The University of Wisconsin announced a new tenure track professor who will focus on Hmong and other Southeast Asian groups has been appointed to the Geography Department.
According to a UW press release, after an international search, Ian Baird, who received his doctorate in geography from the University of British Columbia, was appointed to the position. Baird has 23 years of experience as a development worker and scholar of this part of Asia, the release said.
Dean of the College of Letters and Science Gary Sandefur said the selection process began years ago when then-Chancellor John Wiley had conversations with the Hmong community in response to complaints UW does not have enough courses in Hmong studies. Wiley told students he would attempt to develop more programs in that area, Sandefur said.
The university has a history of unrest among Hmong students and the greater community, with 2007 marking the pinnacle after law professor Leonard Kaplan was accused of making “racist and inappropriate remarks” regarding Hmong people during a lecture.
Sandefur said last summer he went on a fundraising trip and discussed a possible donation from the Henry Luce Foundation in New York. The foundation has a history of supporting programs that highlight Asian studies.
He said after some initial discussion, they invited UW to make a proposal, which they decided to fund.
Sandefur said he is excited to have Baird join the department.
“He’s an outstanding scholar who’s done work [with] the highlands people of Southeast Asia,” he said. “Geography is one of our best departments. … This is an opportunity to hire a great scholar who met the needs that we had.”
He added Baird has had contact with the Hmong community within the United States and is looking forward to learning more about the culture within the Midwest.
In the release, Baird said while he is not a Hmong specialist, he is looking forward to learning about and supporting their culture at UW.
Sandefur acknowledged there were some complaints about the fact Baird would be teaching about Hmong culture in Asia instead of Hmong-American culture. He said the foundation gave the money to fund a professor of Hmong studies in Asia and UW has to follow those stipulations.
In response to more complaints the UW Hmong community was not involved in the hiring process, Sandefur said UW made the effort to educate Southeast Asian students about the hiring process. He said students were invited to many events within the hiring process.
“They were able to sit in on the interviews and the talks that they gave,” Sandefur said.
Sandefur said while UW currently offers Hmong language courses as well as courses on Hmong culture in the U.S. taught by a visiting assistant professor, he hopes to expand the department. Currently, he said, the visiting professor is a two-year position, taught by someone who is not a tenure track professor at UW.
He said when funds are available, the visiting professor courses can hopefully be expanded into regular classes taught by a UW faculty member.
“We’re not quite done yet in terms of the Hmong studies department,” he said.
The Hmong American Student Association did not return calls as of press time.