Getting Tenure, Part II: On Being the First of My Kind by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

“I am honored to be the first person of Taiwanese heritage, and first Asian American woman, to have earned tenure at CST.”

I’ve recently recounted how it took a village for me to complete the rite of passage known as tenure review. I want to reflect now on the significance of my having become the first Asian American woman (n.b., third Asian American of any gender), and first person of Taiwanese descent to have earned tenure at my institution.

My first thought upon realizing those statistics was something like:  “Wow−what an honor!”

But my second thought has been more like:  “Really?  How is it possible that simply being a newly tenured Asian American who is neither Korean nor male would be enough for me to make institutional history?”  

It was one thing for Margaret Farley in 1971 to have been the first woman appointed to serve full-time at Yale Divinity School. It was another for Katie Cannon in 1983 to have become the first African American woman to receive a doctorate from Union Theological Seminary. But we’re now more than a decade into the 21st century!

After contextualizing my recent success in light of larger demographics and trends, I’ve since concluded that any knee-jerk temptation to attribute the previous lack of tenured Asian American women at CST to institutionalized discrimination must be resisted. Here’s why.

First, according to the latest statistics by the Department of Education, only 6% of college and university faculty are Asian/Pacific Islander (Cf. 7% Black, 4% Hispanic, 1% American Indian/Alaska Native). Among the 253 U.S. and Canadian members of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), only 5% of all faculty are Asian. While those figures are low, they generally correspond with the 6.5% of all post-secondary students who are Asian/Pacific Islander, the 7% of students enrolled in ATS schools who are of Asian descent, and the 5.6% of all U.S. residents (according to Census 2010) who are of some Asian parentage (i.e., either Asian alone or Asian in combination with one or more other races).

2010-2011 ATS Data Table of Composition of Faculty
2010-2011 ATS Data Table of Composition of Faculty

Second, there has been a 30+ year precipitous decline in tenure-track positions in academe generally. According to the American Academy of University Professors (AAUP), by 2007 almost 70% of all faculty were employed off the tenure-track. We’re talking adjuncts, part-timers, lecturers, instructors, visiting assistant professors, and so forth.

AAUP: Trends in Contingent Faculty

When one synthesizes the above statistics, CST compares quite favorably. The fact that I am currently 1 of 3 Asian American faculty (viz., one Korean American male who immigrated to the U.S. at sixteen, one Kashmir-born American woman, and me, a second generation Taiwanese American) out of a total of 27 full-time faculty, means that CST’s representation of Asian American faculty beats the national average by nearly a factor of two. What’s more, that we three are all tenure-stream (when not all faculty at CST are) shows our institution’s commitment to, and hope for, our longevity.

In addition, Asian Americans enjoy fairly high visibility at CST: three current tenure-stream faculty, three student groups, one Center for Asian and Pacific American Ministries, the Executive Director of the Clinebell Institue and Director of the Practical Theology Doctor of Ministry program, our previous Dean of Student Life, the current Associate Vice President for Financial Affairs and Planning, the head of our Community Center, prominent faculty who hold full professorships elsewhere but who teach for us in our bilingual D.Min for Korean Contexts (e.g., Namsoon Kang, Andrew Sung Park), among others.

CST is not a perfect institution, but our commitment to diversity is real. Of the last 10 tenure-stream hires we have made in the past 5 years, 8 have been women and/or members of a racial, ethnic, or sexual minority. Impressive figures, by any measure.

What Tenure Means to Me as an Asian American Woman

Beyond the honor I feel about being CST’s first Asian American woman to have crossed the tenure threshold, having this kind of job security means several things in practical terms.

