The College Has No Asian American Studies Program


In March, as many students celebrated spring break with hard seltzers on sunny beaches, Daniel Lin ’23 was making his way across southwestern Wyoming in a decade-old Prius, soaking up some history. 

The windswept plains there once bustled with Chinatowns that housed immigrant laborers who constructed railroads and mined coal, work that bolstered the economy of a budding state and booming country. But on September 2, 1885, in Rock Springs, Wyoming, a dispute over wages erupted into a massacre when white, racist settlers killed 28 Chinese miners, burning several in their homes.

Lin visited the old mining town, where a memorial plaque on a small boulder stands at a quiet intersection. He also drove to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northern Wyoming, where the U.S. government imprisoned 10,000 people of Japanese descent following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. It’s now a National Historic Landmark. A few days later, he stopped at Colorado’s Sand Creek, where Army soldiers massacred 230 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans—mostly women, children, and the elderly—in 1864. “All these places are part of the highlight reel of the country’s racial history, but it’s a history that many don’t know, and some have tried to erase,” Lin said as he rumbled along a Kansas highway. “These things need to be taught at Dartmouth, but they’re not.”

The vital and often unsung role of immigrants in shaping the nation’s history is not just personal for Lin, whose parents immigrated to the United States in 1980. They earned degrees and joined the vast workforce that helped forge Silicon Valley’s computer industry. Exploring the past gives Lin a larger sense of his home—and its ugly treatment of minorities. “Recent immigrants don’t know the racial landscape of this country,” he says, “and international students often don’t get it.”

Dartmouth has not helped him confront or contextualize that difficult history. With no relevant course or lecture or field trip to join, Lin created his own path to study this history. The College offers almost nothing in the way of classes about the history of Asian Americans, even though Asian Americans outnumber any other minority group on campus. 

“These things need to be taught at Dartmouth, but they’re not.”

Lin is among thousands of current and former students pushing for an Asian American studies department at the College. They say it could start as a minor, evolve into a program, and eventually become a standalone academic department, just like Dartmouth’s 41 other undergraduate programs and departments. Most important, advocates want something lasting, sustainable, and permanent—no half measures.

A department would give Asian American studies the same intellectual heft as Dartmouth’s four programs or departments that focus on ethnic groups: the department of African and African American studies, which started in 2022; Native American and Indigenous studies, established as a program in 1972 and made into a department in 2022; Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean studies, which was informally created in 1995 and became a department in 2022; and the Jewish studies program, founded in 1993. 

It also would bring Dartmouth in line with other top universities. All seven other Ivy League schools have some kind of an Asian American program or are building one. Penn and Cornell are considered longtime leaders in the field. Berkeley led the pack in 1969, and Cornell followed in 1987. In 2018, Princeton became the most recent Ivy to add a program—30 years after it was first proposed. New York University, Northwestern, and the University of Washington have similar programs. 

Course selections would go well beyond the existing Asian societies, cultures, and languages program, an interdisciplinary major that leans heavily on foreign-language study and topics such as “War and Peace in Korea.” Asian American studies would offer classes that explore the Asian experience in the United States, with a range of topics such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and later diasporas to U.S. shores from Vietnam, Cambodia, and India. Based on a review of Ivy League syllabuses, additonal courses might embrace novels, poems, and films by Jhumpa Lahiri, Joy Kogawa, and Wayne Wang or examine the long history of family separation in this country. Students might study citizenship, identity, and imperialism in Korean American literature or examine how historical narratives have oversimplified Asian Americans and fueled discrimination against other communities of color. Common themes include transnational ties, postcolonial adjustment, and racial reckoning.

Although Asian American studies courses might be of particular interest to Asian American students, they could also enlighten the student body as a whole, advocates say. “We believe that Asian American studies would raise the racial and political consciousness of all students toward a better understanding of others and themselves in an effort to foster a more equitable society,” reads part of a petition presented to the dean’s office in 2021. A student group that Lin belongs to, the Dartmouth Asian American Studies Collective (DAASC), gathered more than 1,200 signatures for the document. This isn’t the first such petition the administration has received and mostly ignored.

