CSUN community reacts to CSULA’s ethnic studies dispute

Sharon Hardwick

While the Asian American Studies program at California State University, Northridge is thriving, students and faculty at California State University, Los Angeles are baffled by the administration’s decision to suspend their program.

On Feb. 2, students and faculty protested the suspension, which was initiated November 2010 hoping to add more names to an online petition that has gathered more than 1,300 signatures.

“People think it’s not a big issue,” said Brian de Guzman, a CSUN student. “But when the ethnic studies community looks at this program being suspended, they think, well, if it can happen to them, then it can happen to us. If (administration) suspends the program, then it lays the groundwork for oppressing other ethnic studies programs and departments.”

CSULA’s school policy, states that an academic program suspension is initiated when a program is struggling but it is not a stepping-stone toward cancellation. The period of suspension is three years, during which a program is encouraged to evaluate itself and re-apply. During the suspension, a program cannot admit any new students.

ChorSwang “Swan” Ngin, director of CSULA’s Asian and Asian American Studies program said in an e-mail that the timing of the suspension was odd because their program was up for review in December 2010.

“We had a meeting on Nov. 29, 2010, and in a room full of more than 50 faculty from all disciplines and students, pleaded with (Dean Jim Henderson) to not suspend the program,” Ngin said. “The dean was not responsive. When asked when he would make his decision he said he was going on vacation. We have no official word since then.”

While Henderson has declined to comment on the suspension, students and faculty have made their own assumptions.  A lack of institutional interest, budget concerns and the trend in job-oriented education are at the top of the list.

Sandra Stanley, interim chair of the Asian American studies program at CSUN said in an e-mail that the programs were different.

“CSUN’s AAS has been a department for over 20 years, while CSULA’s AAAS, which is only six years old, is still trying to establish itself as a program,” Stanley said. “Here, the department has tenured and tenure-track faculty, as well as a strong group of lecturers all teaching in a department that offers a stable schedule of classes. At CSULA, the AAAS must borrow faculty from other departments. Fundamentally, CSULA’s AAAS, does not have the institutional support from basic staff and office support to faculty lines that a program or department needs if it is to have even the chance to grow and thrive.”

Ngin, who got the program approved in 2004, said the seed funding for the program came from external sources. The program costs $4,000 per year to operate. Were it not for administrative disinterest, the AAAS program would have grown into a department similar to CSUN’s, she said.

“No college wanted to house AAAS and we got kicked around from college to college,” Ngin said. “Getting the deans to allow us to offer the courses was difficult. We were often under the threat of course cancellation.”

Students enrolled in the program will still be able to graduate with a degree, however, many are overwhelmed and confused by the administration’s decision.

One of those students is Natasha Khanna, Asian and Asian American studies minor.

“Students say it doesn’t make sense to close it and turn away three years worth of students,” Khanna said. “But my job is not to understand administration. As a student my job is to go to school, to study hard, to graduate on time and not worry about a program getting cut or not. But this quarter we had to struggle to just get an advisor.”

While lack of institutional support ranks high on the list of reasons many feel the program is being considered for suspension, some students believe the issue is broader.

Erin Thomason, a graduate student in the department of anthropology at CSULA is one of those students.

“In the last couple years, CSULA has been a working-class university,” Thomason said. “Students come to get various hands-on, practical degrees like business and teaching that they can get jobs in. I think this has something to do with the reason. Students aren’t coming here to raise consciousness and awareness about ethnic issues. Sometimes it may confront them while they’re here, but from what I have heard the structure of the general education requirements are such that students can, and do, without thinking about it, avoid taking courses offered by ethnic and area studies.”

Los Angeles houses the second largest Asian population in the country, according to US Census Bureau and the San Gabriel Valley has one of Los Angeles’ highest concentrations of Asians and Asian Americans.

For some students the idea of cutting ethnic studies classes, regardless of the reason, is the issue. A protest held Feb. 2 was intended to pressure the administration to reconsider their decision to suspend the program, as well as highlight the impact a suspension would have not only on its Asian and Asian American students but on the culture of higher education and its local community.