Cultural Currency1 Comment
The first time Giahoa Nguyen ’17 and her mother visited campus, they were struck by its beauty: the dignified stone buildings, the enclosed college quadrangles, the architectural surprises hiding around every corner.
After touring Cross Campus and Old Campus, they made their way south to Crown Street, where they had heard the Asian American Cultural Center was located. Having walked a few blocks, they were surprised to find themselves surrounded not by ivy-covered stone but looming apartment buildings. The shabby facade of 295 Crown St., the home of the AACC, did not match the vibrant image painted in admission brochures targeted at minority students — a jarring experience that many students of color face when they arrive on campus.
“Is this even Yale?” Nguyen’s mother asked her.“You shouldn’t come here. It’s not safe.”
Two years later, Nguyen was one of dozens of students who crowded into LC 102 to share their experiences with Yale’s cultural centers at two town halls on Feb. 15 and 17. The town halls — led by Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway and University Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews, with Graduate School Dean Lynn Cooley attending the first one — were forums for students to share their thoughts on a November 2014 external review of the cultural centers. But they quickly turned into a space for students to voice their concerns about the University’s approach to diversity in general.
Yale has made major strides in its racial attitudes, not only from its earliest days — its namesake, Elihu Yale, was a slaveowner, as were many of its earliest faculty — but also in recent years. The oldest of the four cultural houses, the Afro-American Cultural Center, was founded in 1969 and was followed by the Asian American Cultural Center, La Casa Cultural and the Native American Cultural Center in the subsequent decades. Yale University, once the bastion of privileged white males, is now 20 percent Asian-American, nine percent African-American, nine percent Hispanic, and two percent Native American. These statistics do not account for international students, who make up 19 percent of the University population.
“I think there’s a greater understanding now, more than ever before, that diversity in all of its forms equals excellence,” University President Peter Salovey said in an interview with the News. “You cannot have an excellent faculty or an excellent student that is not diverse.”
But Yale has been slow in realizing Salovey’s enthusiasm for diversity. The report that came out of the external review — the first of its kind for Yale’s cultural centers — detailed nearly 12 pages of criticisms. Of great concern were the myriad physical problems with the houses – ranging from unsafe locations to lack of handicap accessibility to the neglected presence of carcinogens. The report also called for greater administrative advocacy for the centers, equalized and stabilized funding for all four houses and enhanced community outreach efforts.
The report also described the confused leadership structure in the houses as “problematic at best.” Students themselves have echoed these complaints: Earlier this week, 147 students presented a 60-page petition calling for the removal of Assistant Dean of Yale College and Af-Am House Director Rodney Cohen, citing complaints of neglect, poor character and questionable financial management.
But particularly concerning were the report’s descriptions of “disjointed and episodic” diversity initiatives, which it said diminish the power of Yale’s stated goals.
“Because diversity is expressed as a major theme in the University’s current leadership agenda, it is essential that cultural centers develop […] a clearer sense of direction that articulates and grounds their work as being mission critical,” the report reads.
These are not new complaints. Last February, the Yale Diversity Summit — another group of external educators and administrators — released its Report of Discussions and Recommendations, expressing many of the same concerns. The University, it said, is “diversity conscious, diversity sensitive, but not diversity driven.”
Students within the cultural house communities echoed the sentiments put forth by outside experts.
“Yale likes to talk about diversity being a hallmark of the University’s mission and central to its thriving nature,” said Christopher Melendez ’15, a recruitment coordinator for La Casa. “It looks good on paper. It doesn’t always translate to reality.”
A PLACE TO CALL HOME
The first of Yale’s cultural centers, the Af-Am House, was founded in 1969 through the efforts of Yale’s small but rapidly growing population of African-American students.
“[It was] formed out of student protest over lack of representation,” Holloway said. “The mentality was that white students had Yale as their space, and black students wanted something different.”
The next few decades saw a rapid succession of initiatives, driven by administrators and students alike, intended to diversify Yale’s historically monochromatic campus. 1969 saw the creation of the Asian American Students Alliance, which would help found the Asian American Cultural Center in 1981. La Casa was born the same year. Students founded the Association of Native Americans at Yale in 1989, leading to the 1993 establishment of the Native American Cultural Center, although it would not receive its own building for two more decades.
But when the economy stalled in 2008, so did this steady progress.