The 15 students in DAASC, which was founded in 2021, are just the latest in a long line of campus activists who have tried to press this issue with the administration during the last three decades—with little to show.

Most recently, DAASC made its case to history professor and associate dean Matthew Delmont. They may have found a sympathetic ear, and the dialogue has increased, but it’s uncertain how far Delmont can move the idea forward. 

College officials have said Dartmouth could provide resources if teachers were to come together and produce a unifying curriculum. “Faculty members who have an interest in—or who are currently teaching courses in—Asian American studies are exploring the possibility of developing an Asian American studies minor, including assessing the number of established course offerings in this area and how many additional courses would need to be offered to constitute a robust minor,” a Dartmouth spokesperson told The New York Times last year.

“This spring, the dean’s office is encouraging departments and programs to submit hiring proposals for faculty who would contribute to building a sustainable curriculum in Asian American studies,” Delmont tells DAM. 

Critics call that a Catch-22: How can professors develop and promote a syllabus if there are not enough professors around in the first place? The ranks of Asian American teachers are thin on a campus that prides itself on diversity. And historically, Dartmouth has struggled to retain the few professors who have been interested in and qualified to teach Asian American studies courses.

“This is a nationwide movement, and Dartmouth needs to seize the issue and stop the institutional inertia,” says Ariel Xue ’08, a Washington, D.C., attorney who focuses on domestic-violence cases. She also worked for the admissions office after graduation. “I can be a good spokeswoman for Dartmouth, but I think it’s also my duty to point out that we need improvement. This is a gaping hole that needs to be addressed. If you want to create leaders, and your education about systemic racism or the history of this country excludes Asian Americans, that’s not a complete curriculum. Intellectually and morally, it’s incomplete.”

Xue is no stranger to the issue. She’s one of many members of the Dartmouth Asian Pacific American Alumni Association (DAPAAA) pressing for Asian American studies. DAPAAA has more than 8,200 members, which does not necessarily include all alums who identify as Asian American. Xue is a former DAPAAA chair and one of many members who, despite having been there, done that with their efforts, remain persistent.

“This is a nationwide movement, and Dartmouth needs to seize the issue and stop the institutional inertia.”

“The time is now for the College to make moves,” says Morna Ha ’04, an educational consultant in New York City and chair of DAPAAA’s subcommittee on Asian American studies. As a student she pushed for a program, gathered signatures for a petition, and sought administrative support. Any momentum she gained was lost after her graduation. “We need to figure this out. We’ve been fighting for 30 years to make it happen,” she says. “Unfortunately, Dean Delmont is still operating in an institution with a culture and a bureaucratic structure that make it difficult to make change.” 

She notes that increased communication is a positive sign but it’s not enough. “We need a clarion call for an Asian American studies program, a call that comes from the leadership of the College. We hope that we have an opportunity in President Beilock that Dartmouth will finally prioritize and place resources toward this goal so that we can build a strong and sustainable program.”

Hiring more Asian American professors is a good starting point. “It would be a big step. Is it the only step? No,” says Ha.

Unlike previous efforts, there’s some money behind the message. Two years ago, DAPAAA and the College established the Asian American and Pacific Islander Academic Enrichment Fund. The fund stands at $250,000. A DAPAAA website states it hoped to raise $400,000 by July 2022.

Asian Americans make up 22 percent of the class of 2026, up from about 10 percent of classes in the late 1990s. (The figure is closer to 30 percent at other Ivy schools.) The term describes a wide range of people. “We’re not a monolith,” says DAPAAA co-chair Sarah Gupta ’19. “I myself am both Indian and Iranian American. We’re trying to speak for many groups that came about because of historical connections and political power. Of course there are specific challenges and struggles for different Asian American communities. But we want to uplift each other and work toward this common goal. It’s important for people to feel represented and included.”

