Origins of Asian American Studies at UCSB

The academic fields of ethnic studies, including Asian American Studies, Black Studies, Chicana/o Studies, and Indigenous Studies, emerged from student activism at San Francisco State College, UC Berkeley, and elsewhere in 1968 and 1969.  ... The development of the Asian American Studies (AAS) program at UCSB drew its inspiration heavily from the precedent set by the struggles for ethnic studies throughout the state and at UCSB. UCSB’s AAS program originated and developed separately from the Asian Studies program. Whereas Asian Studies focuses on the histories and experiences of Asian countries and its citizens, AAS centers the unique histories, cultures, and challenges of Asian immigrants and their descendants, with a focus on social justice.

Originally, Asian American Studies at UCSB started in 1969 as a two-year program under the Agency for Experimental Programs. It was spearheaded by Asian American students in the Sociology department who felt the need for AAS but didn’t have the structural support of an existing department. With assistance from faculty in other fields, the students were able to add a background in AAS to their degree. 

The program officially began in 1972 as a subset of the sociology department. It offered four courses, covering the Asian American experience from 1840 to its present and analyses of different prominent Asian American communities and their histories, cultures, and social hierarchies, including the interactions between the different ethnic groups. The program also offered an independent studies course for individual research projects. Although faculty members of the program requested full departmental status in 1974 in a joint demands list with other cultural and political organizations and the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP), the university denied the demand due to the small size of the department. Between 1974 and 1984, new courses were slowly added to include a course on the relationship between The Pacific Basin and the United States, as well as multiple courses on fieldwork and community studies. 

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Transformation of Asian American Studies at UCSB

The Asian American Studies program was established in 1972 after having been part of the Agency for Experimental Programs between 1969 and 1971. ... Yet between 1972 and 1988, the Asian American Studies program dealt with a series of setbacks. A lack of leadership prevented full course growth and a revolving door of overworked staff and a chronically unavailable director prevented the program’s growth. While Black Studies and Chicana Studies had both garnered department status and provide a Bachelor’s Degree by 1987, UCSB administration was contemplating merging the Asian American Studies Program with Asian Studies that same year.

Fortunately, due to student protest, the Asian American Studies program was not merged, and UCSB began an active search for a new director. Sucheng Chan formally joined UCSB in 1988, with the intention of reviving Asian American Studies and turning it into a robust department. With a background “analyzing the structure of power within societies and institutions,” Sucheng Chan worked to develop the program on multiple fronts. Starting with students, she helped coordinate with them in presenting and arguing for the Ethnic Studies requirement (which would be adopted in 1989). She guided and fought for professors and PhDs by offering them reading lists and housing incentives. Finally, with her history of course development at UC Santa Cruz, she collaborated with Asian American Studies professors to position the program as “multi-disciplinary” and establishing a framework that continues to this day. ... 

By late 1994, Chan and faculty within the program sent a proposal for a B.A. in Asian American Studies to the Committee for Education Policy and Academic Planning (CEPAP). CEPAP praised and approved the framework, while students worked to garner 3,000 signatures from across campus to have it pass UCSB’s Academic Senate and send it to a UC system-wide committee.  Their efforts paid off, with the UC system-wide committee reviewing the proposal and swiftly approving it without any complaints, ahead of UCLA’s proposal for a major.  After the major was approved, Chan sent a memo to the Chancellor requesting Departmental status, which was formally granted on January 19th, 1995. 

Thus, in the span of nearly a decade, Asian American Studies had gone from a program about to be terminated, to a robust department that was “independent, legitimate, and with plans for long-term survival.”

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