Center’s staff fights to find funds

Chris Hamilton

Masami Suga refused to clean out her desk Sunday.
Suga, one of the two remaining staff of the Refugee Studies Center, worked her last paid day Sunday. With Suga out of a job and University administrators uncertain of its fate, the center could soon close its doors permanently. The 4-year-old center’s inability to acquire funding in the form of research grants forced the decision.
But because of Suga, a part-time research associate, those doors are wedged open — for now.
She said she hopes a letter-writing campaign and pleas to administrators will incite a stay of execution for the refugee archive library and outreach center. It is best known for its monthly University-Community Roundtable series.
In the meantime, Suga has pledged to work as usual in order to save the center — and, ultimately, her own job.
“I made a commitment to the community to stay until I get a response from the administration,” Suga said. She added communication with officials from the Office of Minority Affairs on Friday was very hopeful.
“Now it’s just a matter of how it will run and where it will go,” she said.
But Nancy Barcelï, associate vice president for minority affairs, said she was just beginning the process of exploring alternatives for the center.
“We’re responding in a positive manner,” she said. “We see some important value in the center, but we don’t know where to put the center or if it will even stay a center.”
The situation has been building up since the center was transplanted and renamed. Formed in 1980 as a response to the growing Minnesota Hmong population after the Vietnam War, the center originated as the Southeast Asian Refugee Studies Project. It was part of the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.
While in CURA, project coordinators produced research and developed a collection of books and articles and wrote abstracts. But by 1992 it no longer fit into CURA’s mission, said Michael Metcalf, assistant vice president and head of the Institute of International Studies and Programs where the refugee center is now housed.
In 1994, the center made the move to the institute and widened its focus to include all newly arrived refugees. At the time, the center had five staff members, including a director.
For the first two years, the institute and the graduate school provided about $15,000 annually for seed money. The center then received a two year, $100,000 start-up grant from the graduate school.
But interdisciplinary research grants intended to fund the center never surfaced.
“There were no research grants proposed and no faculty leadership,” said Daniel Detzner, former director of the Center for Refugee Studies. He left in December to concentrate on his own research and other job as associate dean of the College of Human Ecology.
“You have got to have faculty members stepping forward for the center to be successful. But you can’t blame them, they already have full-time jobs,” Detzner said.
He added, among other factors, the University isn’t set up in a way that promotes faculty to write grants for centers out of their own departments. Sharing funding between departments is complicated and rare because of tight budgeting.
While Detzner said the refugee center is worthwhile, he questioned whether it should continue to exist without faculty leadership.
“This is really about the University’s involvement in the community,” he said. “It’s just too bad not everything makes money.”
The center occupies a single room in Nicholson Hall. One wall is lined with materials on, mostly, Asian cultures. Very few new acquisitions have been made in the last four years. But people who use the archives insist they are invaluable.
“This is the only place I can go to get information,” said Somly Sitthisay, a consultant for the Wilder Foundation’s Bi-cultural Training Partnership. “There are many things you can get from the community, but (at the center) you get brand-new ideas and resources.”
Metcalf said he’s negotiating to house the archives in another department. But community members like Sitthisay said that’s not good enough.
“It’s not the same, going to the library, without being able to talk to people,” she said.
So Suga will open the center today.
She said if the administration comes through, she wants to concentrate the center’s efforts on where it’s had success.
“I see the role of the center as a matchmaker, putting together people in the community and state with the University, so they can produce research — not us,” Suga said.