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Wang Center’s Tangled Web

Forced Out
The Future ???

March 2013
Expanded version of SB Press Op Ed (30-31)

As the famous poet Sir Walter Scott so aptly said, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave... when first we practice to deceive.”

On February 26th an online petition was started on by supporters of Dr. Sunita Mukhi, Director of Asian and Asian American Programs at the Charles B. Wang Asian American Center. It asked Stony Brook University President Sam Stanley to reinstate her into the position she had held for the past ten years. 

The first signature on the petition's founding letter was Jessica Hagedorn, well known author and professor of Creative Writing at LIU, followed by more than 50 primarily academics and artistic directors. As of this writing, over 1400 people have signed since then.

According to the petition, the University had not renewed Dr. Mukhi's contract and was defunding the programs she ran. 

It was followed on March 1st by an email response from the University sent out to many members of the campus community suggesting that what was in the petition was not truthful.

The truth is, neither side was being truthful, the University most especially. 

The petition for Dr. Mukhi did not lie. But it left out crucial information that could have substantially altered the meaning of what was said. 

It is unknown if Dr. Mukhi knew she was going to be laid off until just shortly before she was. We have not found anyone in the Asian community who had heard anything until just before the petition. The first AA E-Zine knew was when SBU AA E-Zine Editor Wilson Jiang read about it in a China Blue Facebook group.  

While not totally the fault of the writers, the petition confused many readers who thought that Asian and Asian American Studies was being cut. While Dr. Mukhi worked with AAS faculty to bring in authors and programs related to the courses they teach, her primary responsibility was to bring in diversified Asian and Asian American events and performances for the campus community to enjoy in the Wang Center. 

The University's response was a classic public relations cover-up and it also did not lie, at least not directly. It put truthful things in untruthful contexts and just like the petition, it left out crucial information that substantially altered the meaning of what was said. 

Here is what is known about each side. This is far from complete. 

The University will not discuss Sunita Mukhi as personnel matters are never discussed publicly. 

Dr. Mukhi is no longer in a position to discuss anything as there is supposedly an investigation into her fraudulent use of her University email account for non-University purposes. This was told to a student editor of SBU AA E-Zine by a confidential source. He is not being named as that would betray his source.

Presumably talking to other academics in and outside of the University about your position and the petition is not University business. The moral of this and a warning to everyone - don't criticize your boss using company email. Though if the University pushes this, no doubt it will only reap more criticism about the invasion of privacy. Faculty will not be happy finding out the University is possibly going through their emails because they may have had some communication with Dr. Mukhi, or a pyramid, with another faculty member who had communication with her. Where does the University draw the line?     

When Dr. Mukhi was first hired, she reported directly to the President, then Shirley Strum Kenny, in what is called a Management Confidential position. MC's serve 'at the pleasure of the President.' We do not know if over the years that reporting relationship ever changed until Dr. Mukhi was told in 2012 that when her contract was renewed, she would then report to Diana Hannan, Director of Conferences and Special Events.

Dr. Mukhi was hired ten years ago as Director of the Wang Center after a second search. The first search had failed to mention that the facility a director was being hired for had anything to do with Asian and Asian American anything. It did not even mention the name of the Center. It was cancelled after its deadline for receiving resumes and a new search was conducted that did include that pertinent information. 

In 2004 President Kenny changed Dr. Mukhi's position, made her Director of Asian and Asian American Programs, and had her teach in Asian American Studies instead of being responsible for the physical aspects of running the Center. That was turned over to a building manager, Rob Valente. This change in 2004 did not effect her salary or it is unknown if it effected her reporting relationship. As faculty, however, she would now have to come under UUP.

In 2012 the Alumni Editor of AA E-Zine Ja Young received an email from the head of an off campus Asian organization asking if she had heard about "what happened to Sunita". She was told that Dr. Mukhi's salary was going to be cut $26,000, Dr. Mukhi's title would be changed to Associate Director, Dr. Mukhi would now report to the Director of Conferences and Special Events, and Dr. Mukhi would now spend only 55% of her time on Asian and Asian American programming with the rest spent on other Wang programs. 

It can only be presumed since this person knew the details, that at the time, Dr. Mukhi was being open to her peers about these proposed changes. The email stated that Dr. Mukhi had only succeeded in keeping her title. AA E-Zine wrongly presumed the other changes were a fait accompli and that Dr. Mukhi was staying in her position.

It should also be noted that Diana Hannan was hired as Director of Conferences and Special Events with the intent of increasing off campus use of the Wang Center, i.e., to make it a money-making facility similar to the Sports Complex. The announcement of her position states, "Her role is integral in attracting organizations to the University for one-time or recurring conferences and special events." 

In February, Dr. Mukhi's contract was not renewed, effective 2/28/2013. 

On 2/26 a former AA E-Zine student editor was told confidentially that Dr. Mukhi's graduate student assistants were also losing their positions. This gave credence to the charge in the petition that not only Dr. Mukhi but the Wang Center Asian and Asian American programs were being defunded as well. Programming cannot be done without staff and the one full time assistant who would be left, non-Asian Jennifer Iacono, could not handle it alone.

