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Students continue 18-year fight to create Ethnic Studies department, increase representation in courses and faculty

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The total cost for attending Duke during the 2017-18 academic year—including tuition, room, board and fees—will be $68,298.

Duke’s Asian student groups are pushing for the University to establish an Ethnic Studies department and to expand its faculty and courses to include more representation for Asian American, Latinx and Native American people. 

A March 2021 petition from Asian student groups called for Duke to form an Ethnic Studies department and argued that a new department would “empower students and faculty to critically engage with and navigate systems of power, ensure that Duke has an institutionalized commitment to these critical studies and push forth Duke’s commitment to anti-racism.”

Reacting to the University’s “disingenuous” and “perfunctory” response to ongoing anti-Asian violence, the letter called for Duke to maintain its commitment to the Asian/American and Diaspora studies and establish an ethnic studies department, provide a well-resourced cultural center for students of color, disaggregate data on Asian ethnic groups and establish an explicit hate and bias policy.

The letter was co-written by the Asian American Alliance, Asian American Studies Working Group, Asian Students Association, Southeast Asian Students Association, Diya, Japanese Culture Club and Korean Undergraduate Student Association. By May 29, it had just over 1,000 signatures. 

The letter’s first demand—for an Ethnic Studies department—continues a long line of student activism. According to the letter, Asian and Asian American students have been pushing for Duke to institutionalize an Ethnic Studies department since 2003. They repeated their demands in 2013, 2015 and 2016 alongside other student group demands from the Black Coalition Against Policing and Mi Gente

Although the letter commends the 2018 creation of the Asian American and Diaspora Studies Program and the hiring of “new faculty members with expertise in African American, Asian American, Latinx and Indigineous studies” in fall 2021, it says that Duke continues to fall short in the academic inclusion of minority students and has “historically resisted the institutionalization of Ethnic Studies.” 

“Asian American and Ethnic Studies are critical to understanding our racialization and history of oppression both in the United States and globally,” the petition reads. “Through learning more about how our identities have been constructed and weaponized throughout history, we gain greater agency and literacy in fighting against racist institutions that create violence, such as anti-Asianness, against our communities.”

The letter also calls for Duke to implement Native and Indigenous studies courses; cultivate the pre-existing Program in Latino/a Studies in the Global South; hire Latinx and “non-white primarily employed Africanist” faculty in African and African American Studies; establish courses and resources for multiracial studies; and offer regular courses related to Africa and the Middle East, South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Asian American and Diaspora Studies

After President Vincent Price’s statement on anti-Asian violence on March 5, many administrators started reaching out to Asian student organizations, said senior Shania Khoo.  

“We were like, ‘We have no relationship to you and we have never talked this entire year. Why is there suddenly so much attention on these Asian orgs?’” said Khoo, who is a member of the Asian American Studies Working Group and is doing a Program II in Ethnic Studies.

Because of the attention from administration, Khoo and other Asian student group leaders felt it was the right time to raise their issues with Duke. On March 20, just days after the shootings in Georgia, five AASWG members met with other groups to write the petition, Khoo said. They felt a sense of urgency due to the “continued lack of action from admin, not just after the [Atlanta] shootings, but for several and several decades” of Asian students expressing “grief, frustration, anger and disappointment.” 

The letter writers’ calls for an ethnic studies department or “equivalent institution” are a continuation of advocacy by the AASWG, the Black Coalition Against Policing and Mi Gente. AASWG, in particular, was founded in 2016 and was instrumental in the development of the Asian American and Diaspora Studies program that launched in 2018. The working group continues to push for a major, minor and certificate, diverse faculty and a robust curriculum, according to an information sheet for the organization.

The Asian American and Diaspora Studies Program was a victory for Asian American student activists. However, the AADS program had no coordinator last year, and their director role rotated every two to three years and was not a permanent role. This year, Program Coordinator Maira Uzair and Program Assistant Derek Uejo work as AADS staff members, and Professor of Theater Studies Esther Kim Lee took on the role of program director of AADS.

Similarly, last year, an AADS course code did not exist, meaning there were no consistently offered courses that made up an AADS curriculum.  This year there are three courses listed under AADS: a first-year seminar, Introduction to Asian American History and Introduction to Asian American and Diaspora Studies. However, even when the University has Ethnic Studies courses, the courses often portray Asia as a “problem case study,” Khoo said.

As of last year, the only permanent course on Southeast Asia at Duke was a political science course on the Southeast Asian political economy. According to Khoo, classes like these focus on geographies and crises without regard to the real people that live there. 

“I think this is very similar to the way that Duke approaches the Middle East and North Africa,” Khoo said. “These regions and areas get tacked on as an afterthought or as a space where all we get to do is study how they are problematic and how they have problems.”

What would an Ethnic Studies department look like? 

Khoo envisions a department with a variety of courses, because of the “innately interdisciplinary” nature of Asian American and Ethnic Studies. Courses could touch on gender and sexuality, art, literature, performance studies and political science. 

“These are all things that Asian American Studies has a stake in and has written more broadly and nationally about, but they're not at Duke,” Khoo said. 

