Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Asian-American Studies Department: "I feel like, at the end of the day, change is in our own hands."

by Charlyn Arellano
On the third floor of the Langson Library, the Southeast Asia Archive exists, unbeknownst to much of UCI's student population. Kept in the back corner of the floor, the archive is a treasure trove of books and other texts that, in large part, document the struggles and experiences of Southeast Asian immigrants who had made their way over to Southern California. With a brief scan of the shelves, titles like, "I Begin My Life All Over" and "Boat People" are displayed in various fonts and colors. Cabinets against the back wall, framed by different cultural pictures, contain different documents, pamphlets, posters, and fliers, collected from different Southeast Asian communities in Southern California through the efforts of retired UCI librarian Anne Frank.
The quality of this wealth of information is being challenged, as with many other organizations and programs around campus, by the UC budget cuts. Linda Vo, the associate professor of the Asian-American Studies Department, is also a member of the archive advisory board. With the formidable force of the budget cuts looming over UCI, Professor Vo vocalizes concern for the quality and growth of both the Southeast Asian archive and its academic department counterpart. This is all the more disconcerting when the percentage of Asian-American students attending UCI is considered.
According to the University of California Statistical Summary of Students and Staff,11,576 undergraduate students of Asian-American descent were admitted into UCI in the fall quarter of 2008. Fall 2008 had seen a total student population of 26,984 students. With consideration of these figures, Asian-American students compose a strong 52% of UCI's total student population. Assuming that these numbers had not seen a drastic changes over the course of a year, UCI boasts, with confirmation from US News and World Report, the highest percentage of Asian-American students in attendance among all existing UC campuses.
With such numbers, the existence of UCI's Asian-American studies program seems natural in nature. However, the Asian-American studies department, like many other on-campus organizations, has recently been subjected to a stripping-away of resources and funding. The damage done by the current loss of staff and funds is increased further by consideration of the relative youth of the department, which is still endeavoring to plant deeper roots in the UCI academic community.
The following information has been both provided and clarified from the collaboration of Professor Linda Vo, Associate Professor of Asian-American Studies, Professor Christine Balance, Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies, and Professor John Liu, Senior Lecturer of Social Science and of Asian American Studies. These three individuals are 3/5 of the Asian-American studies department's core faculty. They offer their thoughts regarding the impact of the UC budget crisis on the Asian-American department from their positions as educators and as Asian-Americans themselves.

Q: How large is the Asian-American studies department in terms of professors and majors?
A: The Asian-American studies department at UCI has continuously seen changes in its numbers as the program itself struggled to gain recognition amongst other areas of UCI's academia. In terms of core faculty, there are 5.5 professors teaching Asian-American studies on campus. "We have Professor John Liu. There is Christine Balance who's new. Professor Dorothy Fujita-Rony, myself, and also Professor James Lee who is another new faculty member we just hired. And we have Professor Claire Kim who is the .5. She is 50% political science and 50% Asian-American studies," Professor Linda Vo explains.

Q: How has the composition of the Asian-American studies department staff changed in consequence of the UC budget crisis?
A: Professor Vo emphasizes that the greatest budget crisis-related damage done to the Asian-American studies department has been felt most immediately on an administrative level. The MSO of the Asian-American studies department serves as the office manager of the entire department, overseeing inter-department activities. "June Kurata, who has been our MSO and office manager has been our office manager since 1993. The difference is that this year the budget crisis affected us so we were told to cut our staff. The staff that left were not replaced and then we were asked to combine staff with the African-American studies department. This was a school of humanities decision. We're not the only unit that is doing that-- there are other units that have been consolidated so that different departments are sharing one MSO," Professor Vo says.
The amount of lecturers for each individual Asian-American studies course has also been affected by the budget crisis. Professor Vo notes that due to the hiring freeze, the Asian-American studies department was unable to hire new lecturers that are used to reconcile the small number of steady professors present on the department's payroll. "We hire three to four lecturers every quarter to help us teach classes that have faculty that are on sabbaticals, that are on leave, or that are on fellowship. And this year our budget got cut, so we have one continuing lecturer who lectures for us year after year. That budget got cut for the lecturers, so I wasn't able to hire [new] lecturers."

