‘Undiversifying the curriculum’: students organize in support of Chinese minor

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Sami Mirza

Associate professor of Chinese Xiaoling Shi addresses students during a discussion forum on Feb. 9 in Quigley Auditorium. The forum of 40 or so students was convened to support the Chinese minor, which is planned to be eliminated, and Shi, a tenured instructor and head of the minor.

About 40 students gathered in the Quigley Auditorium for an informal forum discussion in support of the Chinese minor and program head associate professor of Chinese Xiaoling Shi on the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 9. The minor was one among several cut alongside the Geology, Religious Studies, and Film and Digital Studies majors in the new staffing plan created by provost and dean of the college Ron Cole, ’87. 

During the meeting Peter Alegre, ’23, president of the Association for Asian and Asian-American Awareness, noted that Shi’s position would be terminated along with the program, to which Shi replied, “I’m fine with losing my job. I’m worried about Allegheny’s future.”

Shi fears that there would be rippling effects throughout the student body if the program is terminated as planned.

“It would be catastrophic if the Chinese program was cut,” Shi said. “We need to take care of those Asian international students, Asian-American students and diverse students. They are one of us.”

Alegre concurred. He felt as though the decision to cut the minor sends a broader message beyond merely a need to balance the college’s budget.

“(This cut) is directly undiversifying the curriculum,” Alegre said. “It tells me that the college doesn’t value my identity.”

Cole believes that the college still has a place for Asian and Asian-American students even without the Chinese minor.

“Students have shared with me that concern, that without a Chinese minor, it will affect the sense of belonging,” Cole said. “I believe that we can continue to support A5 without a Chinese minor. It’s a student organization and not a part of the curriculum, and there are other student organizations that don’t have a formal part of the curriculum.”

The termination of the minor is the latest in a long and tense process to trim the size of the college’s faculty, which began in August 2021 with an Academic Program Review Task Force appointed by Faculty Council. The Task Force released a report of their findings in early December.

The report does not mention the Chinese program at all. Programs not mentioned in the report were recommended to be maintained with no immediate changes required, though the report acknowledges that future action may need to be taken on a program-by-program basis. 

Cole noted that the Academic Program Review was never intended to directly translate to his new staffing plan.

“I tried to make this very clear in (my presentations to the Allegheny Student Government): the Task Force’s job was not to identify cuts, just to identify programs that may have challenges to sustain,” Cole said. “Their job was not to determine staffing.

Shi, who agrees with the larger reasoning behind the overall reduction in faculty, did not think that the determination to cut the Chinese minor was made fairly.

“The decision was made without due process, no doubt about it,” Shi said.

According to Shi, part of this was the lack of warning about her program’s termination.

“I wasn’t interviewed, consulted or met by the Task Force, the Provost or the Department Chair or the Curriculum committee,” Shi said. “The only time I met with any of the people I just mentioned was on Jan. 30. I was told (by Provost Ron Cole), ‘It has nothing to do with your job performance. The Chinese program was terminated and thus your position.’ And then they talked about compensation.”

Cole said that while he didn’t have direct communications with Shi, the report accepted input from every academic department and program.

“We followed the process that was outlined,” Cole said. “Each department provided input to the Academic Program Review Task Force. There was space in the process for departments and programs to provide input. Every department was consulted, so there was input at the department and program level.”

Alegre did not find out about the program’s termination until the day Cole presented his plan to the Allegheny Student Government.

“I found out at the General Assembly on Feb. 1, when Cole presented what his recommendation was,” Alegre said. “I’m also on (the) Curriculum Committee, and Cole has also spoken to (the) Curriculum Committee. That didn’t come up either when he presented or in our agenda items.”

ASG senator Veronica Green, ’23, stopped by Cole’s open student hours the day after he presented to the General Assembly to voice concerns about the stability of the International Studies and Global Health Studies programs given the termination of the Chinese minor. 

“When I brought up … how you can’t just completely ignore a very large region of the world, he very bluntly said that if people want to come here for an International Studies major with a specialization in East Asian studies, they shouldn’t come here,” Green said. “And if there are people who were expecting that out of this college, they should leave.”

She also asked why the French major was kept over the Chinese minor, despite the Task Force’s report explicitly stating, “due to enrollment trends, French is an area that can support a minor but not a major.”

“Even though the (Task Force report) said (French) didn’t have a better outlook, (Cole) said, based on his personal analysis, that French was, ‘more attractive to students,'” Green told the forum.

But Cole said that a faculty line in French will also be removed.

“French offers a major and a minor,” Cole said. “I must have said something about enrollment trends and enrollment for the major and the minor. The context is that it has to do with enrollment patterns. It’s where students are expressing their value in their educational experience.”

Outside the meeting, Green took issue with the idea that European languages like French and Latin — which the Task Force noted struggles to fill classes beyond Latin 110 — should be considered more than an East Asian language like Chinese.

“I don’t mean to be that person but we have enough Western culture on campus, and I don’t think that we should weigh that higher than a very large portion of the world and a significant portion of our student population,” Green said.

Cole said the decision was made based on enrollment data and rates of under-enrollment not factored into the Academic Program Review Task Force’s report, and reductions will also be made in French and Classical Studies.

“Students were not taking Chinese consistently, particularly at upper levels,” Cole said “The (Task Force) report didn’t have details about the number of courses that were under-enrolled or canceled. It didn’t have that fine of detail, only the total enrollments in each major or minor. A position in French is being reduced, and there are going to be changes in the offering of Latin as part of Classical Studies.”

