Ashlyn Oakes

I challenge Yale University to announce by the end of the 2016 calendar year a permanent expansion of Asian American Studies at Yale and to publicize a timeline of actions it will take to achieve this goal.

I know you have questions.

Your first is this: “Who are you to make such a challenge?”

Simple. I am a student continuing a call for Asian American Studies at Yale that stretches back 46 years (yes, all the way back to 1969). These calls have so far been “dealt with” by the administration with sympathetic yet utterly noncommittal “responses.” I call this University home, yet there are still doors that the University refuses to open.

Before we go any further, let’s review some key dates.

December 1969 — Frustrated Yale students create their own Asian American Studies course syllabus and find a professor to sponsor it as Yale’s first Asian American Studies course for credit.

January 1994 — Former University President Richard Levin tells a packed room in the Asian American Cultural Center that Asian American Studies is an evolving field not ready for Yale. “We just aren’t there yet,” he said, promising to “create a program in the future.”

September 1999 — Yale cancels two Asian American Studies classes because the professor hired to teach them was offered a tenure-track position at Dartmouth.

January 2015 — Yale offers one Asian American Studies course for the entire 2014–15 academic year. A graduate student teaches it. There were fewer Asian American Studies courses taught last year than there were 30 years ago.

Your next question is this: “Why challenge Yale?”

Students have been “politely asking” for 46 years. There comes a time when “wait,” and, “too important to rush,” no longer make for acceptable answers. As the campus awakens to conversations about the Calhoun legacy and as three African American Studies professors prepare to depart the University, we find ourselves at a critical moment to demand immediate action. “Commitments” can no longer be the “wait-and-see” promises recited over and over for years by well-meaning gatekeepers; we face a crisis.

Certainly, Yale has taken steps to cultivate Asian American Studies. It hired and tenured Asian-Americanist Mary Lui. It also just hired Asian-American literature specialist Sunny Xiang in a tenure-track position. Furthermore, Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway attended the Yale Asian American Studies Conference last spring and Yale President Peter Salovey met with participants and students attending the conference.

Here’s the problem: there are still not enough Asian American Studies courses available to even constitute a concentration in any major, and there are no plans for permanent expansion in sight. Imagine what it must be like for a student to attend Lui’s Asian-American history class, to fall in love with the subject, and to be told, “That’s it. Glad you had your fun, now go do other things!”

Now you are asking: “Why isn’t Asian American Studies here yet?”

To answer, the University hasn’t set any targets or goals for creating an Asian American Studies curriculum. The American Studies Department at Yale — arguably one of the best in the country — and the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program may be pushing to recruit more faculty in this area, but they can only influence hiring decisions so much. Moreover, Asian-Americanists hired in the last decade have almost all been visiting lecturers. The bulk of them have found more secure positions elsewhere.

Perhaps most concerning, some in the humanities and social sciences see Asian American Studies as illegitimate. They argue that Asian American Studies is only concerned with identity projects and are not “rigorous” enough for an academic institution like Yale. To these people I ask: please prove that your field is more legitimate. Explain how we would be better off forgetting the contributions of Asian-Americans to the country. Try to dismiss the hundreds of books and scores of professors across the country. If 45 years of institutionalization in other colleges is not enough to make Asian American Studies legitimate, then what is?

Thousands of students and alumni have been tiptoeing the line between patience and frustration for years. I am challenging the University to once again consider the expansion of Asian American Studies at Yale, and this time, to follow through. Soon, more students will demand, more alumni will demand and the University will have to take note. We have waited long enough.

Alex Zhang is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact him at alexander.zhang@yale.edu .