Are Asian-Americans Princeton’s forgotten minority?

 In April 1995, students demonstrated inside and outside Nassau Hall in support of ethnic-studies courses, including courses in Asian-American studies.
In April 1995, students demonstrated inside and outside Nassau Hall in support of ethnic-studies courses, including courses in Asian-American studies.
Christopher Dawson ’94
As a student, Regina Lee ’85 grew concerned whether Asian-American applicants were treated fairly in the admission process.
As a student, Regina Lee ’85 grew concerned whether Asian-American applicants were treated fairly in the admission process.

Every April Princeton’s graduate school holds what it calls one of its most important events of the year, “hosting weekend.” The school invites admitted ­minority doctoral students to spend the weekend ­mingling with professors and current students, attend classes, and take tours.

Invited are black, Latino, Native American, and ­multiracial students. Not on the list? Asian-Americans. That’s because the graduate school invites students from minority groups that are underrepresented at Princeton. The school has had “great success” in attracting Asian-Americans, explains University ­spokeswoman Cass Cliatt ’96, so “there is not the need to include them.”

Andy Wong *10, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School, doesn’t see it that way. “Asian-Americans are not a monolithic community,” he says. “There are certain different groups of Asian-Americans that are deserving outreach. What about Filipinos? What about Vietnamese? What about Hmong students?”

Asian-Americans are by far the largest racial minority at Princeton, representing 15.7 percent of the undergraduates and 6.9 percent of graduate students, according to the Office of the Registrar (the figures do not include residents of Asian nations). The number of Asian-American undergraduates has grown noticeably, from about 11 percent, over the decade. As the ranks of Asian-American students and alumni have swelled with each incoming class and graduation, the group finds itself in an unusual predicament. It is a minority group so large that it no longer seems to warrant special attention accorded other minorities. Yet Asian-Americans do have particular needs and concerns — both academic and related to campus life — and more than ever, students and alumni are clamoring for institutional support.

“Asian-Americans are seen as quasi-white — certainly bleached of any need as a racial minority,” says Gordon H. Chang ’70, a history professor who is the director of the Asian-American studies program at Stanford University. “They are often viewed as a group without special identities. They might even be a model for others. But this paternal attitude is itself evidence of a problem, of being uninformed about their historical and current circumstances.”

Though official University statistics group all Asian-American students together, the numbers, as Wong notes, can obscure dramatic differences by income, geography, language, and country of descent. Despite stereotypes that families of Asian descent are economically and academically successful, for example, some groups — such as Cambodians and Hmongs — have poverty rates that are double or triple the national average. Are these groups represented at Princeton? The statistics don’t say.

Princeton recognizes that “there is a great deal of in-group diversity” among Asian-Americans and tries to address their needs, says Janet Dickerson, vice president for campus life. “Some may be legacies, others are first-generation, yet others are highly cosmopolitan, well-traveled citizens of the world,” she says. “Their families reflect all regions of Asian heritage.”

In 2008 a group called the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education (CARE) prepared a report — written by Helen Zia ’73 and published by the College Board — aimed at shattering the myths surrounding Asian-American college students. The report pointed out that the “model-minority” label attached to Asian-Americans can be harmful: Educators in schools from kindergarten through higher education are convinced that these students excel without assistance and de-emphasize the problems they face. Among other things, the report called attention to “growing evidence of a need for culturally sensitive mental-health services,” acknowledging the pressure students feel to succeed academi­cally and to enter “secure” professions such as medicine or engineering. Their suicide rates “have reached alarming levels at some schools,” the report said.  

In 2004, a study at Cornell Univer­sity — undertaken after students of Asian descent accounted for a disproportionate number of suicides — concluded that Asian-Americans often do not display the same signs as other students when they are struggling, and that the ­univer­sity needed other ways to monitor their well-being. “Gen­erally speaking, their grades remain relatively good but everything else in their life falls apart,” says Derek Chang, director of the Asian-American studies program at Cornell. Chief among the ­recommendations: the creation of an Asian-American and Asian student center at Cornell and the appointment of a dean to serve those students — both of which were ­implemented last fall.

Anita McLean, director of counseling and psychological services at Princeton University Health Services, says health-services staff are aware of the pressure felt by some students of Asian descent, and are paying attention. McLean says that seeing a therapist is not the first thought that occurs to students, particularly to Asian-American students, whose “cultures don’t tend to be as publicly expressive.” To better serve the needs of all communities, University Health Services has launched an initiative to improve “culturally competent health care” in all patient visits — from mental-health care to treatment for flu.  

Among the first Asians at Princeton were the sons of Japanese aristocrats who began arriving in the late 1800s during the Meiji Restoration, a period when isolated Japan embraced the West and its culture.  

Later, Asians from America also began to matriculate. Among them was Yeiichi “Kelly” Kuwayama ’40.  

As homogeneous and exclusive as Princeton was back then, Kuwayama says it was easier for him to become a Tiger than go to Harvard or Yale, because those schools at the time required applicants to take Latin or Greek courses. Kuwayama had taken neither at his New York City public high school, so he applied to Princeton, which didn’t require those ­courses. During his four years on campus, Kuwayama knew only two other students of Asian descent: a Japanese-American in his class and Prince Fumitaka Konoe ’38, the son of Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe. (Univer­sity records indicate there were a total of 14 students of Asian descent in the 1930s and 1940s.)  