This same editor was also told that Dr. Mukhi was being removed because she was "expensive."

What is unknown, and which changes what is presented in the petition, is if Dr. Mukhi refused the reconfiguration of her position and salary cut or if she had agreed and was still terminated.

Given that Dr. Mukhi was not only the only Asian working at the Wang Center but the only person with any educational background and knowledge of Asian and Asian American artists and performers, and given her age (50+) and length of tenure (10 years), was the University ethically ‘right’ in what it did?

Obviously not.

But that question is different from whether the University had the ‘right’ to reconfigure her position given that her role as Director was a non-Union position, just as Dr. Mukhi had the ‘right’ to accept it or reject it. 

Why was Dr. Mukhi too "expensive" when in the past two years Dr. Stanley has created two six-figure VP positions, a VP for External Relations and VP for Strategic Initiatives*, and in both cases, the White woman hired was someone Dr. Stanley had known or worked with previously? Even if it wasn't cronyism, that was the general impression many on campus had. 

On 2/28, her last day, Dr. Mukhi sent an email thanking people for their support. In it she said she would remain in her faculty position in Asian and Asian American Studies teaching full time for at least a year. That would seem to indicate that the University was abiding by UUP contractual policies for faculty.  

As for the University's response, it inflamed more than it subsided attitudes about what had happened to Dr. Mukhi.

The letter began with a discussion of the health and strength of the Department of Asian and Asian American Studies. Given that until this lay off of Dr. Mukhi, who will now be teaching Asian American courses full time, only two to three courses in Asian American Studies were taught each semester, the health and strength of the Asian American side of the department is dismal. Even Asian Studies is more a department on Asian religions than Asian culture and history.

New faculty lines that had been promised to the department from its inception never appeared. While the University likes to preach it supports the Department, the reality is quite different. Rather, many areas of the University are newly indebted to Jim Simons, whose multi-million dollar dollar-for-dollar matching grant for new donations enabled the two new positions in India Studies.    

It was also signed by Dean Nancy Squires of the College of Arts and Sciences. She is the same Dean who only two years ago wanted to disband the department entirely. 

The next paragraph had multiple questionable statements. It said the Programming position needed to be filled by someone who could do it 100% of the time. When had Dr. Mukhi ever asked to be less than 100%? Requiring her to be less had originally been forced from the University's side, not from Dr. Mukhi's side.

If Dr. Mukhi refused to accept the demotion in salary and time that was being offered to her, and the University was now planning a new position at a lower salary with a different reporting relationship, it was deceptive to imply that not being 100% was Dr. Mukhi's fault and a reason for the non-renewal of her contract.

The University response also stated that an Advisory Council was created consisting of faculty, staff, community and students. Wilson Jiang and Eric Leung, AA E-Zine reps to the Asian Student Coalition, have been contacting the Presidents of all the Asian clubs to see if any of them had been asked to be on this new committee. So far, none have.

One would have to wonder how valid an Advisory Committee could be if the student leaders of all the Asian interest clubs and organizations on campus are excluded from it.

Perhaps the best response on the petition to the University's letter came from community resident Valerie Krizel. She wrote, "As a member of the community, I have attended many lectures and cultural programs at the Wang Center. At each event Sunita was there to welcome me, talk to me, provide the personal to the intellectual. She is the reason the programs work. As a retired school administrator, I recognize her leadership skills in the events selected, the attitude of the student volunteers, and the ease of participation in the programs. I've [read] the University's response to the petition. It explains nothing about your reasons for changing leaders."

The final analysis appears to be that the University wanted Dr. Mukhi's salary cut, her title and reporting responsibility changed, and to have her work less on Asian and Asian American programming. When she refused, the University did not renew her contract. It is instead hiring a lower paid Associate Director to do programming. 

What that will mean is anyone's guess. It will depend on the caliber of the person chosen and the amount of funding given to Asian and Asian American programming. 

Programming will also depend on the availability of the Wang Center. If Diana Hannan's job is to make it a cash cow with outside organizations using the facility, this will leave far less time and space for those programs, and obviously even less time and space to increase student programming.

Given how President Stanley has proceeded so far, it does not bode well for the future of Asian and Asian American programs at the Wang Asian American Center. We would quite obviously like the University to prove us wrong, but given that the lies about the height of the proposed dorms behind the Wang Center are still being told by Dr. Stanley, we are certainly not holding our breath in bated anticipation.

UPDATE: On March 7th, the founders of the petition sent an email to the 1400+ signatories rebutting the University's letter. The rebuttal can be accessed here:

The rebuttal is very similar to what we wrote, and which anyone with any knowledge of Asian and Asian American Studies at SBU and the Wang Center is familiar with. The University's letter seemed written for an audience who does not know the University.

- Wilson Jiang, SBU AA E-Zine Editor-in-Chief
- Ja Young, AA E-Zine Alumni Editor

* The woman hired subsequently chose not to come to Stony Brook and she was replaced by a White male.

Minor clarifications made on 3/20/13



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