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VOL. 23, NO. 2September 12, 1997

Economist, Historian to Head Latino, Asian-American Studies


By Anne Canty

Economist Francisco L. Rivera-Batiz and historian Gary Y. Okihiro have been appointed as Columbia's first directors of undergraduate Latino and Asian American Studies, respectively, it was announced recently by David H. Cohen, vice president for arts and sciences.

  "Despite the challenge of last year's searches for directors of Latino and Asian American Studies, the outcome could not have been better. I am indeed delighted with the substantial progress we have realized in enhancing ethnic studies at Columbia. With such highly effective leadership now in place or pending for our African American, Asian American, and Latino Studies programs, the Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race will become a reality. I welcome Professors Rivera-Batiz and Okihiro to their new roles," said Cohen.

  Along with the Institute for African American Studies and American Studies, Latino and Asian American Studies will comprise the Center for Studies of Ethnicity and Race, envisioned in the February 1997 report of the President's Advisory Committee on Ethnic Studies, chaired by Ruggles Professor of Political Science Ira Katznelson.

  Rivera-Batiz, currently associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College and director of the Program in Economic Policy Management at the School of International and Public Affairs, has already assumed his two-year appointment.

  Okihiro, professor of history and director of Asian American Studies at Cornell, will begin his official term as director in Fall 1998, but this year he will be involved in a search for a junior faculty member. He will be on leave from Cornell during his time at Columbia.

  Born in Puerto Rico, Rivera-Batiz, 42, received his BA from Cornell in 1975 and a Ph.D. in Economics from M.I.T. in 1979. He has previously held teaching or research positions at the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rutgers, among other institutions.

  Rivera-Batiz has written extensively on the Puerto Rican population both on the island and the mainland United States. His recent work on the Puerto Rican economy appears in the book Island Paradox: Puerto Rico in the 1990s, published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1996 and co-authored with Carlos Santiago. He also co-authored the book Puerto Ricans in the United States: A changing Reality, published by the National Puerto Rican Coalition in 1994. In addition, Rivera-Batiz has written and conducted research on the Mexican and Dominican communities in the United States.

  "Professor Rivera-Batiz is widely respected in the field of Puerto Rican Studies and has the academic training and commitment to educational excellence essential to guiding the development of this new program," said Manning Marable, professor of history and director of African American Studies.

  Rivera-Batiz is eager to "get the program rolling" and among the first tasks in this academic year will be the development of a proposal for a basic Latino Studies two-course sequence—a social sciences-based course followed by one concentrating on culture and literature. This sequence would be a requirement of the major, but would also be open to the many non-majors who are interested in Latino Studies. During the Spring semester, Rivera-Batiz hopes that Columbia will host a Latino Studies summit, attracting students and scholars from other universities and colleges.

  In addition to a considerable body of work in Asian American Studies, Okihiro, 51, has written extensively on Africa, particularly southern Africa. Born in 1946 in Aiea, Hawaii, he received his B.A. in 1967 from Pacific Union College and his Ph.D. from U.C.L.A. in 1976. In addition to Cornell, he has been a visiting professor at Princeton, and associate professor at Santa Clara University and Humboldt State. He has consulted on television documentaries about the Asian American experience and lectured widely.

  Among those praising Okihiro's appointment was Eric Foner, Dewitt Clinton Professor of History: "As a member of the search committee that met last year in Asian-American history, I am delighted with the arrangement with Professor Okihiro. He is universally respected as one of the finest scholars in the field, and is a perfect person to launch the Columbia program in this area and to assist us in hiring new faculty."

  Okihiro's first priority is to "stabilize and establish the Asian American Studies curriculum and to create a presence, both academically and in terms of services to students." By student services, Okihiro is not talking about amenities, but an entity that will "help students to have a sense of identity, resources, and a focus point."

  Okihiro described being named Columbia's first director of Asian American Studies as "an opportunity not to be missed," because of the university's "impact regionally, nationally, and globally." In a conversation late last week, Okihiro complimented the students who have worked and advocated for ethnic studies. "I feel a deep sense of honor to work for these students who over the last few years have worked so hard to get this program established," he said.

  Okihiro has written and edited nine books and published dozens of chapters, reviews and articles. His books include Whispered Silences: Japanese American and World War II, published in 1996 and Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture, published in 1994, both by the University of Washington Press. For the later work, Okihiro received the Gustavus Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in North America. He is currently working on an United States history text book and what he refers to as "an interpretive polemic," called American History, "on how the Asian American experience helps us to re-see American history."