Q: How have the responsibilities of the Asian-American department faculty changed in consequence of the budget cuts?
A: The stress of the budgets cuts has not only been felt by UCI students. With a lack of lecturers to conduct different courses, faculty members have been forced to take up extra class loads that would otherwise be left to the supervision of lecturers. "People in the professorial ranks have to do research. And so their ability to do research is going to be hindered by the fact that they have to pick up more administrative responsibilities. You have to teach classes that are listed in the [UCI] catalogue at least once every two to three years. Faculty have to take care of those classes, or those classes lose their listing. That means more prep time because [professors] have to prepare [to teach]," remarks Professor Liu.
The mission statement of the University of California is, arguably, affected by the budget cuts, with the Asian-American department faculty serving as an example. The University of California's mission statement, as found on the University of California website, reads, "We do research - by some of the world's best researchers and brightest students in hundreds of disciplines at its campuses, national laboratories, medical centers and other research facilities around the state. UC provides a unique environment in which leading scholars and promising students strive together to expand fundamental knowledge of human nature, society, and the natural world. Its basic research programs yield a multitude of benefits for California: billions of tax dollars, economic growth through the creation of new products, technologies, jobs, companies and even new industries, agricultural productivity, advances in health care, improvements in the quality of life. UC's research has been vital in the establishment of the Internet and the semiconductor, software and biotechnology industries in California, making substantial economic and social contributions."
Because of the hiring freeze, professors invest less time fulfilling a large portion of their job description, and allocate more time to the running of extra classes.

Q: How has the general Asian-American Studies department had to adapt to the budget crisis?
A: As mentioned previously, with the hiring of additional lecturers proving unattainable due to the hiring freeze, professors have witnessed a gradual increase to their respective workloads. Increased class sizes brings faculty further away from giving any personal assistance to students. Professor Vo reflects on the class-reconfigurations she's has to oversee to adapt to the budget cuts. "[O]ur intro class is quite large this quarter. It has about 280 students. So it's one of our larger classes. It's 60A: Introduction to Asian-American Studies, so we increased the class enrollment because Professor Liu was open to doing so. Last year, our limit on class capacity was around 260. We increased it to 300 this year, with more than 300 students originally requesting the class."
The same hiring freeze that has enlarged class sizes has simultaneously made several Asian American courses unavailable during the academic year. "Some of the courses [that we lack new lecturers in]," Professor Vo explains, "are courses that we [as core faculty] are not experts in-- like Asian-American Public Health, Asian-Americans in law-- these are courses we generally teach on a lecturer-to-lecturer basis. Asian-Americans in Education, Asian -Americans in Public Policy, Asian-American Art History; these are some of the courses I am trying to get offered during summer session." Since these classes are not currently being offered during the fall, winter, or spring quarters, students wanting and/or needing to take these courses will need to invest more time and money into one or both summer sessions.

Q: What are some reactions and attitudes amongst the Asian-American Studies Department concerning the UC budget crisis?
A: The entire core faculty of the Asian-American Studies Department find their ethnic origins rooted in different Asian nations. As Asian-Americans themselves, faculty members feel a personal hit from the threat the budget crisis imposes upon the continued growth of the Asian-American Studies program. Any student-activism seen on campus in response to budget cuts and tuition hikes is reminiscent of the activism seen throughout the same Asian-American movement taught by Asian-American Studies professors.
Professor Balance recalls her time as an undergraduate student, drawing parallels between the current financial crisis currently plaguing the UC system and the social rights she helped to fight for years ago. "I did my undergrad work at UC Berkeley in the late nineties around the time of Proposition 187 and Proposition 209. As well as being a Filipino-American student who was fighting for Filipinos to become part of affirmative action, as well as for the tenure of two Filipino-American professors, Oscar Compananes and Rick Baldoz, who were both denied tenure at UC Berkeley. So for me, being on an undergrad campus, was always about some sort of political activism. Coming to UCI as a faculty member and still having to be in a picket line on the first day of school made me think, 'Oh my gosh. I thought I grew out of this.'"
Professor Vo shares a sense of disappointment concerning the UC budget cuts, as they affect not only classes under the jurisdiction of the Asian-American studies department, but materials considered valuable for the continued understanding of [specific members of] the Asian-American community. The Los Angeles Times wrote an article in July of 2009 that discusses the hinderances posed by the budget cuts to further documentation of the Southeast Asian immigrant community. A room in a room of Langson Library, there lies "rare items from decades ago -- audio recordings of those recounting their journeys fleeing Vietnam by boat, letters written from refugee camps to families left behind and refugee orientation brochures they picked up upon arriving in Orange County." UCI's Southeast Asian Archive is visited by scholars across the country, as it is the only collection in the world that keeps record of the travels and transitions of Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian immigrants from their native lands to the United States.
The budget cuts had not allowed the library to replace Anne Frank, the retired caretaker of the archive who had been committed to collect more documents from amongst the present-day southern California Vietnamese community. Professor Vo worries that the maintenance and general quality of the collection, a source useful for conducting Asian-American Studies courses as well as research, will suffer. "My major concern is that they still haven't re-hired the staff member that we hired for that position. Anne Frank [was the original staff member in that position]. She did a lot of outreach in the community, at conferences. And the archive was open a lot longer then. Cut backs are affecting the whole library so they haven't replaced staff that have left," says Professor Vo.

