The Asian-American Studies program at the University of Washington has nine tenure-track positions: three full professors, three associate professors and three assistant professors.
So, when a third of those employees chose to retire, it left a hole in the program that some are concerned the university is not moving to fill quickly enough.
A state organization that advocates for the Asian community expressed concerns that the three positions would not be filled in time for the 2016–17 school year.
The Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs sent a letter to UW President Ana Mari Cauce in August urging her to conduct a speedy search to fill the positions.
Some are concerned that the loss of three veteran professors — Gail Nomura, Steve Sumida and Tetsuden
Kashima — will set the program back and harm Asian-American students if they are not filled quickly, said Michael Itti, executive director of the commission.
“[Asian-American and Pacific Islander] leaders fought to create Asian-American Studies programs across the country, and we don’t want to take a step back,” Itti said.
Having three faculty retire at once is “unusual,” said Norman Arkans, a spokesperson for UW, but the hiring process will not be sped up. Two will be filled by the end of the 2016–17 academic year, and the third will be filled the following year.
“It takes time to hire people. You do a national search, have to have a committee of people from the department,” Arkans said.
Meanwhile, the program will pull in lecturers and other academics to keep the courses open for students.
People who self-identify as Asian made up 28.2 percent of the campus population in the 2015–16 academic year. It’s important for those students to see themselves represented on campus, the letter reads.
Tony Vo, who graduated UW in American Ethnic Studies and Public Health in 2014, took courses in the Asian-American Studies program that changed the way he viewed himself and how he related to his family and community. The classes forced him to think about what it meant to grow up Asian-American in a city like Seattle that, while diverse, still struggles with racism.
Being able to put words to what had previously been vague emotions gave Vo a profound sense of relief.
“I didn’t feel like I fit in with the community; I was ashamed of my parents because they didn’t speak English. There were all of these kinds of internalized racism that I didn’t understand until I took the Asian-American Affairs course,” Vo said.
The experience launched him into an advocacy career as director of the White Center Promise, an organization working to eradicate poverty in White Center. He will soon pursue his master’s degree at Harvard.
The Asian-American Studies program needs to be strong, and the new hires need to represent the diversity of Asian-Americans, Vo said.
“I would love to see representation from across the Asian spectrum,” Vo said. “I would also love to see local Asian community members apply for the position. Being involved in the Seattle Asian community was one thing all of these professors had. Their activism made them valuable contributors.”
The Asian-American Studies program has its roots in that activism. Asian-Americans led a series of protests in the early 1970s that brought Asian-American Studies to Seattle Central Community College, and later to UW.
Alan Sugiyama and fellow student Bruce Abe fought to bring the first Asian-American history class in the Pacific Northwest to Seattle Central College in 1969.
UW students began pushing for a similar class, and Sugiyama transferred there to help them.
“Over the years, the classes helped rewrite American history. We were now looked at as Americans and not foreigners,” Sugiyama said.
Sugiyama, like Itti and Vo, is concerned that the program will be compromised if the three retiring professors are not replaced quickly, causing students to drop the program. He also worries that there are no guarantees that the new professors will represent the Asian-Pacific Islander community.
Now is not the time to ease up on UW about the program, Vo said: “Without the community pressure it would be easy for them to slide and no one would know.”