Madelyn Kumar

At 9:25 a.m. on the sixth Wednesday of the semester, 16 students filed into a seminar room in Alwin Hall, which hosts International Security Studies at Yale, and took their seats at the table. Professor Charles Hill sat at one end. He began class by describing the rise of the state as the fundamental unit of world affairs during the 17th and 18th centuries. Hill’s “Star Wars” reference in the middle of the discussion about the conflict between systems of statehood and empire — “the empire strikes back” — made everyone chuckle. He then transitioned to the next topic — how did 20th-century Tibet fit into, or chafe against, the international system? Kelsang Dolma ’19 and the rest of the class resumed scribbling notes.

Unlike almost every other course offered this semester, “Tibet: An Enduring Civilization” is largely the product of one student’s activism: Dolma’s. A first-generation Tibetan-American, Dolma was the only Tibetan undergraduate during her first two years at Yale. “It was very difficult to forge any kind of Tibetan community at Yale,” Dolma said.

Dolma has been vocal about Tibetan human rights since she arrived on campus. She founded the Tibetan Cultural Association during the spring of her first year, but the organization soon rebranded as the Himalayan Students Association at Yale to encompass more cultural groups.

In 2017, she published “The Communist Manifest-no” in the News’ opinion section. “I was very tired of Yalies glorifying communism,” Dolma said about the op-ed. “Tibet and Tibetans and so many people who lived under Mao’s regime suffered tremendously under his communist policies.”

In her column, Dolma criticized her classmates’ support for communism, highlighting the atrocities committed against her people: “Tibetans under Chinese rule are silenced through beatings, deliberate impoverishment, rape, starvation and imprisonment. Thousands of nonviolent Tibetan human rights activists fill concentration camps scattered all across China.”

Dolma’s article elicited a response letter from an organization called the Chinese Undergraduate Students of Yale. Thomas Shen ’20, on behalf of the group, wrote, “Tibet was not, is not and does not have reason to be an independent state. The issue is irrelevant to ideology, because for more than 700 years, Tibet has been an integral part of China regardless of the ruling regime.” Dolma said the letter was “very traumatizing” and helped convince her that people did not understand Tibet’s history and global significance as she did.

A Tibetan studies course, she thought, could work to rectify that.

In past years, Yale offered a course on Tibetan Buddhism, taught by professor Andrew Quintman, a scholar of Buddhist traditions, literature and history in Tibet and the Himalayas. However, Quintman left Yale in 2018 to teach at Wesleyan University. “Yale couldn’t retain him,” said Dolma, “and after he left, there [would] be no Tibet-related courses at Yale, at all.”

During the fall of her junior year, Dolma — an ethnicity, race and migration major — took a seminar called  “Comparative Ethnic Studies.” For the final project, she made a syllabus for a Tibetan studies course, and the idea for a Tibet-centric course was born. Dolma spent the spring semester of her junior year trying to get her proposed course instituted.

Student advocacy for the creation of new courses is rare. In 2003, Simon Stumpf ’06 pushed for classes in American Sign Language, but such classes only appeared for course credit in the spring of 2018. Starting in 2012, the Korean Studies Initiative at Yale petitioned for a new major in Korean studies, but they were not successful.

According to the Yale University Registrar’s Office website, instructors and departmental representatives can propose undergraduate courses through an online application. As an undergraduate herself, Dolma had to use an unconventional approach. She reached out to the director of undergraduate studies in the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration with a letter containing over 200 signatures of support for her proposed Tibetan studies class.

The next step was to find a Yale faculty member to teach the course, which proved difficult given how specialized the course content would be. At this point, Dolma decided to pursue the institution of a course in modern Chinese imperialism instead. “It would be more inclusive and touch on larger issues, and I was sure that someone at Yale could teach such a course,” Dolma reasoned.

After emailing a number of professors in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures, Dolma still could not find an instructor for her course. The East Asian languages and literatures professors recommended that Dolma take a course with Yale professor Peter Perdue, who studies premodern China. Though Dolma acknowledged that this period of Chinese history was important, she explained, “It was not what I was asking for.”

Her experience with the East Asian department led Dolma to question how big a role self-censorship played in academia. “People who study these hot-topic issues [on modern Chinese imperialism] will have a harder time getting visas to China, which would help their research and further their career goals. A lot of people tend to self-censor these issues,” Dolma explained. “Academia is not neutral at all. The politics are behind closed doors, layered with money and deliberate secrecy.”

Frustrated, Dolma turned to lobbying for her course to be a residential college seminar, as such courses are designed to “fall outside departmental structure,” according to the Yale College website. But again, Dolma ran into more difficulty with the search for an instructor. The Yale College website states that instructors teaching a residential college seminar for one semester would be paid a stipend consistent with the standard part-time lecturer rate at Yale. Dolma found a Glassdoor estimate of the national average salary of part-time lecturers to be only $22,600. “It’s not super enticing,” Dolma said. “I found Tibetologist professors outside of the US, but with only $22,600 per semester, it wasn’t enough to get them to come.”

