In the first major change to general education across its system in decades, all 430,000 undergraduates attending Cal State universities must take an ethnic studies or social justice course, a requirement approved by CSU trustees Wednesday following a fierce two-day debate that left some longtime social activists in the awkward position of voting “no.”
The requirement will take effect starting in the 2023-24 academic year in the nation’s largest four-year public university system. Five trustees voted against it — including State Supt. of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and social justice activists Lateefah Simon and Hugo Morales — who said it did not hew closely enough to the definition of ethnic studies. One trustee abstained.
Two questions dominated their debate: What should an ethnic studies requirement include? And who should decide: faculty, trustees or state lawmakers?
“I’m trying to hold with fidelity to what ethnic studies is and has been and what those who framed it and have been fighting for 52 years have asked for,” Thurmond said at the meeting Wednesday, referring to the discipline’s focus on the experience of four oppressed groups in the U.S.: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Indigenous peoples.
Morales asked to rename the proposal as simply a “social justice” requirement. “This is about social justice, which we have championed,” he said.
But Chancellor Timothy P. White said that disciplines evolve, and the requirement his office was advancing offers students more choices.
“Ethnic studies has matured,” he said. “It’s deep, it’s powerful, but it’s more than what it used to be.”
The new requirement creates a three-unit, lower-division course requirement “to understand ethnic studies and social justice.” The requirement could be met by a traditional ethnic studies course or by a class focused on social justice or social movements.
Many were opposed to White’s plan — including educators and activists — and prefer a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), that more narrowly defines the requirement, limiting it to ethnic studies courses. AB 1460, which passed both the Assembly and Senate, will go back to the Assembly for concurrence next week before being sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. If he signs it, that requirement will supersede the one approved by the CSU Wednesday.
“We’ve asked you to join the Legislature and support 1460, not put us in the same position we were in 1967, where we as entities were trustees fighting faculty, fighting students,” Weber, former president of the National Council for Black Studies, said during public comment Tuesday.
Questions about the content and mission of ethnic studies courses — which have also been raised in the discussion over whether to mandate a requirement at the K-12 level — go back half a century, when students and faculty at San Francisco State went on strike to create the first-ever ethnic studies department.
“The CSU is really proud of its heritage as the birthplace of ethnic studies,” said Loren Blanchard, executive vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.
Blanchard said the new requirement “elevates” the study of the four racial and ethnic groups that traditionally comprise ethnic studies to the same level as the natural and life sciences, the arts and humanities. It also “makes room for the voices and experiences of other oppressed and marginalized groups,” he said.
The requirement, for instance, could also be met with classes in Jewish or Muslim studies, LGBTQ studies or social justice, including courses on social change and social movements in the U.S., historical and cultural perspectives in disability studies, and health disparities in urban communities.
“For the system to stand up and say we’re going to make three units be ethnic studies and social justice is important,” said Alison Wrynn, associate vice chancellor for academic programs, innovations and faculty development, in an interview prior to the meeting. “Our students see themselves with multiple identities. … Our requirement is going to give them that opportunity to really see themselves in the curriculum.”
But trustee Silas Abrego objected.
“Let’s be clear,” he said. “This is not a requirement for ethnic studies. A student could meet this requirement without ever having to take an ethnic studies course.”
The California Faculty Assn. has formally opposed the chancellor’s proposal and endorsed Weber’s bill.
“CFA is severely disappointed in today’s decision,” President Charles Toombs, a professor of Africana studies at San Diego State said in a statement after the vote.
Toombs said the chancellor’s proposal did not reflect adequate consultation with ethnic studies faculty in particular.
“Since the overwhelming number of ethnic studies faculty are people of color, the lack of inclusion of their expert voices is a potent and real example of how systemic racism works in the CSU,” he said.
Simon, an advocate for civil rights and racial justice, said she had received emails and phone calls from ethnic studies leaders around the country who expressed dissatisfaction with the proposal.
“It is not in my conscience at at this moment to support this,” she said. “That pains me [because] I understand the work put in … I understand the 50-plus year quest for ethnic studies.”
The systemwide Cal State Academic Senate opposes Weber’s bill, arguing that state legislators are improperly interfering in matters of higher education curriculum, setting a dangerous precedent. Some Cal State officials cited those faculty concerns.
“If we were in a different state, we would be scared out of our wits by the idea that the Legislature would be telling us what we should be teaching,” trustee Rebecca Eisen said. “This is our responsibility.”
Board Chair Lillian Kimbell agreed. “If we don’t vote to approve this proposal, essentially what we are doing is ceding to the Legislature their right to create policy on what we teach,” she said. “This is a protest against that.”