Last Thursday night, the Stanford Asian American Activism Committee (SAAAC) held a town hall discussion that sought to address concerns over faculty diversity and help plan a campaign calling on the University to make changes to its hiring and tenure processes.
The meeting followed the recent denial of tenure to Assistant Professor of English Stephen Sohn, a decision that prompted the circulation of a petition calling on administrators to reconsider the decision and the voicing of more general concerns about the tenure process.
Thanh Nguyen ’14 MA ’14, one of Sohn’s advisees, began the meeting by discussing past tenure denial cases that dealt with questions of studying diversity in academia, including Professor of History Estelle Freedman, Akhil Gupta, Robert Warrior and Lora Romero.
Freedman’s bid for tenure in 1982 was initially denied because her work was described as too focused on women and women’s issues, according to Co Tran ’17, one of her current students.
“Now, feminist studies is an established field at almost all universities,” Tran said.
Sohn has focused largely on exploring less popular topics – including queer theory in Asian American literature and speculative fiction – which Nguyen framed as vital to academia given their novelty.
The sensitivity of Sohn’s case is further exacerbated by the small size of the Asian American Studies program in terms of faculty and, consequently, course offerings. Several students at the meeting expressed concern over the future of the program at Stanford, particularly if fewer diverse faculty are made available to teach these courses.
In particular, some students noted that while the undergraduate population of Stanford is 41 percent white, 74 percent of faculty are described as “non-minority.”
Though a Faculty Diversity Initiative exists, some students, including Nguyen, criticized it for being unclear and as having had little notable success in hiring and then retaining minority professors.
Melvin Boone ’14 criticized the program for devoting insufficient attention to the retention of professors, noting that many minority professors are hired and then fired later.
SAAAC is currently organizing letter-writing campaigns to Provost John Etchemendy Ph.D. ’82 over Sohn’s failure to receive tenure. However, the group also expressed their intent of taking on diversity issues in general and incorporating the work of other groups on campus.
However, their first goal remains prompting the University towards reconsidering Sohn’s bid for tenure, according to Sammie Wills ’16. Following that, the group plans to ask the University to increase transparency in the tenure process and grant more funding to community centers.
Contact Alex Zivkovic at aleksa ‘at’ stanford ‘dot’ edu.
In a previous version of the article, Estelle Freedman was misrepresented in stating that she had lent her support to SAAAC’s tenure campaign for faculty diversity and for Stephen Sohn. Freedman had never stated that she supported either campaign. The Daily regrets these errors.