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On Tuesday, March 16, Joshua Chun Wah Kam’s phone rang. A University of Michigan International Institute employee and Rackham student at the time, Kam was living at home in Malaysia with his single mother, trying to keep them both healthy during the pandemic. When Kam answered the call, he said he was alarmed to hear his friend break down and begin crying, mourning the racially motivated shooting deaths of six Asian women at three Asian-owned spas in metropolitan Atlanta.
That day, Kam said he received several more calls from emotionally distraught Asian and Asian American-identifying friends, all similarly devastated by the rise in anti-Asian attacks taking place in the U.S.
“I got this stream of concern from Asian-American and Asian students at the University of Michigan,” Kam told The Michigan Daily in an interview. “These were friends and comrades, they were crying on the phone.”
As a University-employed office assistant and social media assistant at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), Kam said he wanted to utilize CSEAS social media platforms to console his peers and to share educational resources pertaining to anti-Asian racism. After posting statements about the Atlanta shootings on behalf of CSEAS on Twitter and Facebook, Kam sent an email to his work colleagues notifying them about his posts.
“Just writing real quickly to mention I have put up a CSEAS statement of outrage and grief in response to the Atlanta shootings and murders of 6 Asian American women in three spas yesterday,” Kam wrote in his email. “(An additional coworker) and I were considering that a statement should come out soon, in particular because of the long connections between SE Asians and spas in America, and well, because this is close to our own hearts as well as to the hearts of so many Asian Americans who view our content.”
In the tweets, Kam wrote, “On behalf of the staff, student workers, and faculty at CSEAS, we offer our condolences to the 8 Asian women killed in 3 shootings in Atlanta tonight. We are horrified, but not suprised, by this wave of gendered Anti-Asian violence.”
Kam has said his response was written in haste, and it contains notable inaccuracies. For instance, “surprised” is spelled incorrectly and he erroneously reported that eight Asian women were killed; in reality, only six Asian women died, while the two other murder victims were not of Asian descent.
But on June 3, Kam posted another tweet thread — this time on his personal Twitter account — alleging that on April 27, he was told his positions as a student employee at the University would be reopened because of the statements he had previously posted on CSEAS accounts about the Atlanta shootings.
Kam told The Daily he had initially been verbally promised by University staff that his employment would continue through the end of July. However, after controversy concerning his tweets, Kam said he was notified by Asia Centers manager Do-Hee Morsman that he could only remain in his position until the end of May, which he did.
University spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald wrote in an email to The Daily that it is customary for the University’s student employment positions to conclude after graduation in May, as Kam’s did.
“No employee in this unit has been fired from his or her position during the past year,” Fitzgerald said.
Kam said he and his mother have been relying on the income he received from the University to support their livelihoods at their home in Malaysia. He alleged that Dr. Laura Rozek, director of CSEAS and associate professor of environmental health sciences, knew of his situation and said losing his position amidst the ongoing third wave of COVID-19 in his country was particularly stressful.
“(Rozek) knew that I have a single mother that I’m supporting, she knew that we were in a pandemic and that employment in Malaysia is not something I can viably consider right now,” Kam said, citing the difficult COVID-19 conditions in Malaysia.
Kam’s previous positions, office assistant and social media assistant, reopened for new applicants in May. Kam reapplied, but the roles were ultimately filled by another candidate.
On March 17 — the day after the Atlanta shooting — Rozek responded to Kam’s email, a copy of which was shared with The Daily. In her email, Rozek stated that CSEAS should not have published a statement about the Atlanta shooting without having first posted anything on recent violence perpetrated against activists in Myanmar and the Philippines.
“I think (CSEAS) needs to be sensitive when making a statement about what it says … when we DON’T make a statement,” Rozek wrote to Kam. “I think it’s important to be mindful of how and when we communicate and what it says to all of our partners around the world.”
Kam’s former co-worker and CSEAS former program assistant Hannah Johnson, who is using a pseudonym for fear of professional retribution due to seeking future employment, told The Daily she was infuriated by Rozek’s response. She said she believes although it is absolutely important for CSEAS to speak on the situation in Myanmar and the Philippines, it was imperative to release a statement pertaining to the Atlanta spa shootings as quickly as possible given their closer physical proximity to the University.
“(The Atlanta shooting) is right here,” Johnson said. “This is literally in our backyard. This is in the United States, these are communities that we are directly a part of that were being attacked. (Rozek) just tried to water down the significance of this by saying there’s other bad stuff happening in Asia.”
