Photo: Eric Hyer with his grandson on the Great Wall of China
After thirty-four years at BYU, Eric Hyer will be retiring this summer. Hyer has been associated with the Kennedy Center throughout the duration of his time at BYU and has for the last fourteen years been the coordinator of the Asian Studies program.
A career studying Asia
Hyer’s interest in Asia was first prompted in his childhood through the work of his father, who was a BYU history professor who specialized in Asia. The family spent time living in Japan and Taiwan, which prompted Hyer to pursue an intensive Chinese language course at a Taiwanese university. After serving a mission in Taiwan, he studied Asian studies and Chinese language and literature at BYU, then went to Columbia and earned a PhD in political science with an emphasis in China.
In 1988, he began teaching at BYU, and in 1990, he was named the coordinator of the now-defunct International Studies program. After a year’s leave in China, he became the director of graduate studies at the Kennedy Center in 1996. A few years later, the Kennedy Center underwent a reorganization; he was involved in the creation of the new Asian Studies curriculum, but did not have a coordinator role at the Kennedy Center for a while.
“I decided to step back,” he says. “I wanted to put a lot of my effort into studying Asia; that’s where my heart is. So I was very happy in 2008 when they asked me to be the Asian Studies coordinator and come back to the Kennedy Center. And I’ve been happy here ever since!”
Though he greatly enjoyed his new coordinator position, he’ll be the first to admit that there are many challenges to being a coordinator at an interdisciplinary center like the Kennedy Center. “I don’t command any faculty,” he says. “All I do is coordinate faculty from across the university who all have different demands on their time. In terms of rank and advancement and administrative issues, it’s organized by disciplines and colleges—by the groups that hire people. So people’s loyalties are automatically drawn to those.”
To be a coordinator, he says, requires negotiation and a bit of begging: “It’s like chasing a herd of cats,” he jokes.
But even with the challenges, he thinks that the interdisciplinary nature of the Kennedy Center is one of its great strengths. “It’s important to have interdisciplinary centers like the Kennedy Center,” he says, “because the world is an interdisciplinary place. The reality is that whether you’re working in government or business or law or politics, you’re dealing with language and culture and political science and sociology and anthropology. The world is a very interdisciplinary place, so having an interdisciplinary program prepares students for careers in the real world.”
In his time at BYU, Hyer has seen a great deal of changes in Asian Studies. “What has drawn students to the program has changed dramatically,” he says. “In the past, a lot of the Asian Studies students were interested in Japan because it was such a dynamic economy and important economic player; it seemed like there were always careers in Japan if you were interested in business. China was rising and it was interesting; it was becoming more and more open, and its economy was growing very quickly, so people were very interested in development and business interests. And Korea was important because of security concerns.”
“But in recent years,” he observes, “the Japanese economy has gone flat, so no one sees Japan as a great economic opportunity or player anymore. China is no longer the panda bear; it’s the dragon. Students don’t see China in friendly terms; they see it in threatening terms, much as we used to see the Soviet Union in the Cold War.”
“Now when students sit down with me,” Hyer says, “as I ask them what got them interested in Asian Studies, the answers are so different from what they were 14 years ago.” As Japanese and Korean culture becomes more influential worldwide, many students are drawn to study those countries. “Korea has become so influential in terms of culture: Korean pop, Korean soap operas . . .” Hyer observes. “Korean soft power is enormous now.” Japan also attracts students interested in its culture. China, by contrast, now interests people who want to work with the CIA or State Department. Hyer says that younger people look at China as threatening—something to be figured out and dealt with.
“The world is changing,” he observes, “so what attracts students to the major is also changing.”
And he’s glad to have been here through it all. “I’ve had a very satisfying career,” he reflects. “I’m pretty confident that I wouldn’t have done it differently.”
He recalls an experience he had: forty years ago, he did an internship with the US State Department’s East Asia Bureau, and though he enjoyed it, the experience made him realize he would rather pursue a career in academia, so he earned a PhD and became a professor. But through the years, he’s always wondered: “What about that career as a diplomat? Would that have been exciting?”
Then in 2018, he took a professional development leave, receiving a fellowship to return to the State Department and the East Asia Bureau. Being back in the place that caused him to change his entire career path forty years ago, Hyer says he came to a realization: “I’m glad I did what I did. I’ve been very happy as a professor at BYU; a career as a Foreign Service Officer wouldn’t have been as satisfying.”
His time at BYU gave him freedom that he wouldn’t have gotten in government service, he says. “I’ve been able to continue being a student of China the way I wanted to be. No one told me what I had to research; I got to research what I wanted and pursue things that were interesting to me. I published articles and a book (The Pragmatic Dragon: China’s Grand Strategy and Boundary Settlements) on topics that I was interested in. I got to teach the classes I wanted to teach.”
“BYU has been a great career for me,” he concludes. “Good people, good school, good students. I’ve been very happy.”