Gary Okihiro, an acclaimed scholar of comparative ethnic studies and the founding director of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, will be joining Yale for a five-term appointment as a visiting professor starting next fall.
Okihiro, who taught “Introduction to Third World Studies” last fall and is offering the course again this semester, said he decided to move to Yale after his positive experience with members of the community last year. Students and faculty in the field responded to the announcement with excitement, as several pointed out that his appointment represents a milestone for the University’s growing Ethnicity, Race & Migration program.
“I fell in love with [Yale] students,” Okihiro told the News. “I’ve taught for over 40 years, and I’ve never encountered a group of students who were not only bright — which is what all my students are — but also eager to learn and quite receptive. I’ve never had that kind of experience.”
Okihiro previously taught at other Ivy League institutions, including Cornell, Princeton and Columbia, but said that he has never before in his career received such positive “institutional reception” as at Yale.
Throughout his career, Okihiro pioneered the field of Third World Studies — a field he described as a continuation of the program that San Francisco State College students first proposed in 1968, in which they called for the study of the global struggle of people for decolonization and self-determination. That field developed into ethnic studies and today tends to focus more on racialized minorities within the United States.
He previously taught his “Introduction to Third World Studies” at Columbia, where he said he would have classes of about 200 students as opposed to those of around 50 at Yale, a more intimate environment that he prefers. He plans to teach the course for all five years of his tenure at Yale and is required to teach a second course, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, which he will develop using input from students and faculty.
“[The subject matter] involves what all disciplines aspire to study and describe, and that is the human condition,” Okihiro said. “What I propose under the idea of social formation is that society is organized around power and the relations of power, and those power relations emanate from the ideas of race, gender, seuxality, class and nation or citizenship.”
Matthew Jacobson, an American Studies professor and the chair of the ER&M program who first met Okihiro in 2002, said it is impossible to overstate how powerful Okihiro’s influence on the field has been, adding that he has mentored countless ER&M scholars and “influenced all the rest.”
“He’s a warm, generous and generative presence,” Jacobson said. “It’s a stroke of extraordinary fortune for us to be able to benefit from his thinking on an everyday basis. I’m grateful for it myself, but it will be a special boon to students and younger faculty.”
Okihiro’s announcement comes at a time when several prominent faculty departures — many for Columbia, in particular — have rattled the department. Jacobson said there is no question that Columbia has been “building aggressively” in these fields and attributed many of these moves to the benefits of living in New York City.
Still, he said there is lot of work being done at departmental and administrative levels to address questions of faculty diversity.
“In addition to recent successes, there are also some very exciting and promising searches in the works in various departments right now, and others planned,” Jacobson said. “I know that there are some who do not entirely share my optimism, but I am more hopeful about Yale’s prospects in this area right now than I have been at any time in my 20-plus years here.”
Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler said that the University is also excited to welcome two new hires in ER&M this year: ethnographer Ana Ramos-Zayas ’90 and ethnic studies and political science professor Daniel HoSang, both of whom are prominent academics in the field.
She added that the University is planning to bring in recurrent visiting scholars of Okihiro’s caliber in other departments in future semesters.
“What we’re seeking to do in bringing in visitors of this caliber is, on the one hand, to add to our permanent faculty,” Gendler said. “But where there are individuals who are at the end of their career, or who are committed to teaching somewhere else, we want to provide undergraduates and graduate students with ongoing encounters with those people through recurrent visitorships or long-term employment of some kind.”
History and American Studies professor Mary Lui, who was a graduate student of Okihiro’s at Cornell, said she is happy he will be teaching at Yale and called him a terrific teacher, advisor, mentor and pioneer in his field.
“I definitely owe much of my teaching and scholarship to his careful instruction,” Lui said.
Students shopping Okihiro’s course last week in which he announced his intentions to return to Yale also shared in faculty members’ excitement.
Valentina Guerrero ’19 said the fact that Okihiro is teaching Introduction to Third World Studies is “revolutionary” and that the course holds particular gravitas at Yale.
“As we grapple with the theory behind colonialism and racism in Third World Studies, we are continuing the legacy that San Francisco State College students brought to life 50 years ago,” Guerrero said. “Our perspective is uniquely colored by the recent events on Yale’s campus and the current political moment.”
Yale’s Ethnicity, Race and Migration program was established in 1997.
Contact Rachel Treisman at firstname.lastname@example.org .