Social scientists know that one institution of American life that is crucial to either alleviating or perpetuating inequalities is our education system. With that in mind, I would like to highlight a few recent news stories, articles, and announcements that include positive news as they relate to Asian Americans and higher education. With each step that the Asian American community (and other racial/ethnic communities as well) takes, hopefully it represents another positive development in reducing social inequalities for all Americans.

Wallace Loh Named New President of Univ. of Maryland

I would like to offer my congratulations to Dr. Wallace Loh on being named the new President of the University of Maryland (home of one of the best Asian American Studies Programs in the country, headed by my friend and colleague Larry Shinagawa).

Dr. Loh and his family left China in 1961 to escape communist oppression, first immigrating to Peru (Dr. Loh is also fluent in Spanish) and then coming to the U.S. for college. He completed his Bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College in Iowa in Psychology (take note of that young Asian Americans — he is not an engineer or physical scientist), a Master’s from Cornell, a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and finally a law degree at Yale. He was also Dean of the University of Washington’s law school (where he was also a close advisor to then-Governor Gary Locke) and most recently, Provost at the University of Iowa.

As you can see, Dr. Loh is extremely accomplished and as an Asian American in higher education, I am thrilled to see another Asian American attaining the Presidency of a major university. I wish Dr. Loh the best success in his new position.

Special Issue on Asian American and Pacific Islander Higher Education

The academic journal AAPI Nexus (2010, Volume 7, Number 1 and published by UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center) has just released its second issue of a three part education series, focusing on Higher Education, guest edited by Mitchell J. Chang (UCLA) and Peter Nien-chu Kiang (University of Massachusetts Boston). Below is a listing of the articles included in the issue:

  • Ling-chi Wang: Establishing a Chinatown campus of the City College of San Francisco
  • Rick Wagoner and Anthony Lin: Southeast Asian American community college students who transfer to four-year institutions
  • Jillian Liesemeyer: Historical comparison of exclusionary quotas against Jewish and Asian American college students
  • Oiyan Poon: Recent policy changes in eligibility of admissions in the University of California system
  • Julie Park and Mitchell Chang: Improving the future influence of AAPI communities on educational matters

While I have yet to read the articles in this issue, from their descriptions it looks like they each tell a story in which Asian Americans — individually and collectively — have faced and continue to face various challenges when it comes to achieving educational access and success. In their own ways, each article seems to highlight ways in which Asian Americans have worked individually and collectively to confront those barriers and in the process, they have not only empowered themselves but others around them to work toward greater inclusion.

Not Just Scientists & Engineers: Asian American College Students Diversify Their Majors

International Business Times reports that Asian American college students are increasingly turning to other fields of study and majors, rather than the more stereotypical ones of physical sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics:

Larry Shinagawa, director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, said that . . . First-generation immigrant Asians typically pursue STEM careers — fields that are secure, prestigious, pay well, and have low barriers to entry. He added that two generations ago, Asian Americans (even those born and raised in the U.S.) also largely pursued stereotypical STEM careers.

However, Asian Americans (second-, third-, or fourth-generation) have recently begun to defy the STEM stereotype. Now, a greater number of them study humanities and social sciences versus STEM disciplines. And after completing their studies, an increasing number of them are entering into law and business.

Shinagawa said that many Asian Americans feel more “Americanized” and believe they have a broader range of occupational choices. As to why they choose business and law specifically, he explained that many Asian Americans do not feel they can compete with immigrant Asians in STEM fields, so they opt for law and business, which offer the same or better pay and prestige compared to STEM jobs.

As I’ve always said, there’s nothing wrong with becoming a scientist, engineer, mathematician, etc. if that’s what you truly enjoy doing. But if it’s mainly the parents who are pushing their children towards these occupations, that’s a recipe for future alienation and resentment. For Asian American college students in that position, you owe to yourself to have an honest talk with your parents about what you want to do for the rest of your life.