Dolma’s luck changed one day in Sterling Memorial Library. While doing research on Yale-China and Yale-Tibet connections in September 2018, she stumbled across a box of writings on Tibet. Astonished, she pored over pages and pages about Tibetan Buddhism and history. Dolma looked at the author listed on the documents: Charles Hill, a current Yale professor.

“That was my break,” said Dolma. She emailed Hill in that very room, recounting her struggles to find an instructor for the Tibetan studies course and the modern Chinese imperialism course. Could he teach either of them, or direct her to someone who could? “I didn’t know that much about Professor Hill — all I knew was that he was a global affairs fellow at Yale,” Dolma said.

Hill is a diplomat-in-residence, distinguished fellow of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy and lecturer in international studies and humanities at Yale. In 1970, the State Department sent Hill — then a U.S. Foreign Service officer — to be a fellow at Harvard University’s East Asia Research Center where he chose to study Buddhism, a topic integral to both the Vietnam War and Tibet’s geopolitical standing. Having studied the so-called great works of Asia, Hill had even brainstormed a course in Asian classics when he was in the Foreign Service. He raised the idea when he arrived at Yale 25 years ago, but it never came to fruition.

Responding to Dolma, Hill first offered to teach a Tibetan studies course as an independent study course, which only one to three students would be allowed to take. He submitted a syllabus to the Ethnicity, Race and Migration Program, which approved the course. But as student interest grew in the class, beyond the allowance in number for independent study, Hill agreed to turn it into a larger seminar, making it more legitimate and open to the Yale community. The course could not secure a listing under ethnicity, race and migration because Hill is not appointed to that program. Instead, Hill’s own department, the Humanities Program, hosts the course.

After a year of thought and effort, Dolma finally achieved her goal. “I got really lucky with professor Hill,” Dolma said. “I got the course because professor Hill believes that Tibetan studies is important. If I had not come across that box on that day, there would not be a Tibetan studies class today.”

Dolma promoted “Tibet: An Enduring Civilization” on Facebook, and about 25 students shopped the course on the first day of the spring semester. Sixteen students, including Dolma and two Tibetan first years, are now enrolled in the course. Six weeks in, Dolma praised the class: “I didn’t know I was intellectually deprived until I got to this course!” she said, laughing. “This is the first time I’ve read through all the readings, and I’m so rejuvenated and feel validated and seen in the class. It took senior year for me to feel like this!”

Khenzom Alling ’22, one of the Tibetan students in the class, has also found personal meaning in Hill’s course. Alling decided to take the course to gain a foundational knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism and history, which would supplement what she has learned about Tibetan culture from her family.

“With such little representation, it can be difficult to find a strong sense of community and belongingness,” Alling said. “As one of the few Tibetans on campus, I’ve found the class to create that sense for me. It’s especially refreshing and meaningful to see non-Tibetans who are interested in the history of the country and are supportive of its current political situation.”

Dolma’s original impetus for proposing the class was to make Tibet’s history and global political importance more visible. The humanities course does include discussion of political affairs, such as challenges to Tibetan statehood in history.

Yet Hill has shifted focus away from Tibet’s modern political situation. “We’re trying to get a Tibetan civilization — there’s much more about religion and Tibet as a culture.”  

He conceded that contemporary questions of statehood and independence recapitulate the region’s history, but said he believed that “those issues are not central to Tibet’s own culture. Tibet is a civilization that was never considered by Tibetans themselves to be a state back in history, because the state was a foreign idea. Not that it shouldn’t be a state, just that it didn’t come into the grounding of Tibetan culture itself.”

Some of the focuses of the course include Tibetan Buddhism; Tibet’s relationship to China during the Qing Dynasty; the “Great Game,” a rivalry near the beginning of the 20th century between Tsarist Russia and British India for Tibet, which was strategically located right between the two competing powers; Tibet’s capitulation to China in 1951; the role of Tibet in the Cold War; and Tibet’s current government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. Tibet is also examined as an example of methodologies for the study of other non-state entities.

Despite this conceptual pivot, Dolma has been happy with the course’s trajectory. “Before this course, I had never taken a class from the humanities department,” she said. “I had seen the syllabus, of course, before I enrolled in the class, but I did not expect the extent to which the Tibet course could be linked to Plato’s ‘Republic’ or the Albert Einstein memorial in Washington D.C. Professor Hill sees Tibet as something larger than even I could have imagined, which makes the course even more significant and satisfying to me and to the other students — Hill is a true genius.”

Where might the Tibet class go from here? Hill said that he would teach the course again next year if there is enough student interest. What about the potential for moving beyond a single course on Tibet and creating a Tibetan studies concentration within the East Asian department? “I would love a Tibetan Studies concentration,” Dolma said, “but it doesn’t seem very realistic. I think we need to work one by one.”

“Tibet: An Enduring Civilization” constitutes one step towards expanding the Yale curriculum beyond Eurocentric studies — more voices, more stories, more nuances. Moreover, Dolma’s experience demonstrates the potential for students and professors, working in tandem, to actualize diversity and make unheard voices heard.