More Asian-Americans began arriving in the 1970s as Princeton and other elite colleges saw a need to diversify their student bodies. Charles Lai ’78 recalls that “there was this push to recruit more Asian-American high school kids to apply to the University.” Still, Lai’s experience was not a happy one — he says it was tough to be a member of any minority on campus at the time — and he felt most comfortable at the Third World Center (now called the Carl A. Fields Center), where he identified with black and Latino students. “We shared more in common,” says Lai, who went on to become a community organizer and the co-founder of New York’s Museum of Chinese in America.  

During the 1980s, the number of Asian-American undergraduates skyrocketed, especially in comparison to other minorities. Asian-Americans made up just 3.6 percent of the Class of 1980, while black students accounted for 8.2 percent, according to University records. By the end of the decade, Asian-Americans had become Princeton’s largest minority, accounting for 8.5 percent of the Class of 1989. (Black students, the next-largest group, made up 6 percent.)  

What happened? Many say: Regina Lee ’85. Lee was a work-study student in the admission office and had accesss to a decade’s worth of application trends. What she saw troubled her: Though the number of Asian-American applicants kept growing, the number of admitted applicants did not keep pace, suggesting that it was increasingly harder for them to get in. Lee thought it unlikely that the additional applicants were that much less qualified and that there had to be “some sort of tacit or explicit cap on the number of Asian-Americans being admitted,” she says.

When she stopped working in the admission office, she raised the issue among friends and with the Asian-American Students Association, which she served as president. Reactions varied, from disbelief to anger, and Asian-American students struggled with what to do next.  

“We have to remember we are hyphenated Americans,” Lee recalls of the concerns she and other students felt. “How much can we rock the boat? How much can we say? We are already privileged to be here. Of course we expect this. We expect discrimination. Hopefully with time, the situation will improve.”

Lee and other student leaders discussed their concern with administrators, and the Univer­sity formed a faculty-student committee to review Prince­ton’s admission policies. A report in 1985 outlined how the admission process considered not only grades and test scores, but talents, extracurricular interests, athletic ability, and legacy — all while making sure an entering class was diverse in terms of race, interests, geography, and other criteria. The committee concluded that “Asian-American applicants are — and have been — treated fairly in the context of Princeton’s overall admission policies.”

The issue never completely disappeared, and most recently resurfaced in August 2006. Jian Li, a Chinese-American with a perfect SAT score who had been wait-listed and then rejected from Princeton and other elite schools, filed a federal civil-rights complaint alleging Princeton imposed higher standards for Asians than for other groups. The Office of Civil Rights converted the case in 2008 into a compliance review to look at the broader issue of Princeton’s admission policies for Asian-American students. The investigation, which continues, primarily focuses on the admission process for the Class of 2010 — or applicants who were admitted for the 2006–07 school year. The University “does not believe the review has merit,” says spokeswoman Emily Aronson.  

As for Lee, who is an attorney in New York and co-president of the Class of 1985, she says she does not believe that Princeton during her time “was engaged in overt discrimination.” She never was satisfied with the findings of the 1985 report that concluded that Asian-Americans were treated fairly in the admission process, but she’s happy to see that the number of Asian-American undergraduates at Princeton has increased significantly since then: “My intention all along the way was never to attack Princeton, but to ensure the process was fair.”

The biggest issue for Princeton’s Asian-American commun­ity today is convincing the University to offer more courses in Asian-American studies. The field examines the experiences of people of Asian ancestry in America by analyzing their history, culture, and politics, as well as other issues such as immigration and assimilation. Peer institutions including Stanford and Cornell have programs, and Harvard, through a reinvigorated ethnic-studies program, is building up Asian-American studies with several new courses created this academic year. The fight for Asian-American coursework at Princeton spans four decades — during which, advocates note, Princeton built a Center for African American Studies and just this year created a Program in Latino Studies. The firmest commitment for Asian-American studies came in 1995 after students occupied Nassau Hall. At the time, the administration agreed to allocate $6 million to support positions in existing departments for faculty with “special interests” in Asian-American and Latino topics. Alumni say progress has been too slow.  

“It’s quite disappointing that the University said it would do something and hasn’t followed through,” says YoungSuk “Y.S.” Chi ’83, a former Princeton trustee who is vice chairman of Elsevier, one of the world’s largest publishers, and CEO of its science and technology division. Franklin Odo ’61 *75, director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program, was a visiting professor at Princeton in the spring of 1995 teaching an Asian-American history course when a half-dozen of his students were among those involved in the sit-in, and he calls the lack of progress since then a “betrayal of a commitment.” He suggests that the effort would require relatively few resources “to take care of an increasingly important demographic.”

In the fall of 2008, alumni, faculty, and students organized a petition drive to push once again for more Asian-American courses and for the creation of a certificate program. Anne Cheng ’85, a professor of English and African-American studies who was involved in the effort, says proponents want to ensure that all students are able to learn about the multiple cultures that combine to make America. The Center for African American Studies was a good first step, she says; the new Latino studies program was a second one.