Johnson, whose responsibilities included assembling CSEAS’s bi-weekly bulletins to be sent out to subscribers via email, said she similarly began drafting a statement to be released March 17 after Kam published his tweets. When Rozek reviewed Johnson’s statement, Johnson said she was ordered to stop work and publish the e-bulletin without her statement. Johnson refused to publish a bulletin without her statement, and on March 18, Rozek created and sent a bulletin with her own statement on the Atlanta spa shootings via email. In the statement obtained by The Daily, Rozek labelled the violence “senseless” — language which Kam said he believes is dangerous.
“Frankly … white supremacy is a very rational thing for people who benefit from it,” Kam said “Calling (white supremacy) senseless trivializes the violence and trivializes the deaths of Asian people.”
Rozek concluded her statement by declaring, “I also commit that CSEAS will continue to provide a welcoming environment for all.”
In a March 17-18 email chain between Kam, Johnson and Morsman obtained by The Daily, Morsman addressed the pain and emotion that Kam and Johnson experienced.
“I do understand your grief and horror at the events happening in Atlanta,” Morsman wrote in an email. “It is awful, and today has been very difficult in light of this news. I am personally navigating my own feelings today about this country that I only recently became a citizen in.”
Morsman then added that while the situation was difficult, tweeting from the Center’s account without authorization remained unacceptable.
“Using the Center’s social media and e-mail accounts for statements from the Center need to be cleared with the Center Director and in turn with the College,” Morsman wrote. “I know that you are speaking from the heart, but our audience interprets those messages as coming from the Director and Center faculty, not from a team of folks who may be in the APIDA community. If we are going to make a statement on race-based violence towards Asian-Americans, we need to ensure that other Centers and Departments on campus have the opportunity to show a collective stance against this.”
In the email, Morsman encouraged Johnson and Kam to understand that a single tweet may not be representative of all the identities CSEAS represents.
On March 17, Kam was locked out of all CSEAS’s social media accounts with no advance notice, he said. Frustrated with the situation, Kam emailed Rozek and Morsman, emphasizing his commitment to his position and assuring them he would not upload posts to CSEAS’s social media accounts without explicit permission to do so.
“I am not a wild card; I do not need to be muzzled,” Kam wrote in his email to Rozek and Morsman. “I’m a member of a community seeking to support other members of this community, to speak without saying hollow things.”
A couple weeks after Kam’s access to the social media accounts was barred, Kam said his supervisor began to question what work he was doing to fill the required hours for his position as a social media assistant. His supervisor’s concerns ultimately culminated in a Zoom meeting with Rozek and several International Institute (II) and LSA staff on May 13.
An audio recording of part of this meeting obtained by The Daily begins with Kam explaining his intent in posting the tweets and some of the strong diction he used to describe the events in Atlanta.
“I think what might still be confusing is I also recall you…bringing up my concerns as well about the official wording that I had about ‘white supremacists gunning down Asian women,’” Kam said. “It was a really difficult time…”
Rozek then abruptly cut Kam off to share her perspective, describing waking up at 5:45 a.m. to deal with the aftermath of an unapproved tweet “during an incredibly busy week.” While she said she understood Kam’s frustration with CSEAS, Rozek said his actions on behalf of CSEAS lacked necessary prior judgement and consideration. She asked Kam to consider her point of view, claiming she did not feel “heard” by him. Kam reported feeling frustrated with Rozek’s approach to the situation.
“If I may ask, Laura, why do you need to feel heard in a moment where my people are being slaughtered?” Kam said in response to Rozek. “I think silence was also dangerous at that point … . With all due respect, I have to ask: whom are we centering in these moments?”
Rozek then suggested that Kam could have posted his statement to his own personal media accounts instead.
“Josh, it wasn’t your decision to make,” Rozek said. “I’m not afraid to actually say what is obvious… .The fact is, speaking out about certain issues and not other issues is not a decision for you to make on a University-owned account.”
Rozek then insinuated that the victims of the Atlanta spa shootings were not connected to Kam, saying, “if you feel like these are you people …” before trailing off and mentioning Morsman, a woman of Korean descent who also disapproved of his statement.
Later in the call, Rozek called the tweets “inflammatory.”
In the March 17-18 email chain, Morsman explained that access to social media accounts were now controlled by the communications team at the II.
“I confirmed that it is typically the Center’s practice for part-time social media staff to discuss all social media posts and vet them with the CSEAS Program Specialist,” Morsman said. “Since these tweets went out without prior knowledge of the Director and Center staff, while they were asleep, this was in violation of Center norms. The decision to pause CSEAS social media came as a result of communications that did not meet II protocols for social media messaging. This was shut down with Laura’s permission (as CSEAS director) at the request of the II and the College.”