The University’s endowment fell by 24.6 percent in the fiscal year ending June 2009. Budget cuts were implemented across the board, resulting in everything from layoffs to the postponement of major construction projects. The cultural houses were no exception.
According to Jessica Liang ’17, co-head coordinator for the AACC, the annual budget that the AACC receives from the Yale College Dean’s Office has fallen by $60,000 over the past six years. In the past year alone, the AACC’s funding has been cut by 40 percent, said former AASA co-moderator Candice Hwang ’16. La Casa’s allocation from the University has also fallen every year that she has been here, said La Casa student coordinator Evelyn Nunez ’15.
Such cuts are felt far beyond the walls of the houses themselves, as between the four of them, the centers are responsible for funding over 80 constituent undergraduate organizations.
“I don’t think the cultural centers have been singled out for budget cuts — they’re definitely happening all around campus — but at the same time, I would say we feel it pretty hard,” Liang said. “Especially when the University, while making cuts, is also trying to recruit more students who are from different ethnic backgrounds and who would identify with these cultural centers — the responsibility that comes with that makes us feel these cuts more.”
Goff-Crews told the News that the cultural houses, like any other space in the University, play an important part in forming the Yale community. But students from three of the houses pointed to the physical condition of their spaces as further evidence of administrative neglect — a point repeatedly raised at the first town hall. James Ting ’15 explained that because the AACC’s basement remains unfinished, there is no room large enough to host cultural performances. Roman Castellanos ’15 said that with a growing number of students affiliating with La Casa, there is insufficient space at the house to hold its traditional senior events, such as a dinner for students and their families. This year, the dinner will likely take place at the larger Af-Am House.
“We grew up here for four years, and now we can’t celebrate in this space with our families,” Castellanos said.
Location is also a concern. Three of the four cultural houses are located several blocks from main campus, on Crown and High Streets. Several students at the town hall complained that the remote location deters students from attending events and makes walking home at night feel unsafe. This problem will only worsen when the center of campus activity shifts northeast with the addition of two new residential colleges on Prospect Street — nearly a mile away from the cultural houses.
Students’ grievances with the physical condition of the cultural houses also extended to health and safety concerns. Wiring in La Casa’s basement poses the risk of electrical shock, Hwang said, and up until the end of spring 2014, one of the AACC’s conference rooms was contaminated with asbestos — a known carcinogen.
But while members of the cultural houses expressed discontent with the disrepair of their facilities, University spokesman Tom Conroy said the overall condition of space within the houses resembles the rest of campus. He noted that a total of $6 million has been spent on the cultural houses over the past 10 years, funding both the “comprehensive renovation” of the NACC — formerly used as graduate student housing — and various renovations at the other houses.
He added that the University’s next investment, in the AACC and La Casa, should be implemented by the end of this academic year.
Liang said she had not heard of any of the plans Conroy mentioned but is excited if they are indeed in place.
“I hope it means more than just fixing the heating system,” she said.
But the condition of the houses has a symbolic significance as well. The external reviewers emphasized the importance of physical infrastructure to the promotion of diversity on campus.
“The physical presence of the cultural centers will offer visible evidence of the quality of the institution’s commitment,” the report concluded.
OVEREXTENDED AND UNDERSERVED
But beyond improved facilities, the cultural houses also need improved leadership, the report said.
“Because of the range of responsibilities, extensive time demands and community expectations of the position, the current director/dean role is unsustainable,” it said. “The simple analysis is that there should either be additional staff assigned to the centers or the position should be redesigned with more streamlined responsibilities focused on the needs of the centers’ respective communities.”
Concerns about the difficulty of reaching Cohen, the current Af-Am House director, featured prominently in the petition calling for his removal. Cohen, who is also an Assistant Dean of Yale College, is responsible for overseeing the Science, Technology and Research Scholars program and also holds a position as a university fundraiser, said Eshe Sherley ’16, who is affiliated with the Af-Am House and was one of 147 students who signed the petition.
Although Assistant Dean of Yale College and former Af-Am House Director Pamela George suggested that conflicting responsibilities should not be a problem if a director has “a clear commitment and respect for the communities in which [they] are fortunate enough to serve,” students at the other cultural centers — who emphasized their productive and affectionate relationships with their directors — agreed that the leadership is overstretched.