Alegre noted that for Asian and Asian-American students in any discipline, having any representation can make them feel more comfortable on campus.

“The presence of a Chinese minor, of a non-Eurocentric, specifically East Asian program, shows (AAPI students) their concerns are represented,” Alegre said. “When you remove that, it invisibilizes and marginalizes those concerns.”

One international student from China, Difei Chen, ’25, put it bluntly: “It’s pretty racist,” to which many of the students gathered shouted in support.

But Cole says he recognizes the impact of the elimination on students beyond the academic sphere.

“Chinese and Asian students are an important part of the Allegheny College community,” Cole said. “I recognize that students have expressed that not having a minor impacts their sense of belonging. Chinese and Asian students are valued as members of the community. Again, there is broad diversity of students at Allegheny and not all identities are represented in a formal way in the curriculum.”

Alegre also added that Shi plays a crucial role in supporting AAPI student organizations on campus, particularly A5.

“(Speaking as the A5 president) we work very closely with Professor Shi because she’s our adviser and she does so much more than I would expect,” Alegre said. “There are currently membership concerns already with the club. It’s only able to pull off the events that it does because of the Chinese department.”

But when Alegre brought these concerns to Cole during a meeting with him and almost a dozen other students the day of the forum, he did not feel like he got a satisfying answer.

“Upon bringing that to Cole, the best response that he had to say was, ‘I understand,’” Alegre said. “He just says a lot of, ‘I hear that, I see what you’re saying.’ I’m not denying that, but it’s not really moving the needle in a meaningful way.”

Apart from the Chinese minor itself, the Chinese program also includes a Chinese Studies minor less focused on language and more on history and culture.

“You can do Chinese Studies without taking the language; it is one of the options in the Chinese Studies minor,” Cole said. “I recommended maintaining Chinese Studies or, more broadly, an Asian Studies minor.”

Changing the Chinese Studies minor to an Asian Studies minor would require a different process driven by faculty.

“That change will be up to faculty: if there’s a change or redefinition of a minor that would have to come from the faculty, through the Curriculum Committee and back to the faculty for a vote,” Cole said. “That’s the process for adjusting minors.”

But Alegre said that the current plan of firing Shi and paring down the language side of Chinese alters the Chinese Studies program too much.

“Removing a core part of (the program) would fundamentally change the whole (program),” Alegre said. “It wouldn’t be Chinese Studies at that point … I came out of there thinking that’s an interdisciplinary minor that’s being removed.”

Shi noted that the current Chinese Studies minor requires three semesters of language study, and that removing that requirement would render the program practically useless.

“You can’t engage a region without the language in the 21st century, in this increasingly interconnected world,” Shi said. “It could be done in the 1980s. It can’t be done in the 21st century.”

Because Shi is a tenured professor, she has the right to appeal her termination to the Board of Trustees by Feb. 19.

“Right now, the only chance to reverse the decision is an appeal,” Shi said. “The appeal letter will be turned in a few days before the deadline, which is 20 days after I was informed.”

Faculty Council declined to comment on the forum or the appeal, releasing a statement through its chair, associate professor of mathematics Craig Dodge.

“As Council and as individuals, we are deeply saddened by the loss of our friends’ and colleagues’ positions,” the statement said. “Regarding student and faculty support for the reinstatement of the minor, we are glad to know that people are availing themselves of the process that is in place for appeal. As a Council, because the process is underway, it is inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.”

Beyond the appeal, Alegre encouraged students to take a more active role in the college’s shared governance system, where the details of Cole’s staffing plan will be hashed out.

“These college committee councils, the shared governance — a lot goes through them, but they’re not very well known all the time,” Alegre said. “I know there’s an open seat on (the) Curriculum (Committee): there’s going to be a lot about the proposed academic changes and I want to fill that seat with somebody who would be willing to do that.”

Alegre’s larger focus is to get the story out to the larger college community.

“The first thing I really want to do is get it to a wider audience, get it so that it’s on people’s minds,” Alegre said. “People don’t really know that this is something that is worth fighting and is worth caring about.”

Another common goal is for ASG to formally issue support for the reinstatement of the minor.

“I would like to see students that are here tonight and ASG as a representation of students to be able to … continuously advocate for the reversal of this decision because it is honestly a disgusting decision to make,” Green said. “It will very directly harm the minority population on this campus and I don’t think we should allow that.”

Shi does not see Cole as malicious, but just uninformed.

“He doesn’t know the rippling effects of eliminating the Chinese minor,” Shi said in the forum. “I think (Cole) is a good person.”

But Cole’s ignorance, she thinks, is a larger one that American society is struggling with.

“This is the problem of the whole United States: they don’t know,” Shi said. “We are shouldering the burden to educate them. I hope they will listen. However, if they don’t listen, it’s their loss.”

Cole will not be deciding on Shi’s appeal — that power rests solely with the Board of Trustees. He is, however, meeting with students and bringing their concerns to other members of the administration, like President Link.

“I would refer back to the process for faculty to appeal the recommendation and decision for discontinuation,” Cole said. “If the appeal is granted, I will support it.”

Anyone interested in joining the Curriculum Committee should reach out to ASG Chief of Staff Gena Pena, ’22, at [email protected]

The minutes of the forum and from students’ Feb. 9 meeting with Provost Ron Cole are available at bit.ly/ChineseMinorAppeal.