About 70 faculty, staff and students were in attendance on Thursday at LSA’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion panel focused on bringing awareness to Asian Pacific Islander Desi/American and Middle Eastern/North African identities at the University of Michigan. The event featured five speakers, all of whom were faculty and staff members at the University. 

The event began with questions from the hosts directed to specific panelists. The first question was for Melissa Borja, assistant professor in A/PIA studies, about the history of APID/A individuals at the University. 

Borja explained the importance of individuals claiming a specific identity and then allowing it to be counted in the school’s demographics. She explored the concept by using the example of how Asian Americans have changed the way they identify themselves over time. 

“The term ‘Asian American’ was first used in the 1960s for very specific political purposes,” Borja said. “Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans and other people’s Asian ancestry decided that it was politically advantageous for them to unite under that political category, and we can’t ignore that this category continues to be politically contested — that they are continuing to grapple about the boundaries of this category.” 

Matthew Stiffler, a lecturer in American Culture and researcher at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., commented on the idea of identity further by describing a similar struggle for ME/NA-identifying individuals. He explained how the umbrella term ME/NA is a relatively new concept, and the countries that fall under this term are still developing. 

“To think of ME/NA as a rallying identity for people in the United States …  (is) a very recent history,” Stiffler said. “Where it comes from the need to have an identity is recent. Where we’re at as a nation, (ME/NA) boxes matter.”

The discussion then moved to why checkboxes exist, what data is collected and where the University is going in terms of demographic data collection. 

Traci Buckner, lead analyst at University Human Resource Records and Information Services, spoke about the ways in which federal requirements play into how the University handles demographic information regarding faculty and staff. The office of UHRRIS follows the federal guidelines in collecting demographic data, but the process can be complicated when a faculty or staff member does not disclose their ethnicity. 

Paul Robinson, associate vice provost at the Office of the  Registrar, discussed the extended ethnicities initiative for both students and faculty at the University that allows students to update their identities in Wolverine Access according to their specific racial and ethnic identities. 

“In the last several months, we enabled our students’ systems and HR systems to be able to capture some data of ethnicities,” Robinson said. 

Ravi Pendse, vice president of information technology and chief information officer at the University, reminded the audience that while demographic data collection is essential to representation, the University must also respect students’ rights to information and data privacy. 

“All of that information, powered by data that we all generate, has to be somewhere work has to be analyzed, has to be protected, has to be thoughtfully used,” Pendse said. “I’m a director here saying that we must make available to our entire campus for students first, a data dashboard that students can look at and see what data we are collecting on them, and why.”

Rackham student Alyssa Park told The Daily she attended the event because of her interest in the disaggregation of data around Asian American students and erasure of specific ethnic groups who fall under the pan-Asian identity.

“Something that really stuck out to me in this event is the power of data and the actions that can be taken from what we find out or what we choose to find out,” Park said. 

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly cited Park’s interest in the “desegregation” of data instead of “disaggregation.”

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