More than a decade ago, a committee of Ithaca College faculty and administrators recommended creating the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity with the dual mission of developing a curriculum focused on African, Latino/a, Native American and Asian people, and promoting racial awareness and diversity on campus through extra-curricular programming. An ALANA-focused curriculum puts the histories, identities, cultures and experiences of ALANA people into the broader context of U.S. history and political economy. Though the college was behind the times in not having an ethnic studies program by the 1990s, it was pioneering for its faculty and administrative leadership to establish not a program, but an entire unit dedicated to a critical and interdisciplinary study of race.
I say “pioneering” because many faculty at that time felt there was no need for a race-focused curriculum. Besides, as they pointed out, there was no “student demand” for it. The idea that a predominantly white campus doesn’t need programs on race is common, but it only makes sense if people assume that “white” isn’t a race. As for the absence of student demand, someone who has grown up with certain curricular gaps and silences from grade school onward is unlikely to recognize what they have missed in their learning as a result. Therefore, it is up to institutions of higher learning to design curricula that are comprehensive and progressive, and can anticipate and shape educational trends instead of simply reacting to them.
In the end, the forward-looking leadership of the college in 1999 — President Peggy Williams, Provost Peter Bardaglio and the board of trustees — opted for the center. The trustees also endowed it. Today, the center has two interdisciplinary minors, one in African Diaspora Studies and the other in Latino/a Studies. Both have attracted almost 40 students in three years. There is also a Native American Studies minor in the School of Humanities and Sciences. However, we are missing a fourth minor in Asian-American Studies, which is simply indefensible.
Part of the problem is that, until recently, the college didn’t have many faculty teaching in this area of study. Though there are now several people whose work focuses on Asia, only a few teach courses on Asian-Americans. In the spring of 2011, the center requested a tenure-eligible line in this field, but the provost hasn’t approved it.
I find this ironic because, for some years now, students themselves have been pushing for such a minor. Last spring, juniors Kristy Zhen and Kristiana Reyes, and senior Kaitlin Hibbs made “Missing in History,” a film on the need for an Asian Studies program. They screened the film downtown and started a petition, which has more than 400 signatures so far. However, they have had little success in getting their voices heard. I can’t help but wonder where the people are who once put so much onus on student demand.
Meanwhile, there is talk of setting up a center in China as part of IC 20/20, an initiative that, incidentally, didn’t rely on market surveys or student demand, but on strategic thinking. A liberal arts minor in Asian-American Studies that bridges the experiences of Asians in the U.S. and Asia would provide a solid academic basis for this center. At this point in its history, therefore, the college needs a curriculum inspired not by perceptions of “market demand,” but by a principled and visionary commitment to knowledge essential to our global future, of which Asia and Asian-Americans are a central and constitutive part.
Asma Barlas is director of the CSCRE and a professor of politics. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org