Further, as diverse as the Asian American population is, so too should be our occupational distributions. We need Asian Americans as doctors, scientists, engineers — and also as musicians, authors, professors, corporate executives, journalists, actors, etc. The take home message is: do not limit yourself.

Frank Wu Named New Dean of Univ. of California Hastings Law School

I also offer a belated congratulations to Frank Wu, renowned civil rights scholar and activist, for being named as the new Dean of the Law School at the University of California, Hastings:

Wu, a Michigan native, has said he changed his career plans from architecture to law as a teenager in response to the racially motivated murder of a young Chinese American man in Detroit in 1982 (Vincent Chin).

He first practiced law with a San Francisco firm and later taught at Columbia, the University of Michigan and Stanford. He became the nation’s youngest law school dean at Wayne State University in Detroit in 2004 and served until mid-2008.

Wu was chairman of the Washington, D.C., Human Rights Council in 2001-02. He is the author of the 2003 book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, and was a co-author of the 2001 textbook Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment.

As with the cases of Wallace Loh (mentioned above), Jim Young Kim at Dartmouth, and other accomplished Asian American leaders in higher education, it is very gratifying to see Asian Americans in these positions of leadership. With these accomplishments, Asian Americans continue to demonstrate that, contrary to some stereotypes, we can be excellent leaders in helping the U.S. succeed in the age of globalization and transnationalism.

Chinese College Students Flocking to U.S. Campuses

USA Today reports that several colleges and universities around the country have seen a recent surge in students from China enrolling on their campuses:

Last year alone, 98,510 Chinese graduate and undergraduate students poured into U.S. colleges and universities, lured by China’s emphasis on academic achievement and the prestige of U.S. higher education.

China is second only to India when graduate students and undergrads are counted. But undergraduates are the newer phenomenon. Nationally, an 11% growth in undergrad enrollments last year was driven largely by a 60% increase from China, a report by the Institute of International Education says. Grad student enrollments were up 2%. . . .

The increase also reflects a “strong dialogue” between the two countries, says U.S. State Department deputy assistant secretary Alina Romanowski. She says the recent growth can’t be pinned to specific changes in visa policy, but some U.S. college officials say they detect a friendlier attitude among U.S. embassies and consulates, which review visa applications. One key question for any country is whether visa-seeking students can prove they will return to their home country upon graduating from a U.S. college.

“Because the Chinese economy has improved, students feel there are opportunities there waiting for them,” says Gretchen Olson, director of international programs at Drake University in Des Moines, where there are 28 undergraduates from China this fall, up from one in 2003.

Overall, I agree that these increases in “academic exchange” (the proliferation of Confucius Institutes around the U.S. are another example) are a positive development in terms of fostering more interaction between Chinese and Americans, which according to the “contact hypothesis” should by itself result in more understanding and tolerance between two groups, which the USA Today article discusses.

However, Chinese educational and government authorities, along with Chinese students who come to U.S. colleges, should remember that they need to conform to American norms and expectations in regard to things like who gets to determine curriculum (in China, the government does — in the U.S., the colleges, departments, and faculty do) and lax standards when it comes to academic dishonesty.

Overall, each of these recent news items represent a positive step forward for Asian Americans and all of American society in general. The next steps of course, are to keep the momentum going and to ensure that all racial/ethnic groups are also included in what will hopefully be a rising tide of greater empowerment and achievement as we move forward.

As an educator and a person of color, I have a particular interest in issues surrounding racial/ethnic diversity on college campuses. In fact, this topic is a common theme that I’ve written about on this blog. Like most liberals, I happen to think that greater diversity is generally a good thing, although I acknowledge that there are some ways in which diversity can lead to some challenges in the short run.