Nunez said that while Amanda Lynn Hernandez MED ’16, La Casa’s interim director, tries her best to meet with students whenever they request meetings, she also must balance her duties as a student here at Yale.
Christopher Cutter, the NACC’s interim director, also holds an appointment at the School of Medicine.
And according to NACC staff member Leanne Motylenski ’16, “the under-resourcing and enormous amount of responsibility given to the directors has been a factor in some previous directors’ recent decisions to leave Yale.”
Of the four current cultural center directors, all except AACC Director Saveena Dhall did not return multiple requests for comment.
The directors are not the only ones who are overextended. The houses themselves simply cannot support the influx of students of color that the Admissions Office is working so hard to attract. Dhall noted that the University’s current Asian-American population is nearly 4,000 students, a number which will only grow after the two new residential colleges are completed, increasing the undergraduate population by 12 percent. The AACC’s largest room holds only 40 people.
In recruiting incoming students, Yale markets its cultural centers as a major advantage over its peer institutions, said Crystal Kong ’18, co-community development chair for AASA. Kong said she was disillusioned when she first became active in the cultural community she had heard so much about, only to find out that it was struggling to maintain its finances.
Yale makes a lot of promises about diversity, Liang said. But after students decide to matriculate, the University stops trying to make good on those promises.
For Melendez, who has worked as a recruitment coordinator for the Admissions Office since sophomore year, the problem of false advertising is particularly difficult. Working in admissions, he has watched Yale market its cultural center communities to great effect: the Class of 2018 includes the largest Latino population in Yale’s history. But Melendez worries that the environment awaiting students on campus will fall short of what was promised in admissions brochures or at Bulldog Days.
“The administration likes to make a point of this being something that’s not only relevant but integral, but it hasn’t taken the steps to convey that importance to the entire community,” Melendez said.
What frustrates Sherley most about the administration’s lip service to diversity is that these outreach efforts use Yale’s current students of color as a mouthpiece.
While there is nothing wrong with depicting Yale as a “vibrant, happy place,” Sherley said, the University should provide the actual resources to turn its glossy brochures into a reality for the students who are doing the hard work of recruitment.
“[Yale] students of color are put in this position where they make promises and say, ‘Oh, there’s a great community here,’” she said. “And there is. But we also feel uncomfortable talking about all the structural challenges we face because we don’t want to scare away other [prospective] students of color.”
“RESEARCH OR ME-SEARCH?”
Those in the know will tell you that if you want to get a Ph.D in Native American Art, you go to the University of New Mexico. But Anya Montiel GRD ’18 — despite being in the know herself — decided on Yale for its superior libraries and closer proximity to the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
After doing her undergraduate work at University of California Davis — with its rare, autonomous Native American Studies department — Montiel was particularly disheartened to see the dearth of course offerings at Yale.
“I had choices, I took all the classes available,” she said of her experience at UC Davis. “But for the young undergraduates [at Yale] who want to pursue Native American art, I don’t know what to tell them.”
Across the University, student concerns about Yale’s commitment to underrepresented groups extend beyond the cultural centers and into the classroom.
With professor Ned Blackhawk as the only faculty member focused exclusively on Native American Studies, students interested in the discipline find themselves at with few courses to choose from. This semester, Blackhawk is teaching just two classes, only one of which is geared towards undergraduates. It’s a substantial course load for a professor — especially on top of independent scholarship — but it still leaves student interest unmet. Students who want to pursue senior theses or other independent work in Native American Studies can, but the process is difficult; with so few course offerings, it comes down to a lot of self-educating, Blackhawk said. Worse still, when Blackhawk goes on leave, there are often no courses available.
“The growth of cultural centers demonstrates Yale students’ tremendous capacity to query issues of inequality,” Blackhawk said. “But now that we have the centers, we should have the scholarship.”
Meanwhile, student demand for these courses is only growing. Several graduate students in Native American Studies mentioned oversubscribed courses from which tens of interested students had to be rejected. And the problem is hardly limited to their discipline.
American Studies professor Mary Lui is the one faculty member focused exclusively on Asian American Studies — a statistic Courtney Sato GRD ’19, an AACC Graduate Assistant whose work is in the field, described as “appalling.” Lui, who focuses on Asian American history, said she wishes Yale could offer courses in Asian American visual and musical arts, literature and sociology. She and interested students have been trying to carve out a larger, permanent place for Asian American Studies at Yale since her arrival in 2000.