  • It means that I will be able to help redefine the role of Asian American women in Christian circles beyond the familiar tropes of dutiful daughter, attentive wife,  pious grandmother, and dedicated but almost always ancillary church worker—as noble and valuable as those roles are.
  • It means that I can offer course corrections as needed when discussions veer in unhelpful ways that either essentialize or otherwise misrepresent Asian Americans (even though of course I do not and cannot represent all of the heterogeneity that is Asian America)
  • It means that our students of Asian heritage (who are the largest racial group behind Whites) should have confidence that those seeking advising, guidance, or mentoring from faculty with particular cultural competences will have several faculty with which to work over the duration of their multi-year degree programs.
  • It means that prospective students of Asian descent, the families of current students, alumni, and potential donors will see even more clearly that CST values the leadership of its Asian American faculty.
  • It means that my research trajectory, particularly on Asian American theology and ethics, will continue to be supported—a boon for me and, if my scholarship is any good, for the academy as a whole.
API/AA leaders honor me at my Inaugural Lecture
  • It means that I can increase my investments in my racial and ethnic communities, as well as my efforts to further diversify the professional and educational institutions of which I am part, without fear that these labors of love and service will ultimately cost me my job.  So, I can continue to be active in the Asian and Asian American Working Group of the Society of Christian Ethics of which I was a founding member in 2008 and elected as co-convener from 2009-2011.  I can also continue to serve as the faculty advisor to the CST Asian Pacific Islander / American Association (API/AA) that my fellow Asian-American faculty and I had a hand in helping the students to create in 2009-2010. And so forth.

Score One for Taiwanese America

I recently attended the lovely wedding of a long-time family friend.  To my surprise, her father publicly introduced me, before the 10-course banquet began, as one of his honored guests. He then spoke with pride of my accomplishments (i.e., my education at top schools, my faculty positions, my book) and then said that I was 台灣之光 美國之寶 (tái wān zhī guāng, měi guó zhī bǎo)—a phrase that loosely translates as “the glory of Taiwan, the treasure of America.”

While I still blush at this hyperbolic accolade, I have since realized that the father-of-the-bride was speaking as a member of the first generation who had experienced all kinds of adversities (e.g., language barriers, financial struggles, demotion in social status, overt forms of racial discrimination) while attempting to build a new life in a foreign country for the sake of his children.  By praising me, he was really basking in reflected glory of “us”, i.e., the second generation, most especially his own beautiful, talented, and kind-hearted daughter.  He was proud that their struggles made it possible for many of us in the second generation Taiwanese American community to have found our life-partners, begun families of our own, experienced some degree of professional success, and acculturated well to mainstream American society without having had to abandon our roots.

Score Another for the Importance of Diversity

The more I think about that wedding speech, the more firmly I am convicted that the father-of-the-bride’s sense of cultural pride was simply a heightened version of what I regularly experience at formal academic events like convocations and graduations. In my 8 years of being tenure-track faculty at two separate institutions, I have frequently received the “look/nod of recognition,” and even gaze of cultural admiration, from students of Asian descent whom I may or may not even have known (n.b., my first institution had an enrollment of 29,000 students) or their parents.

In some cases, those students or parents have verbalized something like, “안녕하세요 (An-nyung-ha-se-yo). You’re faculty?  But you’re so young!  You’re parents must be so proud,” to which I have generally muttered back something like: “I’m actually Taiwanese; I’m probably older than you think I am, but yes, my parents are very proud of me.”  It’s both interesting and flattering that the Koreans who have approached me thusly have wanted to claim me as one of their own.

I am honored to be the first person of Taiwanese heritage, and first Asian American woman,

to have earned tenure at CST.  But I also know that “with great power comes great responsibility”  to invoke the Spiderman principle (that my preschooler knows and loves so well). So I will continue to expand my efforts to “bring the tribe along” and to “ope[n] the door a little wider for others to come,” as per AAR president Kwok Pui Lan’s recent elegant exhortation.

I thank CST for entrusting me with this power, and I invite both the Taiwanese American and larger Asian American community to hold me accountable to the responsibilities that I willingly accept upon receiving this honor and privilege.

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology and Associate Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University. She will be teaching “Asian American Christianity” next semester for the second time.  She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World(2011) and is working on a second book on Asian American Christian Ethics—a field that she and some of her colleagues recently inaugurated. Read more about her work on her website.

Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

15 thoughts on “Getting Tenure, Part II: On Being the First of My Kind by Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. A living testimony that reminds us of our identity, duty, service, community, privilege, and power as we live in a global world today.


  2. Dr. Kao,
    Thank you for this insightful post. I can relate on a number of issues. We have talked a bit in private about being a men in feminism and how I have been “the 1st” at several institutions I have attended.

    I was wondering if you could talk about the struggle you face when speaking publicly about being the first tenured Taiwanese person, and first Asian American woman at CST. How do you judge what you say as to not be tokenized? How do you negotiate the power and responsibility that you are now burdened with? (Perhaps burden is the wrong word)

    I related a lot to your story and I appreciate your continual honesty to address all these issues on this forum.


    1. John – thankfully, with CA having the largest population of Asians in the U.S. and with most of my faculty colleagues quite familiar with some Asian and Asian American cultures, I am not nearly the odd duck that one reading this post might have thought (i.e., the statistic of being the first can’t be denied, but it’s also surprising giving how many Asians in various capacities have been at CST). My sense is that you being a guy in Women’s Studies will be more unexpected than I will ever be as one of the Asians.

      Perhaps one of the most difficult things is this – I identify as both Taiwanese American and Asian American, but obviously my competence and familiarity is greater with some ethnicities more than others; still, I am still often asked to advise dissertations or whatever in ways beyond my expertise (because “who else” could do it)?

      Re: power, responsibilities, let’s talk more about that in person, since I sense that there is a question behind the question but I’m not quite picking up on it here. Thanks for writing!


  3. You are very lucky that your family and your community respect your accomplishments. In my white Southern California conservative family with lower middle class roots, my accomplishments made the men feel diminished and me a black sheep. Try to imagine having to go against your family and communty as well. It ain’t easy as I will discuss in my next post! (PS In Lesbos black sheep are common on the hillsides and they are very cute.)


    1. Thanks Carol for sharing. You are right that I’ve had tremendous support, but your post reminds me that there were some years when people in my extended community (though not my parents) didn’t understand/appreciate why I would want to pursue religious studies. To be sure, they were impressed that I had gotten into Harvard, but they were worried that I’d “lose my faith.” Academe was also a relatively untrodden path (amidst the sea of professionals and business folk my parents knew). But my community totally respects higher education, so I guess whatever misgivings some might have had are gone. I’m really looking forward to your next post!


  4. Thank you Grace for contributing with your personal
    trials and list of gratitude, and for the statistics that
    open my eyes for a better vision in academic
    participation. As one who is considered Hispanic,
    or Latina, though I neither relate to Spain nor to
    Latins–but that is a longer story–like Carol, I have
    experienced the distancing of family and even those
    in the spiritual community when I change course to
    remain true to more meaningful spiritual options.
    The stats still show the unacceptable gender asymmetry
    prevalent in academia. I am thrilled at your success integrating
    your academic goals with family, community and prospective
    world participation. Family support makes all fulfillment whole.

    Carol, I look forward to your next post on the
    mixed blessings of daring to be academically, culturally and
    religiously different. Wishing to embrace the whole
    world as family has been a spiritual boon for me. And women
    who write like you, and men like John, are dear sisters and brothers.

    I feel blessed to read from you.


    1. Vrinda – thanks so much for commenting; I’m so glad that our blogsite has been meaningful for you and I appreciate your sharing aspects of your life alongside of ours!


  5. Thank you Dr Kao and thank you who are spinning the thread of your stories with hers. The information, insights and stories you tell of your experience as academics in your contexts are carrying forward Dr. Kao’s model of feminist pedagogy that has moved and changed us. In a thousand years I would never have forseen myself as a blog follower (totally unplugged so to speak) but feminist grace and power are addicting, as are the kindness and support expressed each to the others. I honor the wisewomanpower you personify and follow the thread with great interest.


    1. Peggy: I’m delighted that we have gotten you hooked and that I will continue to see you on Feminism and Religion. Please know that as inspiration strikes you, we would be happy to publish your blog again! :)


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