Q: How does the departmental problems caused by the UC budget cuts compare to departmental problems of previous years?
A: In its early developmental stages, the Asian-American studies department had experienced difficulty in gaining a steady and prominent position in UCI's academic curriculum. The Southeast Asian Archive Newsletter of Spring 1993, Volume 2, Number 3, documents some of the details of a protest and hunger strike that had taken place on UCI's campus. The student-involved protests called for UCI administration to start an Asian-American studies program. According to the report, over 300 students had occupied the chancellor's office on April 22nd of that academic quarter, vocalizing their demands. Professor Liu had been present during these demonstrations, serving as both witness and participator to the events that gradually led to the development of the Asian-American studies department.
Professor Liu recalls that, after the student and faculty demonstrations, "We were fortunate enough to get a very dynamic Executive Vice Chancellor by the name of Chang-Lin Tien, who opened up the lines for us to hire the faculty [for Asian-American studies]. We did it through a program called Targets for Opportunity, which is meant for minority and women professors. While he was Executive Vice Chancellor, he opened up 12 to 14 positions for minority [studies] faculty."
The Asian-American studies program began with three constant faculty figures, Professor Liu among them. He was joined by Dr. Karen Leonard, a specialist in anthropology, as well as Professor Hwang, the then-acting chairperson for the department. It eventually grew, hiring professors like Dorothy Fujita-Rony and Claire Kim. With an examination of the Asian-American studies department's beginnings, the UC budget crisis clearly becomes another trial for the fairly young department. The UC budget cuts has called for a decrease in staff and resources for a program that had, initially, comparatively few staff and support when considering the much larger numbers of other academic departments. This description remains true of the department at present, as the hiring freeze renders the department incapable of replacing faculty members lost due to what Professor Liu has referred to as "internal disputes" that had preceded the more recent and salient features of the UC budget cuts that have been felt and protested against by UCI's student and faculty population during the present Fall 2009 quarter.

Q: What purpose, ultimately, does the Asian-American Studies Department serve here at UCI that calls for its preservation and maintenance, despite the UC budget cuts?
A: Professors Vo, Balance, and Liu are well-aware that a common argument of more established areas of academia make is that more funding should be given to the Natural Sciences, Engineering, and other departments of the like. However, they implore students, especially those at UCI, to see the very practical importance of Asian-American Studies. This study chronicles a people's struggles; these struggles have the capacity to compel today's generation to persevere despite the current budget/fiscal crisis.
Professor Balance contextualizes and compares the UC budget crisis in terms of the Asian-American movement. "At the end of the day, I think in times like these, when so many things are changing, and many students and faculty are uncertain about how things are going to be. I think it's important to have classes like Asian-American studies to help students think about power and where power lies in or society and learn to think about things critically, and not just take things for face value. Otherwise, if you're just going to sit back and not have any reactions towards these changes, life's just going to run you over. [...] As much as we [as a society] are made to feel that it is necessary to have lots of money to have access to things, things aren't necessarily that way. I feel like, at the end of the day, change is in our own hands, whether that means you go out and vote against the people who are working in the interest of the rich or if it's a matter of reading the newspaper every day to keep informed [about the UC budget cuts]."

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