In other words, racial/ethnic diversity is a complicated and multidimensional phenomenon. This is especially true on college campuses where, in most cases, there are students who come from a wide range of backgrounds and once they interact with each other, can lead to an equally wide range of outcomes. To illustrate this point, Inside Higher Education reports on the release of a new study that looks at actual outcomes of racial/ethnic diversity on college students and finds, you guessed it, some mixed results:

One key finding was the generally positive impact on racial attitudes of living with someone of a different race. Students were surveyed on their attitudes before being assigned someone to live with, and after a year in which some lived with “outgroup roommates.”

Generally, and regardless of the attitudes with which students entered UCLA, those who lived with members of other ethnic groups showed statistically significant gains in comfort levels with people of different groups, having circles of friends beyond one’s own group, and a variety of other measures of tolerance toward different groups. The changes in attitudes were most striking for those living with either black or Latino roommates.

The one exception to this positive impact was with Asian students as roommates: White and black students who lived with Asians tended to show increased prejudice against Asians on some measures after living with them. . . .

[However], the researchers examined the impact of membership in groups that are defined largely by race and ethnicity (such as black student unions) as well as membership in groups that do not have an explicit racial or ethnic mission, but have overwhelmingly white members (some fraternities and sororities). Generally, they found that a negative impact resulted from membership in these groups — white or minority — in which belonging to such a group led to an increase in feelings of victimization.

There are several key findings here, so let me address them one at a time.

The Benefits of Diversity

The study’s finding that increased racial/ethnic contact and interaction among students leads to greater comfort with others of a different race is not new and in fact, reinforces what sociologists have been saying for decades — this is frequently referred to as the “Contact Hypothesis.” Nonetheless, it is nice to see real, concrete evidence of this idea in a real-world situation.

As the article also notes, this finding confirms one of the basic principles of affirmative action — that increased racial/ethnic diversity represents a net benefit for American society and is therefore a worthwhile goal. Opponents of affirmative action are free to criticize other aspects of affirmative action that they disapprove of, but as this study confirms, the argument that increased diversity can’t improve people’s attitudes and levels of acceptance towards others is simply not true.

The Drawbacks of ‘Segregated’ Student Groups

On the other hand, the study points out that racially/ethnically homogeneous student groups and organizations generally do not improve racial tolerance and acceptance. This finding is basically the flip side to the first one that I discussed above. The only potentially controversial part of this finding is that it applies to all kinds of homogeneous groups, whether they are all-White fraternities/sororities or Black Student Unions, Asian American Student Associations, etc. that are based explicitly on a particular racial/ethnic identity.

On that count, I would point out that while feelings of victimization and anger may exist among students of color in such racial/ethnic student organizations, there are many benefits that also exist within such groups. For example, these groups can also foster a sense of community identity and support and can also empower students by educating them about their group’s history and shared experiences, as well as giving them opportunities to turn their feelings and emotions into positive, constructive activities that provide the campus community the chance to further promote racial/ethnic diversity.

In other words, to echo another central theme of this blog, there is a difference between all-White and all-minority organizations in terms of their historical, cultural, and political meanings. That is, in the past and frequently still true today, all-White organizations have been associated with excluding marginalized groups and perpetuating a superior position of power for themselves.

In contrast, minority organizations have traditionally been focused on working to eliminate that kind of social inequality and to improve the conditions and lives of its members so that they more equally match that of their White counterparts. Therefore, the social dynamics are likely to be different between all-White and all-minority organizations.

I am not saying that all-White fraternities or sororities exist to actively reinforce White superiority. Rather, the nature and impact of the “negative” consequences of segregation are different because the history of American race relations has been different through the years. That’s what we should keep in mind when considering the dynamics of such groups.

The Negative Impact of Having an Asian Roommate

I’ve left this finding for last because I have the most trouble understanding it. My first reaction is skepticism of the results themselves. But as an academic myself, for now I will presume that the results are valid and reliable until I read the study’s exact methodology myself.

