Student coalition to conduct external review on potential Asian American studies program

A student-organized task force is examining the viability of an Asian American studies program at Duke.

The group, tentatively titled the Asian American Studies Working Group, came together last semester after several groups—the Asian American Alliance, the Asian Student Association and Diya, the South Asian student association—presented a list of demands to administrators during a community forum, including the creation of an Asian American studies major. Senior Shalini Subbarao, external president of Diya, noted leaders of campus organizations have been working to bring the major to fruition.

"We have all been reaching out to other students, faculty and staff to get a wide range of opinions on what people envision this program to be," Subbarao wrote in an email.

The working group currently includes members from ASA, AAA and Diya as well as other students, faculty and staff, she explained. Senior Stanley Yuan, former president of AAA and a member of The Chronicle's independent editorial board, noted that the working group has not formally been solidified.

However, Subbarao noted, the group is planning to do an external review next Thursday. Two Asian American scholars will be coming to Duke in order to examine how Asian American studies may materialize at the University. 

The review will showcase student research in Asian American topics and faculty interest in the program, Subbarao explained. 

Additionally, as part of the external review, the group is planning to hold an open forum where members of the Duke community can contribute to a public discussion, Yuan wrote in an email. 

"A lot of student labor has gone into constructing a proposal for Asian American studies at Duke using input from the community, and we will continue to talk to people all across Duke to get even more people excited about the potential this program has," Subbarao wrote.

Valerie Ashby, dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, announced the creation of the working group at an Arts and Sciences council meeting earlier this month, noting that administrators could use a similar process to address other student group demands

The demand of the creation of an Asian American Studies major was first requested after a controversial Asian-themed party hosted by the fraternity Kappa Sigma in 2013, and was repeated in the community forum last year. However, some have expressed doubts about student interest in such a program.

Lee Baker, former dean of academic affairs for the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, noted in a previous Chronicle article that neither the East Asian nor the South Asian Studies certificates have drawn significant interest. Program II, which allows students to create their own unique majors, has not generated many proposals for an Asian American studies program, he noted. 

Despite the doubts, student leaders said they are confident that people would take advantage of Asian American courses if they were offered.

Yuan wrote that the diversity and variety of Asian American studies classes at other universities—ranging from Asian American theater to religion—is less available at Duke, leaving some students wondering why they cannot study those topics.

“[They] wonder…why they are unable to examine from an academic lens the challenges of being a second-generation immigrant, or the erasure of being a third or fourth-generation Asian American,” he wrote. “Many of them don't even realize that this academic study exists or that these courses could be possible.”

Subbarao explained that there is an interest in Asian American studies based on enrollment in certain courses Duke does offer. The course "Asians in American Higher Education" has a full enrollment and gets rave reviews, she wrote.

"These positive experiences indicate the program’s potential for growth with the proper investment of resources," she added. 

Yuan added that Duke's location in the South has the opportunity to offer a unique perspective on Asian American studies, compared to other universities in the country. 

"As one of the most prestigious universities in the South, we have the ability to examine what the Asian American experience looks like in an area not the West Coast or the Northeast, two of the areas most traditionally associated with Asian Americans," he wrote.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the Asian American studies major was first requested in 2013. It was first requested in 2002. The Chronicle regrets the error. 


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