However, according to Kam, there were many tweets on the CSEAS’s account that did not go through approval from his administrators, including one that was posted in February about the crisis in Myanmar. He wondered why this specific instance ended in termination, unlike previously unapproved tweets.
Kam released a series of posts on June 3 recalling his account of these events including an IGTV video and a thread on Twitter. His tweet thread received over 600 cumulative likes, and the IGTV video was viewed over 35,000 times and liked by more than 2,500 people. Kam also published a petition that has received over 2,000 signatures on Change.org calling for Kam’s reinstatement or adequate compensation from CSEAS and an apology for the Center’s actions. Mary Gallagher, the Director of the Center for Chinese Studies, and Rozek — both white women — blocked Kam from their personal Twitter accounts within hours after he went public with the allegations.
According to another CSEAS employee, the department’s leadership has a history of a poor and unsupportive culture. Johnson described her experience working for the II as “exploitative,” explaining how people like her are underpaid and overworked. She said she believes verbal agreements, which can later be easily broken, also take advantage of young, inexperienced workers.
Johnson said Rozek recruited her in November to help create a website for Southeast Asian national resource centers, under the verbal promise that she would be paid $18 per hour if she were to undertake the project. However, it was later revealed that she would actually be paid her CSEAS salary of $13 per hour for the approximate 40 hours of work which Johnson expended on the project.
Rozek reassured her the issue would be resolved in January, but Johnson’s payment was not approved until mid-June, shortly after the University was asked for comment on the matter of her wages. Johnson calculated an approximation of her annual income while working at CSEAS and wondered to The Daily, “How is anyone supposed to live off of $24,000?”
In a statement on behalf of the University, Fitzgerald said Johnson’s pay situation was being addressed appropriately.
“The Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) values all of its students and the contributions from students who serve as temporary workers helping to support the center’s mission,” Fitzgerald said in the statement.
Fitzgerald also affirmed the values of the CSEAS department, but said he could not disclose specifics of the matter as prohibited by FERPA, a law that protects the privacy of student records. He wrote on June 11 that Kam could provide written permission that would allow the Office of Public Affairs to share more information on his situation. In this email, Fitzgerald referred to Kam incorrectly, writing his name as “Josh Kwan.” Kam provided such written permission on June 23, but the Office of Public Affairs declined to share the information, saying they had no further comment.
In a statement on behalf of the University, Fitzgerald wrote that the University is aware that Kam has published accounts online that allege CSEAS and Rozek discriminated and retaliated against him.
“Josh Kam was a valued member of the CSEAS community,” Fitzgerald wrote in the statement. “However, information he has shared on social media is false, misleading and causing harm to others.”
Fitzgerald noted that the tweets in question are still online and were not taken down.
“The center did decide to pause its social media activity in order to take time to explore its social media strategy and balance other priorities,” Fitzgerald wrote. “At CSEAS, and (then) throughout the International Institute, leaders strive to support their entire team and condemn and deplore the recent wave of anti-APIA violence and its impact on the communities that these units serve.”
Johnson said she believes in many cases, those who carry out the administrative tasks of the II are people with real, cultural ties to their respective regions. But all too often, Johnson said, their white directors are the ones who gain recognition and praise for their subordinates’ work. Rozek is one of many department directors who are white, including the directors of the Center for Chinese Studies, the African Studies Center and the Center for Latin America and Carribean Studies.
“It kind of echoes colonialism in a lot of ways because at the end of the day you have people of color who are … doing the work to make these centers look so great,” Johnson said. “This University wants to talk about diversity, equity and inclusion and meanwhile, they’re just erasing the work of all these staff of color. It’s just very two-faced. How are you going to talk about diversity and equity and inclusion when (so many) of your directors are white people?”
After Johnson’s year with CSEAS concluded, she said she never received any parting recognition, thanks or acknowledgement from Rozek. Kam shared a similar story, expressing frustration that his relationship with Rozek ended so abruptly.
Prior to his March 17 tweets, Kam said Rozek was “very friendly” and the two shared a cordial relationship. He said she gave him employment when he requested it at the start of the pandemic, she retweeted his posts and she sometimes gave him compliments like, “You’re killing it, Kam.” Considering this formerly positive relationship, Kam said he felt disheartened and disappointed in Rozek.
“You never know when it’s too much for white people,” Kam said. “You never know when they snap. And at some point I must have crossed that line for (Rozek) and her treatment … of me was like night and day.”