Students interested in the discipline described the dearth of faculty — and subsequent dearth of course offerings — as the single greatest barrier to expanding ethnic fields of inquiry.
Recently named Deputy Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity Richard Bribiescas said ethnic studies are a priority for Yale, and will certainly be included in upcoming conversations about faculty hiring.
But Lui and Blackhawk both said they are not aware of any targeted University efforts to hire another faculty member in their fields. Sometimes, hiring searches in other departments turn up candidates who specialize in one or more niche of ethnic studies. But so far none of these hires have come to fruition, and without a targeted search for an ethnic studies professor, there are no guarantees.
“There is a lot of improvement in terms of what Yale could do to support [this field of study],” Sato said.
Beyond just limited resources, the discipline has to contend with issues of perception. Lui said many people unfairly conflate the academic discipline of Asian American Studies with the cultural concerns of Asian-American communities. While intrinsically related, she said, the spheres are distinct and need to be treated as such so that the discipline can be taken seriously. LiLi Johnson GRD ’19, an AACC Graduate Assistant and student in the field, said another challenge to Asian American studies is distinguishing it from fields like East Asian Studies. Distinctions like these are crucial if it is to be recognized as an independent, flourishing field of study, she said. But Yale isn’t quite there yet.
“I’ve heard stories about Asian-American students, when they’re trying to work with faculty, proposing something Asian-American-related and getting asked whether this is ‘research or me-search’,” said Austin Long ’15, the student director of the Asian American Studies Task Force.
The first step in changing this perception may be demonstrating the groundswell of student interest in Asian American studies. One of the advocacy group’s most important goals, Johnson said, is to do just this. And bringing visiting scholars who specialize in areas of Asian American studies beyond Lui’s area of expertise will further expose the campus to the vast swath of work being done in the field.
Next week, Lui and other advocates will bring these areas of study to Yale for a day, hosting an Asian American Studies conference. So far almost 200 participants have registered to hear scholars from institutions like Wesleyan, Harvard and Syracuse discuss their work on issues including literature, film, migrant rights and minority empowerment. Lui said she made a point of featuring work outside her own expertise in order to expose students to scholarship they rarely see on campus.
“The hope is to convince programs, departments, administrators of the importance of having the scholarship here on campus on a permanent basis,” Lui said.
Sato said the conference is a tangible result of the student advocacy on these issues, which Johnson said is almost entirely driven by undergraduates. The conference’s turnout will demonstrate that there is unmet student interest in these areas of study, beginning a dialogue surrounding expansion of ethnic studies that Johnson said should never be considered over.
Kong, another student activist, said she believes the administration will take action if the Task Force can demonstrate that such action is necessary.
But ultimately, student and faculty efforts can only go so far.
“It’s going to be up to administrators, whether or not [a standalone department] is something they can carve out space for— it’s a question of staffing and faculty, and maybe that’s just not feasible,” Lui said. “But I certainly don’t see why we couldn’t have more Asian American Studies faculty represented across the disciplines.”
In the spring of 1970, Yale became the first Ivy League school to offer a course in Asian American Studies. Although Don Nakanishi ’71, along with several other members of Yale’s fledgling Asian American Students Association, convinced political science professor Chitoshi Yanaga — the first Japanese American to receive tenure at Yale — to run the class, the students largely taught it themselves.
But 45 New Haven springs later, there is still only one Asian American Studies course offered this semester.
When it comes to ethnic studies at Yale, not all disciplines were created equal. While some fields of study, such as African American Studies, have their own departments and offer independent majors, others exist as pockets of inquiry or tracks within larger programs.
History has shaped some of these differences. In 1969, African-Americans were conspicuously absent from history books and English syllabi, often only appearing in social science literature where they were represented as a “problem,” African American Studies Department Chair Matthew Jacobson said. In this hostile environment, AfAm Studies grew “out of quite a tidal wave of students’ civic protest,” Holloway said. Over four decades later, Yale’s department has grown to be one of the foremost such programs in the world.
