Coalition addresses myriad of issues
By Neela Banerjee
While Asian American students have been a force on the U.C. Berkeley campus for some time, API professors have largely found the doors to the ivory tower shut.
In 1998, for example, API faculty comprised 9 percent of the total faculty, while API students were 39.4 percent of the population, according to a recent report to Berkeleys Chancellor Robert Berdahl entitled Asian Pacific Americans at Berkeley: Visibility and Marginality.
There is an over-representation of Asian American students in state and community institutions and an under-representation of Asian American faculty, administrators and service providers, L. Ling Chi Wang, chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at U.C. Berkeley, said.
To address these and other issues, over 400 professors, staff and students from across the country came together to develop an agenda in the first national Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE) conference, held at the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco last weekend.
There is no better time to do this as we are still facing the struggles of race relations and social inequalities, APAHE co-president Gene Awakani said. We need to stand up and make our voices heard.
APAHE, which for the past 14 years had been an organization made up of only California colleges and universities, launched their plans to go national with the conference. That change was made in response to a growing interest on issues affecting Asian Americans in higher education and the lack of Asian Americans in administrative positions nationwide.
Wang pointed out that even though APIs are perhaps one of the most visible and successful minority groups in higher education, there is a conspicuous absence of their participation in decision making bodies and in executive and management positions.
Keynote speaker Bob Suzuki, president of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, addressed stereotypes of Asian Americans either as model minorities or foreigners which perpetuate racist attitudes.
Bob Suzuki, president of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, stands outside the Miyako Hotel in San Francisco on Saturday, April 7. Suzuki was the keynote speaker at the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE) conference. Photo by Maurice Ramirez.
Asians continue to be seen as aliens that cannot be trusted. China has become the new enemy, as we can see with the recent spy plane incident, Suzuki said. Another example was the campaign finance scandal of last year that was blown way out of proportion the people involved were seen as foreigners who cannot be trusted because of their ties to other countries.
Suzuki connected these issues to the way APIs are affected in institutions of higher education. He said that counselors are not hired because API students are seen as a model minority. At the same time, they become vulnerable targets when anti-foreigner sentiments surface.
In addition, Asian Americans are passed up for administrative and faculty positions because of perceived and real lack of verbal linguistic skills, Suzuki said. APIs make up 5 percent of the national faculty, but less than 2 percent of its administrators.
Suzuki made a passionate call to arms for APIs to work together to integrate Asian American studies into the core of curricula so that these stereotypes can be disbanded by education.
His remarks received a standing ovation.
In last years conference, APAHE led Asian American communities in demanding freedom and justice for Dr. Wen Ho Lee, who was branded a spy for China and later exonerated by a federal judge. The group organized a boycott by urging all Asian American college graduates not to apply for jobs at the national laboratories operated by the U.S. Department of Energy as long as Lee was held without a trial.
This powerful boycott was really an example of what we can do if we work together, Wang said.
Co-president Awakani spoke about the many hours he met with officials from the Department of Energy to make serious changes in the way Asian Americans are treated.
The conference featured five plenary sessions and 28 concurrent panels on topics from API scientists in national laboratories to the role South Asian Americans play in the larger API community.
I think everybody felt very, very energized by getting to dialogue with people from all over, Wang said. We spent most of the conference getting hearings from all the regions of the United States, places like Duke University and the University of Texas, Austin.
Even though the issues of lack of administrators and the model minority myth were prevalent across the nation, Wang said different localities exhibited unique problems.
For example, look at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana. They have several thousand Asian American students and a very vibrant community, Wang said. The problem is that there is no real community there besides themselves. They have to develop a different kind of Asian American studies program than a school in California.
Jill Medina, Oberlin Colleges assistant director of admissions, agreed that the issues discussed at the conference definitely impact students at smaller institutions.
Not only is there not enough representation in terms of mentors on faculty and staff, but even inside the faculty and staff there have been a lot of problems with support and retention, Medina said.
Medina said she has been doing a two-year qualitative study about student leadership experiences for students of color, especially Asian American students, and has found that having positive role models in leadership positions is key to having positive experiences.
These problems are really affecting APIs nationwide and having this conference to be able to strategize is an exciting first step, Medina said.
Next years conference will be held in New York, and a proposal for a research center focusing specifically on Asian Americans in higher education at UCLA is on the table.