Morgan State launches program for East Asian studies Programs: With a $150,000 federal grant and $500,000 of its own resources, Baltimore school expands its curriculum offering.

July 21, 1996|By Janice D'Arcy | Janice D'Arcy,SUN STAFF

In a dual attempt to harness the exploding fascination with eastern Asia and foster better understanding across a racial divide, Morgan State University is launching the country's first East Asian studies program at a historically black college.

Come September, the Baltimore university will use a $150,000 federal Department of Education grant and close to $500,000 in its own resources to create a program where students can concentrate on Japan, China and Korea. Morgan's offerings will now expand from elementary Japanese and Chinese language classes to an interdisciplinary curriculum of history, philosophy, religion, political science, Korean language and higher levels of Japanese and Chinese.

"We had a need for it," said Dr. Joseph Overton, a political science professor and the driving force behind the new program. "Students are very practical today. They realize, as they look toward the future, that their career opportunities will involve the Pacific rim."

Dr. Max Hilaire, assistant dean for Morgan's College of Arts and Sciences, predicts the university will be at the forefront of a new trend among historically black institutions.

"Traditionally the focus at black colleges has been on Africa and the Caribbean, then Europe," he said. "Asia has been left out. But the global marketplace is shifting. In order to compete, there is a need to understand the Asian cultures, to have some knowledge of the languages."

The East Asian academic concentration is still so new, there is no central organization tracking enrollment. However, according to higher education specialists, undergraduate interest in Asia - particularly Japan, China and Korea - has been on a sharp increase in recent years.

Andre Buffonge, a spokesman for the Harvard Council on East Asian Studies in Cambridge, Mass., a research facility for colleges from Maine to Connecticut, attributes the heightened enrollment in courses on East Asia at institutions throughout the northeast to increased media attention to East Asian affairs.

"There is more awareness in this country as the media covers what's going on politically in Japan and China and Korea,' he said.

Leanne Hall, the East Asian studies outreach coordinator at the University of California at Santa Barbara, attributes the increasing demand on her coast to the economic influence the Pacific rim wields, noting that most of her students are double majors, coupling their concentration on Japan, China or Korea with an economics or business degree.

Educators in Maryland agree.

"I remember when I was in school 30 years ago, it was unheard of that anyone would take Japanese," said James Unger, outgoing chair of the Asian and Eastern European languages department at the University of Maryland at College Park. "That all changed when Japan started to flex its academic muscle."

At Morgan, lengthening waiting lists for the Japanese and Chinese language courses led Overton to seek a grant that would cater to students' growing interest.

The program has more than academic significance for Morgan, however. The new courses come a little more than a year after Baltimore erupted in racially charged protests when an African American suspected of murdering a Korean-American student in northeast Baltimore was acquitted.

Ben Hur, a member of the Korean Society of Maryland, the group that organized many of last year's protests, is optimistic that Morgan's new courses will improve racial relations in the city.

"The biggest obstacle we have is lack of communication," he said. "This sounds like something that will help both sides understand each other better." He and his friends may enroll in a course or two, he said.

Overton envisions non-matriculating students from the region, like Hur, in class with Morgan students - learning from books and from each other. Eventually, he said, he wants to expand the program to a regional East Asian studies Center that will be a mecca for research and education in the community.

Overton's plans are ambitious in a time of higher education cutbacks. The current funding grant, which will be distributed in two $75,000 annual installments, was sought by 85 institutions this year and though Morgan officials say they are "committed" to the new program, money has not yet been budgeted beyond 1998.

"I wish him the best of luck; all I have to say is that's an ambitious project," said Unger of the University of Maryland said.

But Overton is confident, devoting much of his time applying for grants and seeking outside funding sources to help pay for the program when the initial money is spent

"I don't think we'll have any problem," he said.

Pub Date: 7/21/96

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