On Wednesday evening, the United Asian American Organizations at the University of Michigan hosted a panel to promote the Asian, Pacific Islander American studies program on campus and call attention to a 2017 lawsuit citing discrimination against program faculty.

Panelists included graduate and undergraduate students, as well as Emily Lawsin, a lecturer in American culture and women’s studies, and Scott Kurashige, a former professor in history and American culture.

In 2017, Lawsin and Kurashige brought a lawsuit against the University under claims of racial discrimination and harassment, citing the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Currently, Kurashige explained, “the Dean of LSA is working with the chairs of the departments of women’s studies and American culture to fire Emily.”

Since the time of the controversy, students and community members have showed strong solidarity with Lawsin and actively tried to rebuild the A/PIA studies program. Their efforts include circulating a petition for the University to fully restore the A/PIA studies program, as well as releasing op-eds calling out the University’s actions against Lawsin, one of which was written by state Rep. Stephanie Chang.

As tensions surrounding employment and administrative responses mount, Lawsin and Kurashige have continued to serve as activists fighting for improvement of the A/PIA studies program, which was founded in 1989 and offers courses and an academic minor. The program has gone from offering eight to 10 classes per semester to only two in a previous winter semester.

Public Health sophomore Ciara Timban serves as the co-programming chair for UAAO and said she hopes the panel will bring attention to the opportunities available within the A/PIA studies program.

“Often times, it’s a very underutilized or forgotten program, (but) has a lot of opportunities or benefits that can be offered to students of color on campus,” Timban said. “So, we really just want to be able to share that with the community, especially because UAAO is a space for Asian and Pacific Islander students.”

Panelists answered questions about their own relationships with the program, as well as speaking on ways students can work to help bolster the program, maintain its importance outside of the classroom and ensure administration can be held accountable for its lack of program recognition.

Rackham student Ivy Wei sat on the panel, explaining her own experiences growing up in a Midwestern area that lacked cultural diversity, speaking on the importance of ensuring representation in the current narrative.

“When I was growing up in the Midwest, I really didn’t see any cultural or media representations of myself,” Wei said. “It’s really important for us to reclaim that narrative of who we are and what we are in society.”

Lawsin expressed similar sentiments, explaining the first time she worked with teachers and professors who shared her cultural identity was when she was ethnic studies student. The educators provided Lawsin with resources to more deeply study figures and theories that shaped her identity.

“Ethnic studies changed my life because for the first time I actually had teachers and professors in front of me who looked like me and I could read about all of these people who were like me and like my parents and our family,” Lawsin said. “I think it’s very important for us to realize that here in the Midwest, unlike the West coast where I grew up, we have so few Asian Americans in leadership positions, at the front of the classroom … or even in administrative positions here in the University. We have to ask, ‘Why? Why is that?’ And I think that’s why A/PIA studies is important to me, because it allows us to look at those things, to study those things, and to talk about those so we can actually make some serious social change.”

The beginnings of Asian-American studies didn’t come without conflict, Kurashige emphasized. Protests, police brutality and riots erupted as students in universities began demanding for the existence of these programs. Even more alarming, he noted, is these programs were established only recently— despite centuries of cultural struggles.

“The important thing to realize is that the first Asian-American studies programs were created 50 years ago. The student strikes to create them started 50 years ago,” Kurashige said. “It was because people demanded these programs … They wanted to change what we studied, but they also wanted to change the power dynamics in education.”

Kurashige further highlighted struggles of the A/PIA program at the University, noting the program currently does not have a full staff, a large budget and even lacks a sign.

Furthermore, Kurashige spoke on difficulties with past and present LSA deans while attempting to make coordinated efforts to boost the program. He expressed his opinions on the faults of administration, noting their actions go against A/PIA program efforts to increase institutional equity.

“There are clear rules as to how these programs are governed, and when you ask (the deans) for the rules, they change them,” Kurashige said. “(The programs) really set up to fail and the only way they can succeed is if you find faculty that care enough to devote lots of free labor to the University. I think the deans need to be held accountable for these decisions.”

In addition, panelists spoke on the current campus climate and necessary changes to promote the diverse atmosphere the administration advertises.

Lawsin highlighted a 2012 racist incident in which the floor of her office in Lane Hall was vandalized.

“I had a misogynist racist image put on my bulletin board in 2012. And the University sent their spokesperson and an African-American cop to see me, to tell me, not to investigate, but to tell me they don’t think it was a hate crime. There are two pushpins in the (eyes in this photo of a woman holding a baby), who looks Asian, and in her mouth, and you’re telling me that’s not intimidating? That’s not a hate crime?” Lawsin said. “Our whole floor was vandalized. That was 2012. And they issued a statement but we had said we need to do something about this. (There was) a little talk about diversity, now you have your DEI, and yet those acts are still happening and they’re even worse now — where you can have the ‘N’ word written on someone’s dorm. That is inexcusable. It is not acceptable.”

Music, Theatre & Dance senior Stone Stewart attended the discussion and emphasized the importance in more students taking classes within programs such as A/PIA studies, citing some students lack the tools necessary to fully engage with the historical and culturally important material of the program.

“I think a lot of these cultural studies programs are greatly undervalued, not just by this ‘U’ specifically but by academia in general, and because of that I think this is a good response to try and put it in the conversation a bit more,” Stewart said. “I think we societally have undervalued a lot of social-injustice-type education, and I think part of that is because we as students aren’t really well prepared to engage with that kind of material that well. That type of subject matter, we perceive it to be based a lot on opinion rather than scholarly research.” 

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