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Brandeis Asian American Task Force issues demand for Asian American Studies department

By Andrew Elmers

Section: News

December 4, 2015

On the evening of Wednesday, Dec. 2, a letter demanding the creation of an Asian American Studies department at Brandeis was sent to Interim President Lisa Lynch, Chair of the Board of Trustees Perry Traquina ’78 and other administrators. Signed by the Brandeis Asian American Task Force (BAATF), the letter was made public through the group’s Medium page, with an announcement on their Facebook page.

The letter demands that an Asian American Studies department (AAS) be created, offering both minors and majors to undergraduates, and that a cluster-hire of at least three tenure-track professors be made by the end of the spring 2016 semester. Additionally, BAATF seeks the offering of an introductory AAS course starting in the fall 2016 semester, the creation of a Florence Levy Kay Postdoctoral Fellowship, which brings young postdoctoral scholars to campus for two-year appointments in interdisciplinary programs, for the AAS department and a collaborative and transparent process between the administration and BAATF in creating the AAS department.

The letter concludes by asking all five addressees to sign the pledge and meet with BAATF students by Tuesday, Dec. 8.

In an email to The Brandeis Hoot on Dec. 2, before the release of the demand letter, BAATF founder and president Hin Hon (Jamie) Wong ’17 stated that the founding group of 11 students had “a desire to create a space for Brandeis students to use our collective skills and power to advocate for the Asian American and Pacific Islander student body.” Hin Hon Wong also authored an opinion article about the need for Asian American Studies at Brandeis in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hoot.

Founded in late October, BAATF conducted a survey to evaluate interest in Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) studies, as well as an Asian & AAPI center among the Brandeis student body. Open to the public from Nov. 4-11 and distributed through Facebook and various club listservs, the poll found that 64 percent of respondents, out of a total pool of 121 respondents, showed interest in minoring in Asian American Studies, according to the data released on BAATF’s Medium page. This conclusion combined the amount of “yes” responses (33 percent) with the amount of “maybe” responses (31 percent).

With this data, BAATF members met with Senior Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences for Undergraduate Education Elaine Wong on Thursday, Nov. 12 to discuss the possibility of “creating a new Asian American Studies interdepartmental program,” according to Elaine Wong in an email to The Hoot, also on Dec. 2.

They discussed how the interdepartmental program would be created, with Undergraduate Curriculum Committee and faculty approval, and funded. BAATF and Elaine Wong further discussed what possible courses would be offered for the minor, with the Asian American Experience in the American Studies program, which has not been offered since fall 2011, serving as a requirement for the minor.

The Asian American Experience was also offered in fall 2007 and fall 2009. All three courses were taught by Prof. Shilpa Davé (AMST), who has since left Brandeis for a position at the University of Virginia. Currently, The Asian American Experience is listed as an elective in the Cultures, Identities, and Encounters section of the International & Global Studies major.

Elaine Wong told The Hoot that she had shared her discussion with BAATF with Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Susan Birren, one of the addressees of BAATF’s demand letter.

After speaking with Elaine Wong on Nov. 12 and the publishing of the article in The Hoot on Nov. 13, BAATF launched their Facebook page and published their manifesto on Nov. 20, the same day the occupation of Bernstein-Marcus began.

At this point, BAATF decided to suspend their operations to show support and stand in solidarity with #ConcernedStudents2015. “BAATF decided on our own to delay the letter to the administration. We wished to show support and stand in solidarity, maintaining focus and momentum on #FordHall2015,” Hin Hon Wong said.

Along with the release of their demand letter Wednesday evening, BAATF posted a petition online through Google Forms calling for the creation of an Asian American Studies department. When asked about the change from a AAS program to a AAS department, Hin Hon Wong stated that BAATF adjusted their demands after meeting with Elaine Wong.

Elaine Wong clarified in her email that an AAS department was not discussed at the Nov. 12 meeting, but BAATF’s long-term goal of creating a AAS major was talked about. Further discussions at the meeting focused on the placement of a tenure-track position, “which is almost always in a department,” according to Elaine Wong. There has been no communication between administration and BAATF since the Nov. 12 meeting.

Regarding their vision of an AAS program, in the email to The Hoot on Dec. 2, Hin Hon Wong stated that BAATF envisions a program with courses from various academic disciplines, including history, politics, sociology, women and gender studies and literature. “Our vision is open to change because it will be molded by the professors or academic fellows that join us and the students themselves,” Hin Hon Wong said.

Currently, BAATF has received support from #FordHall2015, in a statement of solidarity released on their Facebook page, and from a number of Brandeis students. BAATF maintains an open membership policy. “The only requirement is that [interested students] must contribute in some way to BAATF and show interest in staying committed to BAATF,” Hin Hon Wong shared with The Hoot. While future Task Force meetings will be open only to BAATF members, the Task Force aims to have three public meetings each semester. Hin Hon Wong stated, “These will be town hall-style discussions to communicate with students and look for ways BAATF can improve.”

Executive Director of Integrated Media Bill Schaller could not respond by press time when asked for a statement on behalf of Lynch and the other addressees of the demand letter.

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