Khoo cited Stanford University's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity as a model for Duke. Although it’s not a full department, the Center offers majors and minors and supports graduate students. The Center also has an Undergraduate Council made up of dedicated students who reach out to the student body and are constantly asked by the University for input on the direction of the center and who it hires. These students are also paid for their work. 

Administrative oversight

In the petition, the student groups directly requested a meeting with Gary Bennett, vice provost for undergraduate education, as well as other members of Duke administration. In an email to The Chronicle, Bennett wrote that he cannot directly influence the formation of academic departments, since it is overseen by school deans and intellectually driven by faculty.

“Decision-making is highly distributed in academic environments, and on intellectual questions like this one, faculty are significant drivers,” Bennett wrote. 

Executive Director of Communications Kathryn Kennedy responded in an email on behalf of Valerie Ashby, dean of Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, that the first priority in Trinity has been “to hire excellent faculty in the area of Asian-American and Latinx studies—an ongoing initiative that is occurring with the full support of Provost Sally Kornbluth.”

After initiating a nationally advertised search this spring for a cluster hire in Native American and Indigenous Studies, Trinity hired a new professor, Courtney Lewis, who will join the Cultural Anthropology faculty in fall 2022.

According to Kevin Moore, vice dean for faculty affairs, Trinity plans to post another advertisement through Academic Jobs Online this coming fall to initiate a second round of hiring in Native American and Indigenous Studies. Trinity has also recently initiated cluster searches in Contemporary Africa, Latinx Studies and Asian American Studies. 

Mi Gente, an undergraduate student organization focused on strengthening the Latinx Community, was not available for comment.

Indigenous studies and lack of Native faculty

In addition to calling for an ethnic studies department, the petition also calls for the University to implement more Native and Indigenous Studies courses and to hire Native American and Indigenous faculty. 

Jessica Haugar, a doctoral candidate in Duke’s history department, had to attend classes at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill to study indigenous history. 

In April 2019, she tweeted, “…But what about American Indian and Indigenous Studies? When I tell people I study Native American history, they ask me why I am at Duke. Let's work to change this and improve representation here.”

Hauger has taken a few of Duke’s Indigenous Studies courses. However, she believes graduate courses in her department in history are “not necessarily super formalized” and that due to course rotation, there hasn’t been a permanent Native history graduate course in her time at Duke. 

Despite the limited opportunities in coursework, Hauger said she’s found that faculty advisors and other administration are willing to be creative with her about her academic pursuits. 

The University offers collaboration with other graduate programs, which is important but also reveals the “dearth of opportunities in Indigenous Studies at Duke,” she said.

“It’s kind of a mixed bag,” Hauger said. “So often the solution is: ‘I'll just go to UNC because they have quite an amazing American Indian Studies community there,’ which we wouldn't have access to if we didn't have this kind of collaborative relationship at the graduate level with UNC.”

Senior Scarlett Guy is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee in western North Carolina. As president of the Native American Student Alliance (NASA), she has been actively involved in working toward a better academic and overall environment for Native American and Indigenous students at Duke. 

Guy said that there is not a lot of support for Native students on campus, so NASA’s work has focused on holding events that celebrate Native heritage and helping Native students feel welcome. In addition, the two new Native faculty hired recently through the Native American cluster hire are due in part to NASA’s advocacy for the hiring of more Indigenous professors to support Native students.

Guy said that Indigenous professors are important for both representation and advising Native students. Although the faculty who work with Native students at Duke are wonderful, it has been harder for them to understand some of her personal issues related to her background of being Native American and coming from Cherokee, North Carolina. 

“We had a visiting professor here, I believe it was spring of 2019 my freshman year. His name was Myron Dewey,” Guy said. “He was visiting with the Documentary Studies department, so a bunch of us NASA kids were taking his class because we were so excited that there was finally an Indigenous professor, even if it was only for the semester.”

One of NASA's long-term goals is to see the creation of a Native American and Indigenous Studies program. Guy said that Duke is one of very few big prestigious schools that don't have Native American studies, which is “crazy” considering that North Carolina has eight recognized tribes, making it one of the largest Native American populations east of the Mississippi River.

Guy also believes Duke needs Indigenous professors that can support Native students by teaching subjects other than Indigenous studies, such as biology and engineering, since not every Native student wants to major in Native American studies. She said it can be a culture shock coming to Duke from a Native community, so having professors that can give guidance to Native students in a variety of subjects would be helpful.

Similar to Hauger, because of the lack of Native academic opportunities at Duke, Guy had to turn to Duke’s Interinstitutional Program to take Cherokee language studies at UNC. Because she is interested in Cherokee language revitalization, Guy said that she has received much more career advice and advising at UNC than at Duke, since her professor there is a member of her tribe and familiar with the Cherokee community.

“It's important for Duke to have those resources because if Indigenous students are at Duke and they haven't been able to find another professor at another school like I have, you're just kind of in the dark, and you feel lonely and like you don't have support or maybe even that you're not wanted here,” Guy said.

Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect that there are courses being offered under an AADS course code this year and that AADS now has a program coordinator.


Alison Korn

Alison Korn is a Pratt sophomore and a features managing editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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