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The University of Michigan is proud of a long history of involvement in Asian studies. Since the 1870s, scholars from the University have been engaged in research, education, service, and politics relating to South and Southeast Asia. The Center for South Asian Studies emerged in the fall of 1999 from the former Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, which was established in 1961. Formally constituted five decades ago, the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies soon became a national center for language training and area-related studies in a wide range of disciplines.

Over the past forty-eight years, the center has fulfilled an important role in the United States by educating outstanding South Asia experts. On average, there are 40 MA and PhD students in residence each year. The center's MA program is a Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies program.

Since 1993, the center has been administratively affiliated with the University's International Institute. The Institute is responsible for the coordination of research and training in international, comparative, and area studies with the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts (LSA), as well as between LSA and schools and colleges across the University. This affiliation increases significantly the center's ability to draw on new funding and programmatic resources for its own activities.