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Many students may not be familiar with Professor Erin Y. Huang, but we consider her one of Princeton University’s finest instructors. Huang is an assistant professor in the East Asian Studies and comparative literature departments, an executive member of the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program of the Humanities and Committee of Film Studies, and the only scholar at Princeton working on Sinophone studies and critical theory. She is Junnan’s dissertation adviser and Ellen’s senior thesis advisor.
Yet it seems that the University has no desire to retain Huang. To the shock of many students, alumni, and faculty, she was recently denied tenure. On June 20, a coalition submitted a petition to Nassau Hall in protest of the denial, with more than 30 testimonials and 200 signatures. The joint letter voices collective dissent regarding the implications of the denial — institutional injustice and a bleak, conservative future for humanities studies.
This is not the first time Princeton has declined to elevate a scholar doing interdisciplinary research and theoretical work in “area studies” fields like East Asian Studies. The denial of tenure to Huang reveals dire systemic injustices perpetrated by the conservative, non-transparent, and anti-democratic tenure process.
The evidence of Huang’s esteem among her colleagues and students is staggering. Several undergraduates testified to Huang’s brilliance and empathy in the petition, naming her as one of the best instructors they studied with at Princeton (if not the best, period). Multiple students of color also remarked upon her significance as one of the few non-white professors they came across in humanistic or East Asian Studies — and as the only person of color in the comparative literature department.
“[Huang’s work] finds a new language and means of expression for phenomena that no one else has been able to explain or make visible,” writes Associate Professor of Comparative Literature Ben Baer. “No one at Princeton, and very few scholars in the United States, are doing anything as inventive and original on contemporary China.”
So why is Princeton turning Huang away? Though tenure is a black box, perhaps it is because she shatters the arbitrary lines that separate fields — exploring ideas originating in philosophy, gender and sexuality studies, and political theory from the lens of films and literature, theorizing the sociopolitical landscape in modern China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Together with Professor Steven Chung and Professor Franz Prichard, Huang co-founded Asia, Theory, Visuality, a platform that hosts experimental, cutting-edge studies of 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, like EAS, were founded in a racist, imperialist project to advance U.S. geopolitical domination during the Cold War, classifying and mastering 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 from traditional methodologies and engages in interdisciplinary theoretical debates; for example, by questioning the use and meaning of terms like “socialism,” “post-socialism,” and “neoliberalism” from the lens of contemporary China.
Although Princeton often boasts about its dedication to “interdisciplinarity,” the University creates a hostile environment for “area studies” scholars who challenge disciplinary boundaries, upholding Eurocentrism and devaluing engaging with theory especially when it originates outside of the European Languages. After all, who is considered legitimate when engaging with the work of theorists like Marx, Deleuze, or Merleau-Ponty? Apparently, not EAS scholars.
This is not a one-off case: Professor Franz Prichard, Huang’s collaborator on Asia, Theory, Visuality, was denied tenure by the University two years ago. Together, Huang and Prichard transformed Princeton into a leader in theoretical East Asian media studies. When Princeton turns its back on these scholars, it not only undermines these crucial area studies, but also harms its graduate students, many of whom were attracted to Princeton for the kind of radical work spearheaded by Huang and Prichard. These tenure denials “will basically destroy everything [Huang and Prichard] have built over the past decade and leave many of [Huang’s] advisees 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 scholarship, but also warning scholars pursuing tenure to prefer the safe over the radical in terms of their research and pedagogy.
“By denying [Huang] tenure and hence not recognizing the courageous and ambitious ways in which [Huang] conducts her research, Princeton announces to the academic community that only safe and antiquated scholarship has a place at our university,” Professor Atsuko Ueda wrote. Tenure, supposedly the bulwark of academic freedom, is being used to gatekeep, turning away the very scholarship it’s supposed to protect.
In response to graduate student letters protesting and asking for reasoning behind Huang’s tenure denial, University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 wrote, “The University’s tenure bar is high, and even those whom we turn down for tenure have significant scholarly achievements to their credit.” Administrators do not seem to believe they owe us an explanation, much less any power in the process.
Huang’s case shows that the tenure process is fundamentally flawed in two ways. First, the tenure process makes all tenure-track faculty face what essentially amounts to a six-year probationary period before acquiring job security. Like all workers, faculty deserve job security at the moment of hire.
Second, tenure decisions, similar to all other hiring decisions and executive functions at the University, are unaccountable and anti-democratic by design. The assistant professor’s promotion must be recommended first by their home department, then seconded by the C/3 committee, whose discussions are confidential. The final decision lies with the President of the University and is made official by the Board of Trustees.
We have heard the argument that the confidentiality of tenure review is supposed to encourage honesty, but secrecy could just as easily be used to cover up bias and malfeasance.
Following Huang’s denial, President Eisgruber wrote in an email that C/3 is elected “from every division of the University.” But how could such an opaque, hierarchical process even pretend to be democratic or representative in nature? We have seen how this process goes to enshrine the status quo in the cases of Huang and Prichard.
Since young scholars can be discarded based on the confidential, higher-up opinions of University bureaucrats and established professors, the tenure review process both provides an excuse to silence dissent and systemically discourages non-traditional scholarship. Nothing is more antithetical to academic freedom.
Our petition was fueled by outrage because these tenure denials hit close to home. “[Huang] didn’t so much change my worldview; she instantiated it,” writes Chang Che ’17, now a journalist covering Chinese politics and culture. “I owe Erin my career, and I’m sure that I will not be the only one.”
However, we must move beyond urging the reversal of individual tenure denials. Such actions, while justified, amount to pleading for our favored professors’ entry into the elite. Though Huang and Prichard certainly qualify to work at the highest level of scholarship, such an “elite” ought not exist in the first place. We need to reimagine the tenure system to build a University that is forward-thinking, anti-imperialist, and “in the service of humanity.” Doing so requires taking the power out of the hands of wealthy bureaucrats and trustees and empowering students, faculty, and workers.
Ellen Li is a senior from Millburn, N.J. majoring in Comparative Literature. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Li is a former features editor for the ‘Prince’. Junnan Chen is a fifth-year graduate student from Shanghai, China pursuing a joint doctoral degree in East Asian Studies and the International Humanities. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: A previous version of this piece said the membership of the C/3 committee is confidential. The C/3 membership is public, only its deliberations are confidential.