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Many students may not know Professor Erin Y. Huang, but we consider her one of the best instructors at Princeton University. Huang is an assistant professor in the departments of East Asian Studies and Comparative Literature, an executive member of the Humanities Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program and Film Studies Committee, and the only researcher at Princeton working on Chinese and Chinese Studies. critical theory. She is Junnan’s thesis advisor and Ellen’s senior thesis advisor.


Still, it seems the University has no desire to retain Huang. Much to the shock of many students, alumni, and faculty, she was recently denied tenure. On June 20, a coalition submitted a petition at Nassau Hall to protest the refusal, with more than 30 testimonies and 200 signatures. The joint letter expresses collective dissent regarding the implications of denial – institutional injustice and a bleak, conservative future for humanities studies.

This isn’t the first time Princeton has refused to elevate a scholar doing interdisciplinary research and theoretical work in “area studies” fields like East Asian studies. The denial of tenure to Huang exposes serious systemic injustices perpetrated by the conservative, non-transparent and undemocratic tenure process.

The evidence of Huang’s esteem among his colleagues and students is staggering. Several undergraduate students attested to Huang’s genius and empathy in the petition, naming her as one of the best instructors they had ever studied with at Princeton, if not the best. Several students of color also remarked on his importance as one of the few nonwhite professors they encountered in humanistic or East Asian studies—and as the only person of color in comparative literature.

“[Huang’s work] finds a new language and a new medium for phenomena that no one else has been able to explain or make visible,” writes Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Ben Baer. “Nobody at Princeton, and very few scholars in the United States, do anything so inventive and original about contemporary China.”

So why is Princeton turning down Huang? Although tenure is a black box, it may be because it breaks down the arbitrary lines that separate fields – exploring ideas from philosophy, gender and sexuality studies and political theory to from the lens of films and literature, theorizing the socio-political landscape of modern China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Along with Professor Steven Chung and Professor Franz Prichard, Huang co-founded Asia, Theory, Visuality, a platform that hosts cutting-edge experimental studies on Asia and visual culture.

Huang’s work is a major departure from the traditional approach to East Asian Studies (EAS). “Area studies” in the United States, such as EAS, were based in a racist and imperialist project to advance American geopolitical dominance during the Cold War, classifying and subduing cultural “others” for subjugation. Today, this academic model continues to infuse American institutions with cultural essentialism, which treats cultures as an abstract “other” to be analyzed in stasis. Huang, on the contrary, breaks with traditional methodologies and engages in interdisciplinary theoretical debates; for example, by questioning the use and meaning of terms such as ‘socialism’, ‘post-socialism’ and ‘neoliberalism’ from the perspective of contemporary China.

Although Princeton has often is bragging on his dedication tointerdisciplinarity“, the University creates a hostile environment for “area studies” scholars who challenge disciplinary boundaries, champion Eurocentrism, and devalue engagement with theory, especially when it comes from outside of European languages. After all, who is considered legitimate when engaging in the work of theorists like Marx, Deleuze or Merleau-Ponty? not EAS researchers.

This is not an isolated case: Professor Franz Prichard, collaborator of Huang on Asia, Theory, Visuality, was denied tenure by the University two years ago. Together, Huang and Prichard transformed Princeton into a leader in theoretical studies of East Asian media. When Princeton turns its back on these scholars, it not only undermines these crucial studies in this field, but also hurts its graduate students, many of whom were drawn to Princeton for the kind of radical work carried out by Huang and Prichard. These refusals of occupation “will fundamentally destroy all [Huang and Prichard] have built over the past decade and leave many [Huang’s] advises the homeless,” according to current EAS graduate student Fangyuan Huang.

By failing to support Huang and Prichard, Princeton is not only hollowing out a key area of ​​its own research, but also warning scholars pursuing their tenure to choose the safe over the radical in terms of research and pedagogy.

“By denying [Huang] tenure and therefore fail to recognize the courageous and ambitious ways in which [Huang] conducts its research, Princeton announces to the academic community that only safe and antiquated scholarships have a place at our university,” wrote Professor Atsuko Ueda. Tenure, supposedly the bulwark of academic freedom, is used to control access to the very scholarship it is meant to protect.

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In response to letters from graduate students protesting and asking for a reasoning behind Huang’s tenure denial, university president Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 wrote, “The university’s tenure bar is high, and even those we turn down for tenure have significant academic achievements to their credit. .” The admins don’t seem to believe they owe us an explanation, let alone power in the process.

Huang’s case shows that the tenure process is fundamentally flawed in two ways. First, the tenure process requires all tenure-track faculty to face what is essentially a six-year probationary period before gaining job security. Like all workers, professors deserve job security upon hiring.

Second, tenure decisions, like all other hiring decisions and executive functions at the University, are irresponsible and undemocratic in nature. The promotion of the assistant professor must first be recommended by his home department, then supported by the C/3 committee, whose composition and discussions are confidential. The final decision rests with the President of the University and is formalized by the Board of Directors.

We’ve heard the argument that secrecy of tenure review is meant to encourage honesty, but secrecy could just as well be used to hide bias and wrongdoing.

Following Huang’s denial, President Eisgruber wrote in an email that C/3 is elected “in every division of the University.” But how could such an opaque and hierarchical process even claim to be democratic or representative in nature? We have seen how this process leads to establishing the status quo in the Huang and Prichard cases.

Since young scholars can be dismissed based on the confidential and superior opinions of academic bureaucrats and established professors, the tenure review process both provides an excuse to silence dissent and systematically discourages unrewarded scholarship. traditional. Nothing is more contrary to academic freedom.

Our petition has been fueled by indignation because these refusals to occupy affect us closely. “[Huang] didn’t change my view of the world that much; it instantiated it,” writes Chang Che ’17, now a journalist covering Chinese politics and culture. “I owe my career to Erin, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one.”

However, we must go beyond encouraging the cancellation of individual refusals of occupation. Such actions, although justified, amount to pleading for the entry of our favorite professors into the elite. Although Huang and Prichard are certainly qualified to work at the highest level of scholarship, such an “elite” should not exist in the first place. We must rethink the tenure system to build a forward-thinking, anti-imperialist and “serving humanity” university. This requires taking power away from wealthy bureaucrats and administrators and empowering students, teachers and workers.

Ellen Li graduated from Millburn, NJ and majored in Comparative Literature. She can be reached at [email protected]. Li is a former feature editor for the “Prince”. Junnan Chen is a fifth-year graduate student from Shanghai, China, pursuing a joint doctorate in East Asian Studies and International Humanities. She can be reached at [email protected].