DAPAAA will emphasize that message in the coming months as it prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary next year with campus events in early May and related programming throughout 2024.

The U.S. population of Asian Americans stood at 20 million in 2020, up from 7 million in 1990, according to census data. According to the Pew Research Center, which defines “Asian American” as those whose families have roots in more than 20 countries from East Asia and Southeast Asia to the Indian subcontinent, this is the fastest-growing major racial or ethnic group in the country. 

The number of Asian American-related courses at Dartmouth is moving in the opposite direction. In 2021, a recent peak, the College offered nine Asian American classes scattered across different departments, making them somewhat harder to find than if they were grouped into a program. The 2022-23 academic year included only a handful of classes—one about art and architecture, another that examined racism, and a powerful new course focused on Asian American activism at Dartmouth. 

Dartmouth has offered a total of 42 Asian American-focused courses since 2004, most of which didn’t last very long or were offered only sporadically. Only nine were taught for three or more terms, according to DAASC. “Dartmouth cannot call itself a diverse and inclusive institution while its academic curriculum rejects essential pedagogies and research,” the group’s petition states. 

Unsurprisingly, the ratio of Asian American faculty members is also lopsided. Dartmouth employed 83 Asian faculty members in 2022, about 9 percent of all faculty. Some of them teach at the graduate schools or work as instructors in classes unrelated to Asian American studies. 

Of course, not all professors with Asian backgrounds have Asian American scholarship under their belts. Whatever Asian American curriculum currently exists at the College is being kept alive by a few overworked professors, advocates say.

Among the ranks of current faculty who could theoretically transition to a new department are Kim; Alexander Chee, a Korean American novelist in the English department; Eng-Beng Lim, who teaches postcolonial and queer subjects in the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies department; and 2021 hire Sujin Eom. This year two Asian American scholars are joining the English department: Jodi Kim, a media studies professor interested in U.S. imperialism and militarism, and Anjuli Kolb, a poet who has written about terrorism. 

New Hampshire and Vermont are overwhelmingly white, which intimidates some candidates, according to assistant professor Sunmin Kim, a native of South Korea who started in the sociology department three years ago. The weather and rural aspects have always limited the College’s ability to recruit. “Many Asians gravitate toward campuses in cities, where they feel more comfortable,” Kim notes. “Teachers who are being recruited ask, ‘Will there be a community for me there?’ You want to say, ‘Don’t worry, there are people you can hang out with, there will be people on your side.’ But that’s not always true.” Kim is up for tenure in 2026.

Several Asian American professors have left the College, citing tenure issues. One major personnel loss that still stings for the current crop of activists is that of Aimee Bahng, who logged seven years in the English department with classes such as “Gender and Sexuality in Asian American Literature.” Supported unanimously by the English department for tenure, but denied by higher-ups, Bahng left the College in 2016. Four hundred students rallied in front of Parkhurst to protest her denial of tenure. 

Another big loss came when Nora Yasumura, dean and advisor to Asian American students, departed. Hired in 1999, Yasumura is a New York native of Japanese descent whose grandparents were incarcerated during World War II. She coordinated faculty hiring, created social events, and counseled students. She also filled a large void by serving as the rare Asian American mentor. She left in 2012. Her position remains unfilled. More such advisors and faculty would provide a much-needed support system for undergrads, who are clamoring for mentors who understand their heritage.

If there’s a model for what an Asian American studies class could look like, it might be the class Sunmin Kim created and taught last winter. “Race, Politics, and Power: Asian American Student Activism at Dartmouth College” (Sociology 76) aims to undercut the assumption that inequality is inevitable and explain “how racial and ethnic divisions came to emerge from the political struggles of the past” through a Big Green lens, according to his course description. Students should come away understanding “not only successes but also failures of white supremacy—namely that non-whites have always disrupted workings of the dominant system, sometimes through electoral politics and other times with direct action.”

