I was very pleased to see the announcement of Yale’s South Asia initiative in the paper on Monday (“Yale launches ‘unprecedented’ initiative in India,” Nov. 17), but I must say that, as someone who has been interested in South Asian affairs at Yale for a long time now, the article was a little disappointing. The article made it seem as if interest in South Asia began at the upper echelons of the University administration and was mandated from the top down. In truth, it was actually undergraduates who were the first to begin the push for South Asia to be recognized more fully in our curriculum and student life. For us, President Levin’s announcement was not simply another News headline, but actually the culmination of years of effort by dedicated faculty and students.
For example, the Yale Tamil Sangam was formed by students who petitioned the University to begin teaching the Tamil language at Yale. After the Tamil Sangam collected some 150 signatures as a demonstration of student interest, the University hired its first full-time Tamil professor in 2004. Now, Yale is proud to boast of having arguably the most brilliant and distinguished professor of the Tamil language in the world, E. Annamalai, teaching here — long before the announcement of major initiatives and seven-figure donations. The Tamil Sangam continues to work to increase awareness of South Indian culture on our campus, and today we are proud to be able to say that we were already representing South Asia before it was the cool thing to do.
In particular, I was aghast that the article completely failed to mention the fact that last year, Yale offered South Asian Studies as an undergraduate major for the first time. The expansion of the department itself is wonderful news, but I consider it even more noteworthy that in 2008, Yale finally recognized that this region of the world, with a quarter of the world’s population, might be worthy of their academic focus. While I respect the work President Levin, George Joseph and the rest of the Yale administration have done to establish high-profile connections with India’s elite political leaders, the most important aspects of the South Asia Initiative are actually the changes being made on our campus. The department itself is the core of Yale’s South Asia initiative, and without the work already done by Professor Mridu Rai, the director of undergraduate studies, as well as Professor Phyllis Granoff, Professor K. “Shivi” Sivaramakrishnan and the rest of the South Asian Studies faculty, all these new resources would simply be misplaced and squandered.
I don’t want to rain on the parade of President Levin’s announcement, and all of us at Yale who support South Asia are certainly pleased about the publicity. I simply want to put things in context. The South Asia Initiative is not a new direction for the University, so much as a giant leap forward for many Yale students and faculty who have long been dedicated to what was often perceived as a strange and esoteric academic specialty.
The writer is a senior in Calhoun