Stanford Lays Off Only Cantonese Lecturer After 21 Years of Teaching

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Stanford University’s Cantonese language program is in peril after administrators decided to lay off its one and only lecturer.

Sik Lee Dennig, Ph.D., who taught in the program for more than 21 years, is among hundreds of employees whose contracts will no longer be renewed due to budgetary challenges brought about by COVID-19.

Around 76 students enroll in the university’s Cantonese classes annually. Over the last 10 years, an average of 31 students enrolled in the fall, Dennig said.

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The lecturer was raised in Hong Kong, but her heritage language is Shanghainese. This makes her feel welcomed whenever she visits relatives in Shanghai.

“I fully understand how my students feel about their heritage language — Cantonese,” Dennig told the Stanford Daily. “The ability to speak it gives them a membership to their community.”

Stanford reportedly expressed its “hopes” to offer one Cantonese class in fall 2021. Dennig could return on an hourly basis, but it will depend on available funds.

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Dr. Sik Lee Dennig has taught Cantonese at Stanford for over 21 years. Image via Sik Lee Dennig

Staff, alumni and current students have signed a petition to “Save Cantonese at Stanford.” The call to action is intensified by the fact that Leland Stanford, the university’s founder, exploited and maltreated Chinese workers in the 1860s — many of whom spoke Cantonese.

“Leland Stanford built his Central Pacific Railroad empire on the backs of Cantonese migrant workers,” the petition states. “These Cantonese workers suffered grueling and dangerous working conditions, paltry wages, and violent prejudice to construct the railroad that made Leland Stanford exorbitantly rich — rich enough to buy the summer home and farm in Palo Alto that we now know as Stanford University.”

The petition, addressed to Provost Persis Drell, also argues that axing the program is inconsistent with Stanford’s values of diversity, equity and inclusion. It also points out that Chinese people are not a monolithic group and that Cantonese is widely used across the Chinese diaspora.

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Signatories are asking Stanford to make three commitments: (1) secure a Cantonese language program with at least four course offerings per quarter; (2) allow Cantonese courses to fulfill the language requirement by including reading and writing; and (3) invest in the long-term viability of the Cantonese program through a permanent full-time instructor position that is compensated with salary, benefits and protections.

Interested parties with Stanford affiliation may sign the petition here.

Feature Images via Sik Lee Dennig

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