Kam said his ultimate hope is for his friends and colleagues to listen and approach difficult subjects of marginalization and oppression with humility. In Rozek’s case, Kam said he does not believe she has approached anti-Asian sentiment “with humility.” In response to a question about whether or not he believes Rozek is qualified to direct CSEAS, he paused.
“I don’t think so anymore,” Kam said, reflecting on how Rozek had blocked him on her personal Twitter account and did not communicate with him in the aftermath of his allegations. “I did. I don’t now. Even 24 hours ago, I think you might have gotten a different answer from me. At this point, I don’t see a way forward for (Rozek) — not in Southeast Asian studies.”
Across campus, many leaders of prominent student groups on campus are rallying their support behind Kam during his fight for recompensation.
Central Student Government president Nithya Arun, a rising Public Health senior, said she believes as a predominantly white institution, the University administration is performative in its handling of racial justice issues, including its “weak” stance on anti-Asian sentiment. For example, Schlissel released a statement condemning anti-Asian violence in March without acknowledging former U-M president James B. Angell’s actions that laid the groundwork for the Chinese Exclusion Act. Arun said she personally believed Kam’s tweets were “not only appropriate, but necessary.”
“What happened to Kam was unjust and unfair and I could not just sit on the sidelines,” Arun said.
According to Arun, the CSG assembly is currently drafting a resolution calling for an immediate investigation of Kam’s removal, along with demands including Kam’s reemployment and a change in CSEAS’s leadership. Arun said CSG will be checking on Kam’s ongoing case at the University’s Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) to ensure these requests are met.
Rozek recently received a notice of investigation by the OIE, obtained by The Daily, for allegedly locking him out of the CSEAS Twitter account, rescinding his promised employment status and “(directing) discriminatory comments at him… constituting potential race-based discrimination under SPG 201.89-1.”
The Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) is another student group on campus currently working alongside Kam to amplify his story. They want to prepare him to confront CSEAS and strategize an approach to publicize the alleged racism he experienced this past spring.
Annaliese Keiser, a rising U-M PhD student and GEO representative, said Kam is not the only graduate student of color GEO has worked with who has dealt with racism impacting their employment.
“Graduate students are in a particularly vulnerable position, as we rely on faculty for letters of recommendation, to continue hiring us and to not retaliate against us academically or impede our degree progress,” Keiser said. “And faculty refuse to acknowledge this power dynamic, often framing white women accused of racism (like Rozek) as the real victim in the situation.”
Ultimately, Keiser said she believes the University must examine the harm being done to students and workers, acknowledge the gravity of these issues and listen to those who are trying to create positive change.
“I don’t know if I can trust any officials at this institution to look out for the best interests of students (first),” Keiser said. “But I hope that we will be able to push hard enough that some change happens.”
Vice President of LSA Student Government Zackariah Farah, a rising LSA senior, said he feels “very disturbed” that Rozek and others apart from the Asian American community sought to, as he said, invalidate Kam’s voice. Additionally, Farah said he believes U-M students are frustrated by the administration’s cautious, tepid responses to issues of racism and colonialism.
“(The University’s) statements of support with victims of racism are usually vague and ineffective,” Farah said. “I’ve tried to judge Kam’s situation as fairly and impartially as I can, considering the tweets from the perspective of the director of CSEAS. I do not believe Kam did anything wrong, and I am very disappointed that a part of our university would punish an employee for bringing attention to an extremely emotional and relevant topic like the Atlanta spa shootings.”
For Kam, the only solution to “colonial academia” is for the administration to address the historical wrongs of U.S. imperialism.
“An end of exploitation and the extraction (of Asian nations) … can only begin if we start unpacking Western imperialism as a unified movement,” Kam said.
In the coming fall, Kam will be starting a PhD program in Southeast Asian food history at Cornell University. When reflecting on the necessity of studying Southeast Asia, strained with tears, Kam emphasized the importance of understanding his own culture.
“This is my home,” Kam said. “And I understand that Rozek will never understand that. I’m okay with that. But these islands, these waters — in Malay, there’s a phrase. You refer to your homeland as your earth and water. We call it Tanah Air.”
Kam continued, through his tears, explaining that in a privileged country like the United States, he wishes white people would aid him in creating justice and retribution for Southeast Asia, which has survived imperialist slaughter and theft.
“Homeland (is) tied to the soil, it’s tied to the water,” Kam said. “This soil and water has been pillaged for 400 years, and I am in an imperial country… in a privileged place, trying to recover some of that soil and water. I ask white people to help in that process — to help me shovel soil back into my land. That’s all I’m asking.”
Daily News Contributor Jessica Kwon can be reached at email@example.com.