been replaced. For example, there is not a single scholar of Asian American or Pacific Islander history among the roughly 80 professors in the History Department. There are no professors whose research and teaching focus on Chinese, Korean, or Southeast Asian Americans. Furthermore, U-M has made minimal effort to retain A/PIA faculty and has generally not come close to matching offers from other universities. Attempts to hire prominent professors from other universities have repeatedly been blocked, including two attempts to hire the first Vietnamese American Studies specialist and one to hire the first expert on Muslim Asian Americans. Undergrad and grad students have lost critical mentors. The voices of faculty who were most devoted to the program are gone, and the few remaining faculty have been silent and inactive in the face of this crisis.

LOSS OF A/PIA STUDIES CLASSES

A/PIA Studies curriculum has gone from offering 8–10 classes per semester to 2 classes in Winter 2015, taught by temporary lecturers. While there are 6 classes scheduled for Fall 2015, 2 of these are being taught by a non-tenure track lecturer whom U-M tried to layoff earlier this year. All A/PIA Studies classes are subject to approval by the AC department. Despite strong student demand, the chair of AC has refused to offer classes like “Chinese American Experience” or “US-India Relations” even when there were funds and qualified instructors available. Scholarship and internship programs we created have also died. Moreover, A/PIA Studies grad students have lost opportunities to take grad seminars and receive training as GSIs in A/PIA Studies.

Three years ago, U-M hired the chair of the Asian American Studies Department at the University of Illinois with the intention that this professor would help rebuild A/PIA Studies at U-M. This professor has received a salary raise from $104,000 to over $136,000 per year (with generous additional benefits) making her far and away the highest paid A/PIA Studies professor in U-M history. (No one else has even earned six figures.) However, she has broken agreements made with the program by refusing to teach a single course focused on Asian Americans and playing almost no role in developing the program. With A/PIA Studies enrollment and minors plummeting, the administration now has the excuse it needs to permanently marginalize the program.

DEATH OF LONGSTANDING PUBLIC PROGRAMS AND ACTIVISM

A/PIA Studies had a long-standing tradition of organizing regular events to serve the community and raise awareness about social issues like hate crimes, the “model minority” stereotype, and institutional racism. The Fall Welcome Reception and HolidAPA (to celebrate student achievement and activism) were held continuously since 2000 but ended in 2013. These events drew hundreds of students, featured internationally renowned scholars and public speakers like Grace Lee Boggs and Maya Soetoro-Ng (President Obama’s sister). They built relationships with community activists in the Ann Arbor/Detroit region. Students played leading roles in organizing major conferences and interacting with guest speakers (rather than the traditional U-M faculty method of taking the speakers to dinner at a fancy restaurant with a few faculty). However, the program organized only one public event in 2014–2015 — one that featured the director’s close friend. No thought has been put into doing more, and no effort has been made to solicit student involvement or address student concerns.

TOP-DOWN CONTROL BY WHITE ADMINISTRATORS

A/PIA Studies was a long-standing LSA program and written policies state that the A/PIA Studies director must be appointed by the Dean of LSA. In violation of the department’s own by-laws, the AC chair secretly negotiated a deal with LSA to demote A/PIA Studies from being a college-level program formally governed by the dean’s office to a department-level program. This means that both the A/PIA program and the directorship have no autonomy, solid foundation, or long-term security. The director serves entirely as an underling of the chair of Department of American Culture, currently Professor June Howard. This diminishes the entire program and puts it fate in the hands of people who lack the expertise or concern to serve it properly. While brushing off concerned students, faculty, and alumni, Howard has made a series of rash and secret decisions that have gutted the program. The primary concern of Howard and her predecessor (another white professor, Greg Dowd) has been to silence or push away A/PIA Studies faculty and students who have exposed the problem of white privilege and institutional racism within AC and U-M.

Howard naively seems to think that we will accept any director who “looks” Asian or Pacific Islander regardless of their actual leadership qualities or lack thereof. The fact is that there is no public record of A/PIA Studies holding any meetings since January 2014. The director has been almost entirely inaccessible and for long stretches of time has even failed to answer emails. Funds and resources are being squandered or idled. At a student-organized event in Winter 2015, the director suddenly announced she was resigning, but apparently Howard later convinced her to reverse this decision. While Howard now says she wants input from others in rebuilding the program, what is clear that any rebuilding process which involves her is tainted and doomed to fail.

STUDENTS AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZERS SHUT OUT OF THE PROGRAM

At the height of its success, students played a central role in planning and implementation of the program’s activities. Faculty coordinated regularly with student leaders and activists in organizations like UAAO, AAA, SAAN, and the Coalition for Tuition Equality. They attended meetings and conferences that extended into late nights and weekends. They developed internships and service programs like Detroit Asian Youth Project for students to get organizing experience off-campus. All of this was done without additional compensation because anyone fortunate to be an Ethnic Studies professor should pay forward all the work and struggle that was done to open doors for our generation. This entire spirit of service and student-faculty collaboration has disappeared.

One terrible sign of disregard for student concerns, community support, and labor rights was the AC department’s abrupt cancellation of a Winter 2014 A/PIA Studies class and the callous layoff of a local community activist hired to teach it. That the course cancelled was “Asian Americans and Civil Rights” taught students all they needed to know about the university’s true values.

THE FUTURE OF A/PIA STUDIES?

As Michigan alumni and former students of A/PIA Studies, we are deeply concerned the systemic dismantling of A/PIA Studies by the administration, particularly in the wake of Prop 2 and the continued assault on access to higher education at a national level. Strong ethnic studies programs not only promote diversity, but also improve campus climate for students of color. Any meaningful effort to rebuild A/PIA Studies by the university must integrate student involvement and alumni input at its forefront, or else the process is simply not legitimate.

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