By contrast, Blackhawk said Native American studies essentially did not exist at Yale before his arrival in fall 2009, as he was Yale’s first tenured professor in the discipline. Most Latino studies courses are housed in the Ethnicity, Race & Migration program, which was first offered as a major in 1997 but not as an independent one until 2012. And while Lui was not the first Asian American Studies professor Yale hired, she was the first to be given tenure.
But Jacobson added that historical trends are no excuse for Yale’s failure to maintain these areas of study.
“Part [of the problem] is University priorities, say what they will about Yale’s commitment,” Jacobson said. “We have not kept up.”
No one disputes the quality of scholarship put forth by Yale’s faculty in the study of underrepresented groups. But despite its overall strength, Jacobson said Yale is “nowhere near” achieving consistency between different areas of ethnic studies.
Lui said the programs within which Asian American studies exists — American Studies and ER&M — are comfortable places, and Sato said that at least for now, an autonomous Asian American Studies Department might not improve the discipline’s situation.
While Long agreed that it is not yet time to consider an independent department, he said he believes the ER&M program lacks Asian American representation in its curriculum. This sends a strong message that Asian American issues of ethnicity, race and migration are not as valid as those of other groups, he said.
“That’s the wrong message for Yale to be sending,” he said.
These curricular concerns are hardly unique to Asian American Studies.
Montiel expressed a similar concern about the American Studies Department, noting that undergraduates in the major do not have to take any Native American Studies courses. The major does require that at least two of undergraduates’ required fourteen courses are taken in “cultural history/cultural studies,” but these requirements are non-specific, and with minimal choice in offerings, students are unlikely to select Asian American or Native American Studies. This semester, Blackhawk’s only undergraduate offering is a capped seminar, and Lui is not teaching undergraduates. The AfAm Studies Department, by contrast, is offering more than 20 courses in topics ranging from dance and pop culture to antebellum America.
“You can become an Americanist without knowing anything about the native population,” Montiel said. “I don’t understand how that works.”
Melendez said the inequalities between disciplines are hard to deny and especially troubling given that many of those disciplines are housed within Yale’s American Studies program, one of the best in the country.
The uneven allocation of academic resources is yet another way Yale pays lip service to issues of diversity without translating its stated goals to reality, he said.
Still, regardless of the discrepancies in size and scope, scholars in each department emphasized that they are not competing. Instead of bickering over their individual slices of the pie, they said, they’d rather increase its size across the board.
“I don’t think it does anyone any good to be comparing or trying to reallocate a [budget] that’s already too small,” Johnson said. “The whole point is that they should all be growing.”
Although such programs seem to have escaped administrators’ attention, some acknowledge the issues facing ethnic studies. Holloway conceded that Yale is far behind where it should be on courses related to Asian American Studies.
For the first time this year, the Yale Group for the Study of Native America was allocated a small budget — enough to pay for its two lunches each month, Blackhawk said. They are also able to find financial support from areas of the University with deeper pockets, and when the group requests funding, administrators are receptive. But the YGSNA wouldn’t have to make these requests if it had a real programming budget, he said.
Salovey is very supportive of native students at Yale, Tyler Rogers GRD ’18, who works on Native American studies, said, though he hopes Salovey will show that support at an academic level as well. Next week, the Saloveys will host the reception for the Asian American Studies Conference in the President’s House. Several other administrators have also expressed enthusiasm for the event, Lui added.
Still, some students feel that the University is not putting its money where its mouth is on the issue of ethnic studies.
“The money is there — Yale has this massive endowment,” Rogers said. “It’s more so the willpower — that the higher administration doesn’t seem to be behind it.”
Until Provost Benjamin Polak responds to Holloway and Goff-Crews’s recommendations regarding the cultural houses, the future of the centers remains uncertain. Alongside renewed support for the cultural houses, perhaps the University will also turn its attention to ethnic studies. But the growth of underrepresented groups at Yale has historically come through student protest and advocacy. This trend is unlikely to change any time soon.
Blackhawk said he is confident in the abilities of devoted undergraduates to make lasting and meaningful change. And student leaders — even those who are graduating — don’t plan to stop anytime soon.
“When I came in as a freshman, I was taught a lot about the history of these centers and the struggle that students had to go through to secure these spaces,” Melendez said. “That’s why I’m dedicating so much time to this process as a second semester senior — not even for the students who are here currently, but to make sure that the future of these cultural centers are brighter than they are today.”