Courtesy of Willow Sylvester

As the Asian American Student Alliance, or AASA, celebrated its 50th anniversary with a weekend-long conference, faculty and student activism surrounding the status of the Program of Ethnicity, Race and Migration peaked on Saturday night when over one hundred students and alumni protested University President Peter Salovey’s remarks at a gala dinner.

AASA conference organizers invited AASA alumni to campus for a series of events, including panel discussions and receptions, in honor of the alliance’s founding. But the precarious state of the ER&M program was also a point of discussion in at least two of the weekend’s events — the “50 Years of Organizing for Ethnic Studies” panel and the student protest during Salovey’s speech.

The Saturday panel was a planned discussion between faculty members and students with ties to the ER&M program. Moderated by professor of American studies Daniel HoSang, professors and students answered questions about the importance of ER&M and their hopes for the program’s future.

Later in the day, as Salovey was delivering remarks at the gala, more than 50 students entered Yale on York holding signs and banners expressing support for ethnic studies. When the students entered, around 80 alumni stood up with signs to show solidarity with the students.

The demonstration put pressure on Salovey to comment on the program after 13 professors withdrew their labor from ER&M on March 29. Students and alumni questioned Salovey for nearly 10 minutes at the gala, querying him on a variety of topics including the future of the program and why the professors’ demands had not already been met. Salovey told the group he wanted to “get it worked out” before the end of this term. He added that ER&M would likely remain a program, except with future control over its hiring slots.

“I am very supportive of the professors who have been involved and with the issues that they raised,” Salovey said. “In fact, we have been talking about those issues for quite some time. You have my word we’ll get them worked out.”

When questioned about when the University would “solve the problem” facing ER&M, Salovey said that Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler would determine the details to decide “how ER&M can be a program and have control over its slots.” He added that he and Gendler engaged in conversations on the matter Friday and Saturday.

Salovey said that the designation of “program” versus “department” was “not a status marker,” but rather just a descriptor for an interdisciplinary group of faculty members working together on similar topics.

“What’s really important is the issue of faculty being assigned to the program, whether they are shared with another department or program or dedicated to that program and that’s what this fundamentally is about,” Salovey said. “I know we’ll get that worked out.”

Salovey said that he thought the issues surrounding ER&M, including its current lack of dedicated faculty spots, had been “worked out” when he served as University provost from 2008 to 2013. He added that the money for faculty hirings in ER&M has been budgeted, citing the two appointments designated to professors Ana Ramos-Zayas and HoSang beginning in the 2017–2018 school year. Furthermore, according to Salovey, the program still has two more faculty spots it can fill. But the professors who withdrew from the program criticized this structure, since all professors associated with ER&M are required to have separate appointments in other University areas.

According to Rita Wang ’19, a student organizer for the Coalition for Ethnic Studies at Yale, the coalition had begun planning for the protest earlier this semester. She said that the group wanted the Asian American student community to express solidarity with ethnic studies.

“I felt very empowered by how much the community pulled together in that one critical moment,” Wang said.

The topic of student activism was also raised at the “50 Years of Organizing for Ethnic Studies” panel Saturday afternoon. Though conference organizers initially planned to hold three separate but concurrent panels on varying topics during the ethnic studies panel’s time slot, they chose to merge the panels into one event “given the recent energy around Ethnic Studies,” as Janis Jin ’20 said at the event. The panel featured faculty members currently and formerly associated with ER&M — Quan Tran, HoSang, Gary Okihiro and Inderpal Grewal — as well as current ER&M majors Gabriella Blatt ’21 and Emily Almendarez ’20 and Yuni Chang ’18, an ER&M major who was involved with Next Yale’s organizing efforts in 2015.

The panelists — who addressed roughly 200 students, alumni and other attendees — discussed the history of ethnic studies at Yale, the development of the ER&M program, the University’s treatment of the program and student activism surrounding the issue.

At the event, Grewal — who attended and taught at universities in California before coming to Yale a decade ago — pointed to her time teaching at San Francisco State University, which she said had a “robust school of ethnic studies … [with] a really fluid connection between the community and the university” as a point of comparison for Yale and other peer institutions.

“That is certainly not the case for elite universities, except [where] the students try to make that connection between the students and the university,” Grewal said. “The University itself is lackadaisical in making those kinds of commitments.”

Blatt spoke to her experience of doing ethnic studies–related research at Yale, highlighting that one of the things that attracted her to Yale in the first place was research programs aimed at students of color. But Blatt, who is researching Native American literature and environmental change, said she now questions Yale’s commitment to those programs, as she saw Yale deny tenure to a faculty member with whom she worked.

“In my Yale acceptance letter, Yale told me that I would be ready to make an impact in the world,” Blatt said. “However, I question whether they wanted me to make that impact in the classroom, or simply on a brochure.”

Almendarez said that she believes Yale lacks the sufficient resources or faculty to study particular world regions or topics in migration. She highlighted that students who wish to study an area of personal interest can often be dismissed as being engaged in a search for personal identity, rather than having a legitimate academic interest in an area that Yale excludes from its curriculum.

“Why is it that if someone wants to study that specific zone because they have a personal tie to it, it’s automatically labeled as ‘me’-search rather than something influential and broadening this academic horizon?” Almendarez said. “I think the curriculum could very much be broadened, and it’s about broadening it as the student body is being diversified as well.”

The ER&M major was established in 1997.

Asha Prihar | 

Carly Wanna |

Asha Prihar served as managing editor of the News during the 2019-20 academic year. Before that, she covered community service, Yale's professional schools and undergraduate student life as a staff reporter. She is a senior in Silliman College studying political science.