Reflections on Higher Ed during APAHM

So it is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM). Increasingly, APAHM and annual events such as the Lunar New Year provoke odd feelings for me. As an Asian-American living in rural Pennsylvania and working in higher education, it can be awkward at times. In Berks County, where I live, the Asian (one race) population is 1.6%. On my campus less than 1% of students identify as Asian. A few years ago, I was asked at a conference if it was difficult being a faculty of color in rural Pennsylvania. I cannot say it has been horrible, but it is certainly awkward.

Being Asian-American in higher education is complicated. Asians/Asian-Americans are considered “over-represented” in higher education relative to the general population. Even at my institution, 9.1% of faculty are Asian / Pacific Islander, while the Asian population in Pennsylvania is 3.6%. Yet, Asian-Americans are often forgotten as a minority group on and off campus.

Indeed, there is a rationale for the exclusion of Asian-Americans from the category of under-represented minority group(s). In 2015, there were 55,006 doctoral recipients in the United States. About 1/3 of degree recipients are temporary visa holders. Among the top countries origin for visa holders, China, India, South Korea, and Taiwan rank in the top 5 countries. Among U.S. citizens and permanent residents who received doctoral degrees, 8.7% were Asian-American – compared to 5.6% of the U.S. population. Of course, not all recipients of doctoral degrees work in universities. According to TIAA institute’s look at faculty diversity, 6.4% of all faculty are Asian-American and 2.1% of all faculty are immigrants (born and educated abroad). These two groups are also disproportionately at research institutions and not regional teaching-oriented ones such as my own.

However, this – and other – data tends to fuel the “Model Minority” myth and ignore the real experiences that people have. There are significant cultural and economic differences between different groups of Asian-Americans. The category of Asian includes people with heritage from about 4 dozen countries and many different ethnic groups. As such, the generalization of Asian-Americans as a single category is problematic. Moreover, income data that illustrates Asian-American success ignores the fact that Asian-Americans have the highest poverty rate in New York City, and there are high rates of poverty for many Southeast Asian groups. Asian-Americans are also faced with hate crimes and glass ceilings.

Just as the Asian-American category is problematic, Asian-American over-representation in higher education is not straightforward. It also does not mean an absence of racism, xenophobia, micro-aggressions, and various types of discrimination in the workplace. Take for example, in the life sciences 10.8% of recent PhDs are Asian-American versus the 4.3% in humanities fields. The resulting stereotype of Asians in STEM fields has consequences outside of those fields. For instance, there is a case of a political scientist profiled into teaching statistics. There are also concerns regarding the inclusion of Asian-American studies in curricula, and its consequences for tenure. The absence of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese Internment from history lessons is revealing of the way in which Asian-Americans are still under-represented in higher education. At the same time, there is pressure for Asian-American scholars like myself – who do not work on Asia/Asian-Americans – to do so (stay tuned for a blog post on ‘mesearch’).

In conclusion, I cannot say it has been horrible, but it is certainly awkward.