Northwestern U Hunger Strike Over: Still No Asian American Studies Program

by Pam Prasarttongosoth

Northwestern U Hunger Strike Over:
Still No Asian American Studies Program

by Pam Prasarttongosoth

by Pam

	Nearly four years ago, the Asian American Advisory Board
(AAAB) began their struggle for an Asian American studies program at
Northwestern University.  In the fall of 1991, the AAAB submitted a
proposal for an Asian American advisor, whose duties would include
developing an Asian American studies program for the university. The
administration rejected this proposal. Taking matters into their own
hands, the AAAB started up a student run Asian American studies
seminar the following spring (which has been running ever since and
has been offered a total of six times).  Once again, the AAAB revised
their proposal and submitted it for in the fall of 1992, when it was
rejected again.  Gluttons for punishment, the AAAB sent yet another
revised proposal to the administration in the winter of 1993 when it
was rejected for a third time.
	Early this past February, the AAAB wrote up their own 200 page
vision for an Asian American studies program, which included plans to
hire five professors and a program director.  Although Northwestern
University President Henry Bienen admitted that the cost of the
proposed program were not prohibitive, he nonetheless rejected every
single point of the AAAB's proposal.
	The Northwestern officials acknowledged that there was a need
and demand for a program, but refused to commit to any action that
would demonstrate their intent to implement one.  Needless to say, the
AAAB was displeased with the administration's reaction and seeming
intransigence on this issue.  Again attempting to compromise, the AAAB
revised their plan, asking for only two tenure-track professors and a
director for an Asian American studies program.
	On April 12, the AAAB held a rally that was two hundred
students strong.  That day, eighteen students began a hunger strike
that they promised would not end until Northwestern promised the AAAB
that they would develop a permanent program.  The strikers camped out
in tents at the center of the Northwestern campus, drinking only juice
for sustenance.  One of the original hunger strikers, Charles Chun,
went for twelve days without food-the longest of all of the hunger
strikers-and lost over twenty pounds.
	Although a hunger strike may seem extreme, the move is not
without precedent.  Only two years ago, the University of California
campuses were in an uproar as students of all backgrounds united to
pressure their administrations to establish departments for Chicana or
Asian American studies.  Lengthy hunger strikes were used at most
campuses to emphasize how serious the issues of equity and fairness
were to the students in their efforts to get an education. In a very
controversial move, a Chicano professor at the Los Angeles campus also
joined in their hunger strike.
	After 23 days and two more rallies, though, the AAAB ended the
hunger strike and protest on May 4.  According to AAAB Chairperson
Grace Lou, "The strike was not affecting the administration the way it
did in the beginning.'  Other problems included the strain that the
protest was putting on the AAAB's budget, as well as the incredible
time commitments, not to mention health risks, asked of all the
	The administration had shown no signs of planning to give in
to the AAAB's demands for an Asian American studies program.  Although
the protesting won a small victory with a promise from the
administration to offer four Asian American studies classes for the
1995-6 academic year.  This agreement was no insignificant
accomplishment, given the administration's previous statements, but a
few classes does not provide the same level of permanence and
stability, like that of a coherent program.
	The AAAB's efforts did increase student awareness around the
issue of Asian American studies and helped to bring about a resurgence
of student activism on the Northwestern campus. Approximately 1200
students signed the AAAB's petition for an Asian American studies
program, with twenty professors also writing letters of support.  Just
because the strike is over does not mean the struggle has ended.  They
will attempt to use the administration's procedures to get the
program, lobbying faculty members and outside organizations for
	At a university like Northwestern, where Asian Americans make
up 18 percent of the student population, it would only make sense that
there should be an Asian American studies program.  Issues of Asian
American history and identity are shut out of students' education at
the earlier levels of schooling, and so it is that much more
imperative that these students have the opportunity to learn about
themselves in college, having been kept from that information for so
	Mainstream culture does not encourage us to find out how Asian
Pacific Americans have contributed to society in the past and present.
Beyond the stereotypes of the model minority, what do we really know
about ourselves? Without Asian American studies programs, schools like
Northwestern are putting all of their students, but most especially
Asian Americans, at a disadvantage.  When they confront issues of
anti-Asian harassment and violence, the glass ceiling, and lack of
political representation, they will not know what to do.  In a society
that tells us that we don't actually face discrimination, that we are
innate superachievers, that we have so many advantages that we're
practically taking over, Asian Pacific Americans lack the tools to
confront these issues, which would enable us to organize and fight
against this kind of oppression.
	It's a wonder that more schools do not resort to more extreme
tactics like protests, rallies, and even hunger strikes.  With large
Asian Pacific student populations at colleges around the country, the
time is right for academia to take Asian American studies seriously as
a field, outside of California, and as part of a complete ethnic
studies discipline. In addition, university administrations must
realize that Asian Pacific students have certain needs that require
their attention and support.
	Here at MIT, there has not been a class covering Asian
American studies issues for three semesters, and of course, there is
no coherent studies program here to speak of, so that students cannot
minor, or even concentrate, in Asian American studies.  The
administration does not appear to realize that we have issues that
need to be addressed. Currently the only member of the administration
who specifically deals with Asian students' needs is Assistant Dean
Mary Ni, and that was not even part of her job description.
	Those colleges and universities that have not already done so
must take a look at the situations of their Asian Pacific American
students.  Just because we may be "overrepresented' as compared with
our total US population does not mean that we do not suffer from
prejudice and institutional oppression. Northwestern, MIT, and other
schools must recognize that services offered to the general (white)
population may not be suitable for the needs of Asian Pacific
students.  It is their duty to prepare us for life after college, and
that means helping us to understand ourselves and our situations,
where we came from, and where we are going.  

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