“It is now conspicuous that there is not as much institutional support for Asian-American studies, especially given the number of Asian-American students and alums today,” she observes. (Full disclosure: Cheng is the faculty representative to PAW’s advisory board.)  

In a memo written to top administrators in 2008, Cheng, along with novelist Chang-rae Lee, director of Princeton’s creative writing program, and Hendrik Hartog, director of the American studies program, suggested that the future of ethnic-studies programs may be best addressed through Ameri­can studies. “It’s intellectually and politically important not to reify ethnic identities or segregate the study of their histories,” Cheng explains. While the development of ethnic studies in the 1960s and 1970s was progressive and promoted civil rights, she argues, over time these programs have become insular and segregated from the “mainstream” curriculum. “So,” she says, “I propose that, if ethnic studies in the ’60s emerged as a corrective to American studies, then we might think of American studies in the 21st century as a corrective to traditional ethnic ­studies.”  

Provost Christopher Eisgruber ’83 notes that starting a new academic field of study takes time. The criteria for establishing new programs, he says, “focus on the scholarly characteristics of a field, not on student life or performance.” Eisgruber says Princeton continues to monitor “development in Asian-American studies, as we do in other growing fields.” This school year, Princeton is offering two Asian-American studies courses: Cheng taught “Chinatown USA” in the fall, and a visiting scholar, J. Emmanuel Raymundo, a specialist in 20th-century U.S. cultural history, will teach “Asian-American History in a Global Context” in the spring. (Other courses, such as “Discrimination and the Law,” also discuss history and political issues affecting Asian-Americans.)

Cheng developed “China­town USA” two years ago because she felt the existing curriculum did not adequately address Asian-American issues. Before arriving at Princeton in 2006, Cheng taught Asian-American studies in addition to courses in the English department at the University of California, Berkeley. “China­town USA” is a seminar-style class that uses novels, films, and photography to analyze Chinatown as a place and as a construct to highlight the domestic and foreign tensions that characterize American integration. Cheng chose the topic as “a gateway to a larger question of understanding the dynamic of race history in this country,” she says.  

Whether Princeton creates an Asian-American studies program ultimately may depend on the popularity of “China­town USA” and courses like it. “Chinatown USA” may accept up to 50 students, but so far has drawn fewer than 30. “One of the ways we determine how many courses are needed is the demand for existing courses,” says David Dobkin, dean of the faculty. Enrollment in Cheng’s class, he suggests, “makes us feel that we are at or near meeting the demand.” (In the case of Latino studies, he says, the Univer­sity saw growing enrollment in courses related to that field.)

Advocates of Asian-American studies say its future shouldn’t be based on demand. Rather, they say, the University should create a dynamic department and hire several star professors who will draw a crowd, in the way Cornel West *80 raised the profile of Princeton’s African-American studies program when he returned to the Princeton faculty in 2002. They also argue that enrollment would rise if the courses were required as part of a certificate program rather than treated as electives, or if the University offered more introductory courses with broad appeal. Some note that low demand hasn’t stopped Princeton from supporting other programs, such as Slavic languages, which has nine undergraduate majors this year, according to the registrar.

Ultimately, as former Princeton trustee Chi points out, it is up to current students to demonstrate the need and desire for Asian-American studies. “I also wear the hat of a Univer­sity alumnus and former leader to want to see a clear sign that when we build it, they will come,” says Chi. “The level of interest expressed by students on campus is relatively apathetic. That is not helping our cause.”

Asian-American student leaders Joseph Jung ’11 and Hyeon-Ju Ryoo ’11 have been trying to round up campus ­support for Asian-American studies. They acknowledge it’s an uphill ­battle to engage ­fellow students to take up their cause — or even take the Asian-American courses being offered. (Neither Jung, a ­sociology major, nor Ryoo, a Woodrow Wilson School major, have taken Cheng’s “China­town USA” course.) “Princeton students are very driven in their own academic field,” says Ryoo, co-president of the Asian-American Students Association — and they often don’t have the time for unrelated courses and secondary ­interests.  

But while students are the key to change, they have only four years to make an impression on a 263-year-old institution.  

April Chou ’96 was among 17 students who occupied Nassau Hall in April 1995 to protest the dearth of Asian-American and Latino studies courses. More than a dozen years later, she’s at it again. Chou helped organize the 2008 petition drive, and this year will focus on helping to build student demand for existing courses and developing a Web site to create awareness about Asian-American issues at Princeton.

“I’m both optimistic and pragmatic about what it would take,” says Chou. “We believe we have a responsibility to help Princeton play a leadership role in Asian-American studies and in creating an environment that is supportive of this community.”

David S. Wu ’79, one of the founders of the Asian Ameri­can Alumni Association of Princeton — now known as A4P — says he is “happy and proud” of the progress made by Princeton’s Asian-American community. As for getting Asian-American studies, he says: “It’s a matter of how patient we are. Our time will come.” 

Shirley Leung ’94 is the business editor at The Boston Globe.