The class grew out of an independent research project undertaken by Lin, the student on the Western road trip who is a sociology and music double major. Burrowing though boxes of documents in Rauner, Lin came across scattered news clips, meeting notes, and even fraternity composite photos that suggested a surprisingly extensive history of Asian American organizing on campus. “It dawned on us that this is big, that we should do something on a large scale,” Kim says. “Let’s try to make this a thing.”

For their final project, the class’s 16 students, 12 of them freshmen, created a sweeping digital exhibit, Asian American Student Activism at Dartmouth. Its sections range from “Artistic Expression” to “Anti-Asian Hate” and include posters, news clips, and other analysis to depict a movement that has percolated since the 1970s. “The students were able to connect with their identity and go through this journey of self-exploration that they had never thought of before, because a lot of them had never taken Asian American studies classes,” says Gupta, who participated in a virtual presentation of their work. “For them it was a transformative experience.”

The digital exhibit also delves into the fractured history of Asian American studies courses at Dartmouth. Kan’ichi Asakawa, class of 1899, was likely the first person of Asian descent to teach at the College. From 1902 to 1906, this son of a samurai lectured about the relations between the United States and Japan before decamping for Yale, where he taught for the next 36 years.

U.C. Berkeley started its Asian American and Asian diaspora studies program in 1969. Five years later, the College created an Asian studies program. At the time, only a small percentage of students were Asian or Asian American, and the program was gone by 1979.

In 1991, a handful of Dartmouth undergraduates formed the Asian and Pacific American Issues Forum, which organized well-attended lectures. But no formal classes were established. From 1990 to 1997 Dartmouth offered no Asian American courses, according to the sociology students’ research. In 1989, students began pushing for classes, and in 1992 professor David Kang taught the Korean language. But funding and commitment never materialized. By 2015, a never-quite-formed Korean studies program was basically dead. 

In 1996, roommates Michael Yoo ’98 and Jon Jun ’98 woke up one morning to discover racial slurs scrawled on their door. Two weeks later, similar graffiti targeted two Asian American women. The outrage that followed led to the creation of the Pan Asian Council (a student group), the eventual formation of DAPAAA, and the 1997 hiring of Vernon Takeshita, considered Dartmouth’s first true Asian American professor. He taught two history classes that explored the Asian American experience in the United States before and after World War II. In 1999 Yale tried to recruit Takeshita. The College reportedly counteroffered and authorized tenure. Takeshita, who declined to comment for this story, left Dartmouth and academia in 2004.

Yasumura remembers those years as difficult. “The anti-Asian incidents made the students feel very alone,” she says. “There were many times when people were crying in my office.” Now a diversity consultant, she is heartened by legislation recently passed in Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Illinois that mandates Asian American lessons in public schools. But the new laws are also a reminder that the College has not acted. “Dartmouth has an opportunity to be part of the solution,” she says. “Not supporting Asian American studies is to be part of the problem.”

Knowingly or not, Ha says, the College appears to be perpetuating one of the more hurtful stereotypes of Asian people—that they are somehow a “model minority” that doesn’t require any special attention. As a result, Asian Americans on campus often don’t receive the kind of institutional support they need and deserve, which also means the community can feel disparate and fractured.

“There needs to be a communal Asian American identity here,” says DAASC member Emma Nguyên ’25, who has Vietnamese and Japanese ancestry and is majoring in quantitative social science with hopes of improving healthcare for Southeast Asians in the United States. “And coursework that emphasizes that commonality of the struggles of Asian minorities would go a long way toward that goal. Most of us plan to live in this country and need to better understand race relations.” Dartmouth is not a racist place, she adds. “The College appears very caring about the issues and our well-being. But sometimes it all can just feel very performative.”  


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