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Save Cantonese criticizes University for reduction of Cantonese course offerings, administrators stand firm

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On behalf of Save Cantonese at Stanford, Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) President Christian Giadolor ’21 M.A. ’22 delivered a statement that chastised University administrators for reducing the number of Cantonese language course offerings before the Faculty Senate at its Thursday meeting. The uncertainty around the program’s future stems from the University’s December failure to renew its contract with its sole Cantonese lecturer, Sik Lee Dennig Ph.D. ’92.

The December incident sparked the Save Cantonese campaign, through which students and alumni joined together to petition for a full-time lectureship to be restored to the program. In April, advocates from the campaign sponsored a resolution passed by both the Undergraduate Senate and Graduate Student Council urging Stanford to continue the program. For now, the University maintains its decision to terminate its Cantonese lectureship and will instead hire an instructor to be paid by the hour. 

In a statement responding to Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting, the Save Cantonese coalition wrote that the administration originally proposed for the Cantonese program to have zero classes per quarter and only agreed to guarantee two courses per quarter under “significant student pressure.” 

Save Cantonese members continued, writing that because “the full-time, benefits-eligible position remains eliminated,” there would be no continuity available for new Cantonese lecturers to provide “unique institutional knowledge and support for programs” including the Asian Liver Center and the Bing Overseas Studies Hong Kong Program.

“It was impossible to avoid some budget tightening in light of the financial strain caused by the pandemic,” said Senate Chair Judith Goldstein. Thus, administrators decided to cut into the budget of the Cantonese language program.

The decision surrounding the program relates to a number of factors, including enrollment and budget shortfalls according to School of Humanities and Sciences dean Debra Satz. “While we strived and succeeded in cutting no language that the language center offers… it was impossible to avoid some budget tightening,” she said, explaining that Cantonese was cut from four courses a quarter to two following student and alumni criticisms. 

Associate professor of Iberian and Latin American Cultures Lisa Surwillo explained that “when there is student interest in these robust classes, there is the capability and the interest to support students.” For example, referencing Provost John Etchemendy’s commitment to a one-year Cantonese sequence “about 10 years ago,” Surwillo said that because enrollment at the time had dipped below five, the Cantonese program had to receive a cut. 

Sik Lee Dennig Ph.D. ’92, the program’s founding lecturers told The Daily in December that approximately 76 students enroll in 2 unit conversational and film Cantonese classes every year, with an average class size of 31 students in fall quarter over the past 10 years.

On behalf of the ASSU and the Save Cantonese coalition, Giadolor said that their greatest concern about Stanford’s discussions regarding the Cantonese language program was a “failure to consult the affected people throughout the process.”

“Stanford University’s legacy is intertwined with the erasure of Asian people,” Giadolor said. He then referenced Leland Stanford’s exploitation of Chinese railroad workers and his subsequent erasure of the Trans-Pacific railroad workers’ efforts during Thursday’s meeting.

Administrators stood firm in their decision. “No program was eliminated,” Satz said. “What we did was cut Cantonese from four courses a quarter to two courses a quarter.” 

The Faculty Senate also reviewed the budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year. Provost Persis Drell said that when a budget had been drafted last June, its authors “were all really optimistic that COVID would resolve during the year.” 

Costs related to COVID-19 — such as testing — greatly exceeded the expectations of University officials. Furthermore, the amount of collected student tuition fell below what administrators anticipated because 373 admitted frosh took a gap year and many students took leaves of absence. Drell said that as a result, “the revenue hits have been much more severe than we could have anticipated a year ago.” In total, the 2020-21 fiscal year bore a deficit of $105 million.

However, Drell added that Stanford received sponsorship and endowments that were “much better than anyone was daring to forecast.” She said this market performance enhanced Stanford’s financial reserves to the point that “we’re ending the fiscal 21 year in a strong position for our future.” 

Looking to the future, Drell said there would be a surge of frosh this fall due to the hundreds that deferred enrollment this year. Furthermore, she said Stanford has increased financial aid to $400 million. She said that although Stanford’s financial recovery would be “a slow ramp up,” the University had managed to maintain its research and enhance accessibility and financial aid throughout the travails of the pandemic.

“We still have strong reserve levels, and we are very well-positioned for our future,” Drell said.

This article has been corrected to reflect that Lisa Surwillo referenced the one-year Cantonese class sequence, not Satz. It has also been updated with comments from Satz and Surwillo. The Daily regrets this error.

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Jed Ngalande ‘23 is a Staff Writer for Vol. 259 Academic News.