Furutani urges Asian Pacific Americans to action on higher education

Assemblymember Warren Furutani speaking at the opening session of the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education conference. photo by Noriko Shiota/Nichi Bei Weekly

State Assemblymember Warren Furutani called for new priorities in California’s colleges on Feb. 15 at the opening session of the Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education (APAHE) conference. Speaking in the Imperial Ballroom of San Francisco’s Hotel Kabuki, Furutani (D-South Los Angeles County) urged attendees to question the state’s current post-secondary education system.

“We have to start asking what we want,” he said, setting a proactive tone for the two days of workshops to follow.

This year’s conference, held from Feb. 14-16, convened more than 100 Asian American professionals in higher education. For its 23rd annual iteration, the event took the theme “Responding to Change,” in reference to the current economic crisis.

In her welcoming remarks, APAHE President Carole Hayashino reminded the audience that higher education and Asian Americans therein stand to lose from impending budget cuts.

“We live in very uncertain economic times,” she said. “Programs and support services that we fought for in the ’60s and ’70s are being threatened.”

Hayashino acknowledged that “we’ve come a long way,” and that “we are in a better position to fight those threats now.” But she cautioned about the future, “We have more to do, more work ahead of us.”

Furutani echoed her warning. He listed the numbers menacing California’s higher education.

“The governor wants to cut 500 million dollars from UC,” he said, “$500 million from state, and $400 million from community colleges.”

Furutani spelled out what the cuts would mean for the state’s institutions of higher learning.

“What we perceive to be normal — in student programs, in health services — it’s all being recalculated to a new normal that’s lower,” he said. “We don’t want the proverbial lifeboat philosophy, where we have to decide who’s going to stay in and who’s going to get kicked out so we can keep the lifeboat afloat.”

Still, Furutani conceded that some cuts may be inevitable.

“Governor Brown has been very clear that we have to be realistic,” he said. “He wants people to know that if you don’t like something on the budget, that’s fine. But for everything you take off, you have to put something else on.”

Rather than lamenting the situation, Furutani encouraged optimism.

“In the midst of this crisis, there’s an interesting opportunity for change,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to make the system work the way we think it should work, for the future.”

Assemblymember Warren Furutani accepted a lifetime achievement award from the conference on behalf of Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga. photo by Noriko Shiota/Nichi Bei Weekly

He pressed the audience to think critically about priorities in community colleges. “We need to get people transferring to the UCs, getting their degrees,” he said. “I like life-long learning: basket-weaving, all of those classes that people take to keep looking good. But they’re not going to be the priority anymore.”

Furutani called for action on these points, in addition to reflection.

“We have to show some tough love,” he said. “If you want to find yourself, we can’t use state dollars on that anymore.”

He advised a shift in mentality.

“If in fact we’re going to be the change agents, we have to move from defense,” he said, “don’t cut this, don’t cut that, moan, moan, moan… to offense. What are we going to do about it?”

One answer: more Asian Americans in higher education leadership positions. “As sure as we fill up the lecture halls and classrooms,” Furutani said, “we are not filling up the administration.”

An American Council on Education ad in the conference program stated that Asian Americans make up 6 percent of the nation’s college students, and 8 percent of its college faculty — but less than 1 percent of American college and university presidents represent the demographic.

“If we’re the ones in the classrooms,” Furutani asked, “why aren’t we in the corner office in the administration building?”

Ending on that exhortative note, Furutani returned the podium to Hayashino. “I think Warren gave us our walking orders,” she said. “This current economy really is an opportunity to make change. Maybe we should modify the conference title to ‘Leading the Change.’”

 

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