The History of SEAC

Dr. Charles Keyes with Dr. Peter Geithner and Dr. Glenn May (who succeeded Gerry Fry as the head of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Oregon) at the Anthropology Museum at UBC in 1989.


by Charles F. Keyes

As the founding director of the Center for Southeast Asian studies at the University of Washington I would like to give a little background on the history of the Center.

When I first came to the UW in 1965, the three faculty members teaching about Southeast Asia in anthropology, history and political science were lucky if 10-12 students signed up for a course on Southeast Asia. Enrollments in the study of Thai language, the only Southeast Asian language then taught at UW were also small. Because the demand for courses on Southeast Asia was so limited, the Far Eastern and Russian Institute (the predecessor of the Jackson School) was reluctant to establish a formal structure for promoting Southeast Asian studies. Nonetheless, a Committee for Southeast Asian Studies was established – a committee that I chaired.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s as the American War in Vietnam expanded, student interest in Southeast Asia increased dramatically, primarily among students who wanted to know something about the region where the US was so deeply involved and where many male students would end up after being drafted. Then after 1975 when the War in Vietnam ended American student interest plummeted.

Beginning in 1976 Washington State – with the strong encouragement of then governor Daniel J. Evans, a liberal Republican (a now extinct species) – began to admit large numbers of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Some of these refugees metamorphized into what became known as ‘heritage’ students, that is students whose backgrounds were from countries other than the US. By the late 1980s there was strong student demand for courses on Southeast Asia, including courses in Southeast Asian languages. Several new faculty members whose research included Southeast Asia were hired in Sociology (Charles Hirschman), the Burke Museum (Karl Hutterer), Business (John Butler), and Anthropology (Carter Bentley, replaced by Jean-Paul Dumont), among others. Joseph Cooke was hired in Asian Languages and Literature to continue instruction in Thai that had been begun by Li Fang-kuei. Thus, by the late 1980s there were now sufficient faculty members to justify the establishment of a Southeast Asian Studies program under the Jackson School.

In 1986-87 Professor Gerald Fry, then at the University of Oregon, and I initiated an effort to establish the Northwest Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies (joint between the University of Washington, the University of Oregon and the University of British Columbia). With the support of the Ford Foundation we succeeded in obtaining initial funding and this was followed by funding from the Luce Foundation and the US Office of Education. In 1988 I wrote the committee reviewing the state and future of the Jackson school: “There is, I believe, something of a renascence of area studies in the United States. I can illustrate this best from my own field, Southeast Asian studies. This past year the Luce Foundation determined that Southeast Asian studies should be strengthened, rather than be allowed to continue to atrophy, as has been the case since the end of the War in Indochina. The Foundation has made available $8 million for support of the existing centers of Southeast Asian studies. In addition, Luce has been very encouraging about efforts here in the Northwest to create a new regional consortium. This Northwest Regional Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies, which includes the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon as well as the University of Washington, was launched this year with a small grant from the Ford Foundation. Ford has indicated willingness to consider providing more substantial support.” We actually gained an influential patron at Ford – namely, Dr. Peter Geithner who took a personal interest in the Consortium. When I learned of Peter’s death in 2016, I wrote Ford as follows: “Peter had done much to encourage me in the development of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington and the Northwest Consortium for Southeast Asian Studies (NWCSEA). This encouragement included not only grants that Ford made, but also the personal interest Peter took in my efforts. He made several trips to Seattle and Vancouver, BC. I was struck not only by his professionalism but also by his personal warmth. That the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Washington is one of the major centers for Southeast Asian Studies in the U.S. is very much a consequence of Peter’s support and encouragement.” In the early 1990s the NWCSEA devolved into separate centers at UW, UBC, UO and UVic.

At UW the number of faculty members with research experience in/about Southeast Asia continued to grow, with several key appointments being made with seed funding I obtained from grants. The new faculty positions including ones for a Vietnamese language instructor in Asian Languages and Literature (Kim Nguyen), a Southeast Asian historian (Laurie Sears), Vietnamese studies (Christoph Giebel), and a Southeast Asian Librarian (Judith Henchy). Moreover, a number of departments added members who were Southeast Asian specialists: Celia Lowe, Peter Lape, Ben Marwick, and, most recently, Jenna Grant in Anthropology; Sara Curran and Mary Callahan in International Studies, Vincente Rafael in History, Enrique (Rick) Bonus in Ethnic Studies, Patrick Christie in Natural Resources and Environment, Randall Kyes in the primate center, Wiworn Kesavatana-Dohrs, Desiana Pauli Sandjaja, Luoth Yin, Richard Atienza, and most recently Than Than Win and Bich-Ngoc Turner in Asian Languages and Literature. These latter appointments have made it possible for instruction to be offered in Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian, Khmer, Tagalog, and Burmese. In 1964 when I joined the faculty at UW, there were only four members of the faculty who identified as Southeast Asianists. In 1994 when I stepped down as director there were fifteen. Today the number is double that. Initially, the program centered around the study of Thailand and Vietnam, but since the 1980s the center has developed specializations in Indonesia, Myanmar, Philippines and Cambodia as well as Vietnam and Thailand.

Central to the success in both the instructional and research sides of the Center is the role of the Southeast Asian collection at the UW Libraries. We were very fortunate to recruit Judith Henchy for the position of Southeast Asian Librarian and to retain her when she was sought for positions elsewhere. She has been key to the accomplishments of the center ever since she was first hired.

Professor Laurie Sears who was selected to be head of Southeast Asian Studies in 2008, was, I believe, the longest serving director since my tenure. She was responsible for the UW center becoming one of the top SEA centers in the US. In accomplishing this she was very fortunate in having Dr. Sara Van Fleet as the associate director and Tikka Sears as outreach coordinator. They have now moved on, but will, I am certain be equally successful in their new avatars. Celia Lowe, the new director, will, I am confident, maintain the high reputation of the Southeast Asia Center at UW.

first published online at the SEAC Blog on December 2, 2016