The University of Kansas has a long tradition of teaching and research on East Asia. Thomas R. Smith (1910-1996), Associate Professor of Geography, offered the first East Asian area studies courses in 1947. By 1956, interest in East Asian Studies had advanced to the point that KU hosted the 5th Annual Conference on Asian Affairs (predecessor of the Midwest Conference on Asian Affairs) and started a Summer Institute on Asia. The university created a formal East Asian Studies program in 1959, and the Center for East Asian Studies was born.
The Center was an early beneficiary of Title VI of the 1958 National Defense Education Act (NDEA). It received uninterrupted, annual NDEA funding from 1959 until 1973 when the government terminated NDEA centers. This early funding supported language instruction in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean beginning in 1959, 1961, and 1969 respectively. During this period, Oriental Languages and Literature evolved from a semi-department within the Center to a full-fledged department with its own East Asian departmental library in 1964.
The early 1970s was a turbulent time for the Center just as it was for the rest of the country. The East Asian Studies building was firebombed in 1971 causing damage to the building. The Kansas Revolutionary Army later claimed responsibility stating the bombing was “in solidary with the National Liberation Front of Vietnam.” The next year, the February Sisters’—thirty women and four children—occupied the East Asian Studies building for a day. They demanded an affirmative action office, a program in women’s studies, a free day-care facility, more women in university administration, and salary equity. The administration agreed to all but the last demand.
Without NDEA grants, the Center sought out other funding opportunities, including grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Japan Foundation, and Rockefeller Foundation. The East Asian Studies program continued to progress with more faculty, more courses, and new study abroad opportunities despite financial constraints. Fortunately, it regained Title VI funding and received its first Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships in 1979.
CEAS received Title VI and/or FLAS funding for the remainder of the twentieth century. The 1980s and 1990s saw increased outreach to both educators and students with annual summer workshops for secondary and community college teachers, Asian American International Film Festivals, and International Career Fairs. The East Asian art collection at the Spencer Museum also expanded leading to annual exhibitions.
More recently, the Center has received almost continual Title VI and FLAS support since 2000. This and other funding has allowed it to expand its language offerings, library holdings, and community outreach: the Center sponsored the creation of the Kansas Consortium for Teaching about Asia (KCTA) to reach out to K-12 educators and students in 2001, first and second year Uyghur and Tibetan were added to the curriculum in 2005, “Postcards from Asia” aired for the first time on KANU 91.5 FM in 2005, and the East Asian Library boasted over 300,000 items by 2010.
The Center’s long history of East Asia expertise and support had led us to this moment. Today, it offers 5 levels of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, along with 3 levels of Uyghur and 2 levels of Tibetan language training. The breadth and depth of East Asia language and area studies coverage is supported by over 60 prominent core and associate faculty in a total of 19 departments within the Collage Liberal Arts and Sciences and 7 units in professional schools. Its East Asia library collection is 11th among public universities. Its close relationships with the U.S. armed services, regional K-12 and post-secondary institutions, businesses, and non-profit organizations has made it the premiere East Asia institution in the Great Plains.