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After a jury found the University of Michigan did not discriminate against a couple who accused the school of violating the state’s civil rights statute, a group of students minoring in Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies authored an open letter to the University and public. The students outlined requirements they would like to be met to make them feel more supported.
On Dec. 20, 2019, a jury determined that the University did not discriminate against Emily Lawsin and Scott Kurashige, who filed a discrimination lawsuit in 2016 against the University under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, with claims of disparate treatment, discriminatory hiring practices and sex discrimination, among others.
In the letter, the group of students introduced a path of action they would like to see the University embark on to improve their working relationship.
“We have witnessed a national student movement for the growth of A/PIA Studies, but at the same time, we have watched a national struggle for A/PIA Studies to be institutionally supported by universities,” the letter said. “This University is no exception.”
The requirements outlined by the students include the creation of an A/PIA Studies major, more recognition and support for the faculty of ethnic studies programs, more spaces to hold lectures, additional faculty specifically dedicated to the ethnic studies program and meetings with LSA Dean Anne Curzan.
“The students of A/PIA Studies have witnessed a litigation in which the University that we chose to attend has excluded our role models, directly discredited our presence, and denied the existence of our lived realities,” the letter said. “We now need a period to heal and move forward from such an alienating process.”
As of Wednesday night, the letter had more than 100 signatures from the A/PIA Studies community as well as other University students.
In an interview with The Daily last week, University President Mark Schlissel said he was glad the University won the trial.
“We’re gratified they agreed with us,” Schlissel said. “As always with juries, it was a relatively lengthy and complicated trial. … We’re always trying to hear constructive criticism, even if we disagree with its conclusions.”
Schlissel said he’s spent time with A/PIA leadership to continue the ongoing conversation on how to improve the situation for the programs.
“I would find it disappointing if any student felt as if they weren’t supported for any reason, any mode of identity,” Shlissel said. “Our student affairs staff and the folks that work on our multiculturalism programs are in contact with A/PIA and other groups. I’ve had A/PIA leadership to the house for breakfast, probably once a semester the last several years, and it’s an ongoing dialogue.”
In response to this statement, James Lee, LSA senior and A/PIA Studies minor, said he felt offended by Schlissel’s mention of the entire A/PIA community being represented by a small group of leadership.
“When Schlissel says ‘A/PIA’ generally, that is completely antithetical to diversity,” Lee said. “Because if you’re going to say, ‘I listened to A/PIA,’ that’s 15 percent of the student body. Who are you listening to? If you want to say something about diversity but then at the same time say the entirety of A/PIA is just a monolith and that you listen to everybody out there, when we’ve had experiences when we know you don’t (listen to us). You can have all this discourse about diversity, but that doesn’t matter when you’re doing nothing (to make improvements).”
Like Lee, Anna Dang, LSA junior and A/PIA Studies minor, contributed to the open letter. She said she feels highly disheartened by the outcome of the trial.
“We’re pretty disappointed with the way that the trial turned out, but that doesn’t mean that the student activism is invalid,” Dang said. “I think that the trials shine a lot of light on how the administration pays attention to A/PIA Studies in the light of invalidating it rather than uplifting it. We’ve kind of taken this as an opportunity to talk about how the University can support us and it’s up to them if they respond or not.”
Dang said she felt there a hollowness to the University’s use of the word “diversity.”
“We’re advocating for A/PIA Studies, and the way that they don’t disaggregate the data for Asian Americans, then most of the program is just going to be Asian, right?” Dang said. “I actually don’t know if this buzzword of diversity is anything that we’re going for. We want the right to come together and talk about what this identity means and how we can go forward with it, not some flashy word that administration can just display.”
Additionally, Dang discussed the goals outlined in the letter. She said she sees differences between care for the ethnic studies program and the overall care for diversity at the University.
“I think that if they care so much about ethnic studies, they wouldn’t say, ‘We care about diversity’ because it’s not the same issue,” Dang said. “Overall, the University needs to listen to students more, because students are still the ones pushing for ethnic studies… It’s not complete yet. The fact that it’s been 30 years and they can’t see that they need to listen to the students that created this program shows that they literally have no awareness of what this program means.”