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UC Irvine Expected to Offer Asian Studies Major

Education: On a campus where more than half the students are of Asian background, absence of such a program has been a concern and a topic of protests.


IRVINE — She is a Bombay, India, native who speaks four languages, has studied the literature of African, Caribbean and Asian women writers, has taught at Howard and Yale universities and has written for scholarly publications as varied as the Black American Literature Forum and the South Asia Bulletin.

Ketu Katrak possesses a diverse resume, one that landed her a job last fall as UC Irvine's director of Asian American studies.

Now, she has applied her scholarly skills toward changing what many consider a glaring embarrassment on campus.

If all goes as planned, UC Irvine's executive committee today will approve Katrak's proposal to elevate the campus' 5-year-old program from a minor--its status since last spring when it became the last UC campus to establish one--to a major. The proposal, with broad support from administrators, faculty and students, then would go before the campus representative assembly and the UC system president's office in the next month for final approval, setting the stage for the first bachelor's degree candidates to enter the program in the fall or winter quarter.

On a campus where more than half of the undergraduates are Asian American or Pacific Islander, the highest proportion of any of the nine University of California campuses, many say such a major is long overdue.

Three UC campuses offer one: Santa Barbara, UCLA and Berkeley, which pioneered the field 30 years ago at the height of 1960s student activism. But its absence at UC Irvine has been a hotly contested issue and the source of persistent protests that included a student hunger strike.

"It's about time," said Audrena Cheung, who is Chinese American and co-edits the Ricepaper, an alternative student magazine focusing on Asian American issues.

"I think the benefit of an Asian American studies major is to educate, not just remind, Asian Americans of what the culture has been and what the struggle has been," said Cheung, a senior economics major who would have double majored in Asian American studies had it been offered sooner. "It will actually help other people, too, who are not Asian American to understand Asian American culture."

UC Irvine's move reflects a nationwide movement in which universities have started or augmented such programs in response to the boom in Asian American enrollment that began in the early 1980s. At UC Irvine, Asian American enrollment has increased 132% in the past decade, a reflection of state and national demographic trends.

Over the past 10 years, the number of Asian American studies programs has doubled to more than 30, said Gary Okihiro, a Cornell University professor who has tracked growth of the field.

"On most campuses nationally, Asian Americans are the largest or fastest-growing minority group," Okihiro said. "These students are coming of age and are wondering about their own experience and culture and identity."

Cal State Fullerton administrators, who started an Asian studies minor last year, plan to have a major in place in two or three years.

Asian studies programs are a prime way for colleges to "signify to Asian American students that they are visible and that they matter," said Evelyn Hu-Dehart, a University of Colorado researcher who has studied ethnic programs nationwide.

Such a statement is important at UC Irvine, where tension has flared occasionally over the predominance of Asian Americans. In July, a student is scheduled to face trial on federal civil rights charges alleging that he sent an e-mail message last year to 60 Asian American students threatening to kill them if they didn't leave campus.

"There is still discrimination and racism toward Asian Americans," said Nicole Inouye, a Japanese American who is president of the Asian Pacific Student Assn., which has pressed hard for a strong Asian American studies program. "Just to have this academic resource is invaluable to the interests of the campus."

There has been no formal opposition to the proposed major, though some non-Asian students are lukewarm to the idea.

"I guess it makes sense on this campus where there are so many Asian people, but I don't know if it will do anything to bring people together," said Mark Davies, a sophomore who is white.

But advocates of the program counter that it will be open to all students and can help educate people about a culture with which they might not be familiar.

Interest in Asian American courses has grown to the point that the introductory class regularly enrolls 200 students and turns away others for lack of room. In the 1993-94 school year, students in the minor program could pick from 16 courses, which enrolled a total of 860 students; this year there are 30 courses with about 2,000 students.

For the major, Katrak expects to draw 15 to 20 students in the first year, and eventually enroll 40 or more. As proposed, the program would not require any additional resources. It would include more than 15 professors teaching about 40 courses already offered in various departments but regrouped under the Asian American studies banner.

Katrak said new courses will be developed over time, possibly including language classes. She also expects to hire more faculty, including a specialist in Southeast Asian American affairs. In the past two years, UC Irvine has hired three professors for Asian American studies, including Katrak, but because it is an interdisciplinary program they technically belong to other faculties such as English or history.

UCLA's program boasts nearly 40 professors and 200 students majoring in the field. It is developing what it says is the first doctoral program in the field.

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