That said, my first question is, are there differences between having an Asian immigrant roommate versus a U.S.-born Asian American roommate? In other words, did White and Black students who had an Asian roommate have conflicts with the fact that their roommate was Asian or that s/he was an immigrant and therefore, presumably not as “Americanized” as they were. That may help to explain this particular finding.

If there is no difference between having an immigrant versus U.S.-born Asian American roommate, then my second thought is that perhaps it has to do with the fact that Asian Americans are something like 40% of the student population at UCLA. More generally and at the national level, perhaps White and Black Americans see us as symbols of globalization and how the U.S. is slowing losing its cultural superiority around the world as the 21st century progresses.

In that sense, it is conceivable that Whites and Blacks unconsciously feel threatened by Asians/Asian Americans and see us as competitors, either on the international level or at the level of a college campus. On several occasions I’ve posted about anti-Asian incidents on college campuses, and more generally, the rise of racial tensions in general in recent years.

With that in mind, perhaps this finding that having an Asian roommate actually had a negative impact on racial tolerance for White and Black students at UCLA reflects this general atmosphere of economic insecurity and cultural change and instability.

While it is possible that individually, Asian American roommates exhibited specific behaviors that offended their White or Black roommates, I have a hard time seeing that this was a systemic or consistent pattern among most Asian American roommates. I will have to read the actual study and the authors’ explanations for this finding to have a more concrete idea.

Ultimately and with most studies dealing with the topic of racial diversity, there are many interpretations and conclusions to make. On the one hand, I am encouraged to see the study’s results that in almost all cases, increased racial/ethic diversity led directly to increased racial/ethnic tolerance among students.

At the same time, I am a little worried about how Asian Americans fit into this equation and to what extent this finding — that having an Asian American roommate had the lone negative impact on racial tolerance — is reliable and generalizable to American society in general.

Barack Obama’s candidacy for President has, for better and for worse, increasingly prompted us as a society to honestly examine issues of race/ethnicity, discrimination, and racism. In the world of higher education where I work, one issue that continues to vex faculty and administrators is the relative lack of underrepresented minority groups as doctoral recipients and faculty.

With that in mind, Diverse Issues in Higher Education has just released data on the distribution of higher education degrees by type and racial/ethnic group. The article’s tables are a little difficult to quickly interpret, but as the authors note, the news tends to be good for Asian Americans, but not quite so good for Latinos and African Americans:

In prior year Top 100 analyses, we have noted how the representation of African-Americans and Hispanics tends to decline with increasing degree levels. The first two charts of this analysis show that this is still the case with one notable exception.

African-Americans compose roughly 12 percent of the U.S. population and are represented among associate degree recipients at this same level. The level of African-American representation declines to just over 9 percent for bachelor’s degree recipients but increases to over 10 percent among master’s degree recipients. The downward trend is then notable in the first professional (7 percent) and doctoral degrees (6.1 percent).

Hispanics show the consistent downward trend we’ve noted in past years, ranging from just under 12 percent among associate degree recipients to just over 3 percent for doctoral degree recipients. . . .

Asian Americans have a much different pattern of representation. They are found in lowest proportion among associate degree recipients (5 percent), in slightly higher proportion among master’s and doctoral degree recipients (6 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively), higher still among bachelor’s degree recipients (7 percent), and then significantly higher among first professional degree recipients (13 percent).

There’s much more data to digest in the full report, but the gist of the results show that we need to pay close attention to the unique and specific needs and issues of each racial/ethnic group if we are to make the institution of higher education more equitable and just for Americans of all backgrounds.

Specifically, African Americans and Latinos are still disproportionately underrepresented as bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and doctorate degree recipients. And while Asian Americans are overrepresented in these categories, the data also shows that most of these recipients are international Asian students, as opposed to U.S.-born or raised Asian Americans.

As we move forward into the 21st century and as American society becomes increasingly globalized and integrated into the international community, one of our most important social institutions — higher education — needs to do a better job at reflecting these face of our nation and world.