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Courtesy of the Save Cantonese campaign

Stanford University students and alumni vocally opposed planned cuts to the Cantonese language program a year ago after university administrators opted not to renew the contract of the sole lecturer in Cantonese, a salaried and benefits-eligible employee who had taught there for 20 years.

The Save Cantonese campaign was not successful at saving the job of the lecturer, Sik Lee Dennig, who left Stanford last summer after her contract was not renewed. But the campaign just announced a $1 million gift from S. J. Distributors, a food company founded by Cantonese speakers, for an endowment to support classes in the language at Stanford.

“I’m quite sad it didn’t change things for Dr. Dennig, but the gift is about the future,” said Jamie Tam, a Stanford graduate and organizer with the Save Cantonese campaign and an assistant professor at the Yale School of Public Health.

Tam said while the returns on the endowment won’t be enough to fund a full-time lectureship in Cantonese—which remains the campaign’s goal—they will guarantee Cantonese classes can be taught at Stanford in the future.

“In the foreseeable future, as long as Stanford exists, Cantonese classes can be offered and are funded,” Tam said.

“That’s why this is significant,” she continued. “We want a world where this never happens again. We want a world where students don’t have to fight to keep a language class. What this gift does is it protects Cantonese classes from future budget cuts.”

When it eliminated Dennig’s position, Stanford pledged to offer two classes per quarter in Cantonese, to be taught by hourly lecturers, down from the four courses per quarter that had previously been offered.

Joy Leighton, a spokeswoman for Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, confirmed the $1 million gift from S. J. Distributors.

“The Language Center, which is part of [Humanities and Sciences], has been offering Cantonese regularly over the past two decades,” Leighton said. “In the academic year 2021–22, two courses per quarter are being offered.”

Stanford is one of the richest universities in the United States, with an endowment of $37.8 billion. It also has deep historical links to Cantonese-speaking people. The university’s founder, Leland Stanford, built his fortune on the labor of Cantonese-speaking Chinese migrant railroad workers, and Chinese laborers helped build the campus.

While Cantonese is spoken by more than 55 million people in China and an estimated 20 million more worldwide, the language is not commonly taught at U.S. universities. According to data from the Modern Language Association, there were just 267 undergraduate or graduate students enrolled in Cantonese language classes in 2016, the last year for which data are available. The Cantonese Language Association at Brigham Young University lists 17 American colleges or universities, and one college consortium, that offer Cantonese language classes.

Scott Suen, the CEO of S. J. Distributors, spoke to a local news site, Patch, about the decision to donate.

“If we don’t [donate], there aren’t that many other people who are going to do this,” Suen said in an interview in Cantonese with the publication. “Cantonese would slowly and slowly become less popular if no one protects it and keeps protecting it.”

Dennig, the former Cantonese lecturer at Stanford, deferred to the Save Cantonese campaign for comment but praised S. J. Distributors for making the gift.

“It’s just so wonderful that they initiated the donation and followed through with their offer!” she said via email.

Both the undergraduate and graduate student senates at Stanford passed resolutions last year calling for Stanford to restore its Cantonese offerings.

Ryan Talvola, an economics major at the University of California, Los Angeles, who worked on the Save Cantonese campaign, said he was grateful the campaign resulted in a tangible impact in the form of a million-dollar gift.

“There were some tangible fruits of our labor instead of a bunch of passionate activists shouting into the universe,” he said. “At the end of the day, something was truly accomplished.”

Tam said the campaign is bigger than Stanford—it is about stable funding for minority languages more generally.

“We don’t wait until there’s a budget cut and suddenly these poorly funded languages that already lack teaching infrastructure are wiped out,” she said. “A lot of the awareness-raising we’re doing is trying to show institutions of higher education that people care about minority languages. People care about languages like Cantonese. I see the work that we’re doing as connected to many other institutions and connected to a broader problem of an absence of funding and teaching infrastructure for minority languages.”

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