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 strikers. 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 support. 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 long. 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.