California moves toward requiring CSU students to take ethnic studies to graduate

Credit: Larry Gordon / EdSourceStudents are shown on the Cal State Northridge campus. Students at Northridge and across the system could soon be required to take an ethnic studies class. Credit: Larry Gordon / EdSourceStudents are shown on the Cal State Northridge campus. Students at Northridge and across the system could soon be required to take an ethnic studies class. California State University students may soon have a new course requirement for graduation — a 3-unit class in ethnic studies, aimed at broadening students’ awareness of nonwhite racial and ethnic groups.
But whether the requirement is one described by a state law or the leadership of the university is up in the air.
The largest university system in the nation, CSU has a long history as a leader in delivering ethnic studies curriculum. The College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State became the first college of its kind in the United States when it was established in 1969. Cal State Los Angeles in 1968 created the first Chicano studies program in the nation. In 2014, CSU charged a task force with making suggestions to further advance ethnic studies across the system, and that committee in 2016 recommended a requirement for students to take a class in ethnic studies.
Now, legislation that would require CSU students to take an ethnic studies course is moving forward in the Legislature after it was approved by the state Senate on Thursday. At the same time, Chancellor Tim White is poised next month to bring his own proposal to the system’s Board of Trustees that would require students to take either an ethnic studies class or a course with a social justice component.
The Senate voted 30-5 Thursday to pass AB 1460, which would require students beginning with those graduating in 2024-25 to take a 3-unit class in one of four ethnic studies disciplines: Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies, or Latina and Latino studies. The bill, authored by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, was passed by the Assembly last year. It now returns to the Assembly, which needs to approve minor amendments made by the Senate before the bill heads to Gov. Gavin Newsom, who can sign it into law. 
White’s proposal, developed in consultation with the system’s Academic Senate, is expected to go before the system’s Board of Trustees for a vote on July 21. White and the Academic Senate oppose the state legislation. They argue that campuses should have autonomy in determining which classes satisfy the requirement.
Compared to the Legislature’s bill, a much broader range of courses would satisfy the CSU proposal. Those classes include courses in ethnic studies but also classes in a wide range of other disciplines, including humanities, arts and social sciences, as long as they have a social justice component. The courses could focus on subjects including class, gender, sexuality, religion or immigration.
While the idea of requiring students to study the contributions of nonwhite ethnic and racial groups has been long-standing in California, the latest push is happening amid nationwide anti-racism protests and calls for systemic change ignited by the police killing of George Floyd.
“Part of the fight against racism requires us to increase our understanding of one another and our history,” Senator Steven Bradford, co-author of the bill, said Thursday on the Senate floor. “We need students to know not only the contributions of white Americans, but of Black, Latino, Asian and Native Americans and their contributions to this country. For over 400 years, we have sanitized and white-washed history, full of lies, omissions and denials. Now is the time for the truth.”
Many supporters of the Legislature’s proposal are strongly opposed to White’s proposal since it would not require students to take a course in one of the four ethnic studies disciplines. Supporters of the bill include the Black Lives Matter Global Network, ethnic studies departments at several CSU campuses and the California Faculty Association, the union representing CSU faculty. 
White’s proposal would also not go into effect as soon as the Legislature’s proposal. It would apply to students who enter the system in 2023-24 or later. 
“The CSU requirement avoids setting a dangerous precedent for legislative interference and keeps the higher education curriculum setting process within those institutions,” Toni Molle, a spokeswoman for the system, said Thursday in a statement to EdSource.
If the bill is signed into law, it would supersede White’s proposal, according to the faculty association.
Molle added that CSU “follows state and federal law” when asked how CSU would move forward if the trustees approve White’s proposal and the legislation is also signed into law.
The demand for ethnic studies has deep historical ties to student-led efforts. In the fall of 1968, the Black Student Union at San Francisco State University led a student coalition in over four months of protests that resulted in the creation of the first college of ethnic studies. Since then, dozens of ethnic studies programs and departments have been established across CSU, the largest four-year university system in the nation with 480,000 undergraduate students. Across the system, students of color make up a strong majority of the student body. 
In 2014, White commissioned the Task Force on the Advancement of Ethnic Studies that included administrators, faculty and students. That task force delivered a report in 2016 where the top recommendation was the creation of an ethnic studies general education requirement. The recommendations were evaluated at the campus level, which led to the overall increased hiring of tenure-track ethnic studies faculty and increased enrollment in ethnic studies courses, but not to the establishment of the graduation requirement.
In 2019, Weber introduced AB 1460, which, according to the California Faculty Association, was developed in consultation with ethnic studies faculty who were frustrated that the chancellor’s office had not implemented the task force’s recommendation to create an ethnic studies requirement. 
In a statement Thursday, faculty association president Charles Toombs praised the Senate for passing the bill. 
“Moving to a more inclusive society and state begins with education,” he said. “Educational justice is at the forefront of CFA’s demands for resources to support anti-racism and social justice in the wake of anti-Black racism, violence and murder. Our work here is only beginning. