On Feb. 12, Dr. Sunita Mukhi learned that her position as director of programs for the Charles B. Wang Center would be dissolved. Sixteen days later, on the last day she served her position, she stood outside of her office on the first floor of the center as she spoke on the phone with a journalist from a Chinese newspaper. The Wang Center, after all, is a beacon of Asian and Asian American culture.
“It came as a little bit of a shock to me,” Mukhi said about her position after she got off the phone. Additionally an Asian and Asian American studies professor, Mukhi has played a big part in shaping the Wang Center and Asian culture on campus. “I’ve been here for 10 years. I kind of gave birth to it.”
Ending Mukhi’s position is just one step towards many changes university officials are making to the Wang Center since it opened a decade ago. Officials are looking to place an emphasis on creating more Asian and Asian American programs while conducting a national search over the next few months to fill a new associate directorship position that will replace Mukhi’s old one.
“We’re looking for a full-time position for programming,” said Dr. Tonjanita Johnson, chief deputy to President Samuel L. Stanley, who is also responsible for programming at the Wang Center. “We’re excited about where we’re going.”
The idea of dissolving Mukhi’s position and replacing it with an associate directorship came last summer when Johnson and Diana Hannan, director of conferences and special events at the Wang Center, offered it to Mukhi. Fifty-five percent of it consists of programming and the rest is dedicated to conferencing. Mukhi rejected it, she said, because it would have meant abandoning her job as a professor, plus a $28-thousand-reduction in her salary. And when she learned last month that the university would go forward with terminating her position, the former director said she was not given a motive other than “programmatic reasons.”
“’We’ve discussed this already,’” Mukhi recalled being told when she asked for an explanation.
In an interview, Johnson and Hannan said that they felt a full-time director who focuses only on programs at the Wang Center and has a lot of expertise in cultural programming would be more beneficial. In addition to hiring a full-time associate director, an advisory council of students, staff, faculty and community members will be created as a source for new programs as well. Johnson and Hannan said they are following Charles B. Wang’s vision of the Wang Center, which is to build a bridge between Western and Asian cultures through films, performances, lectures, workshops, exhibitions and festivals.
“We really feel like a new program director will enhance that even more,” Hannan said.
But these changes do not come without outrage from students and some supporters of the Wang Center. On Feb. 26, a petition written by students surfaced on Change.org that accused President Stanley of planning to defund the office of Asian and Asian American programs by dissolving Mukhi’s position and downgrading the Wang Center to an ordinary convention center. As of press time, the petition received over a thousand signatures as well as endorsements from people outside the university who have done work associated with the center.
When asked about the petition, which also suggests that Mukhi’s firing was an act of racism because she is the only employee in the center who is of Asian decent, Johnson and Hannan declined to comment.
“There’s a lot of inaccuracies in it,” Hannan said. As for the racism suggestion, Johnson said no other university president has done more to enhance diversity on campus than President Stanley has.
Such outrage over the fate of a building is not unusual for one of the Wang Center’s caliber. A hub of culture and tranquility, students often go to the center for a break from the hustle and bustle of the Academic Mall. The sounds of running water from the fountains on the bottom floor and the brightness created by the abundance of windows and open space make for a pleasant escape from busy life on campus. And Jasmine, which serves a variety of Asian cuisines, is among a favorite dining spot for students, faculty and staff.
But the empty aura the building has been giving off recently has left both students and Mukhi concerned that the essence of the Wang Center is slowly fading away.
“I feel that the spirit may have been lost,” Mukhi said. “This center is supposed to be an Asian-themed center. I hope it’s maintained.”
Johnson and Hannan, on the other hand, said the center is anything but empty.
“We have a pretty robust activity inside the Wang Center,” Johnson said.
This semester the Wang Center is hosting several exhibitions and photo galleries, as well as installments of the university’s Distinguished Lecture Series and the annual Cherry Blossom Festival.
The Charles B. Wang Center has been, and will continue to be, one of the most iconic buildings on campus. And with the hiring of a full-time associate director, Johnson and Hannan said they are confident that future programs will be richer and more exciting than they already are.
“It has tremendous potential,” Hannan said.
“This is going to mean a lot to our students and community,” Johnson added.
As for Mukhi, she said she is disappointed in the loss of her position, and that she won’t be part of the future of the center. But she said she wishes nothing but good things for the Asian and Asian American programs.
“I’m sad I can’t see the semester through,” she said.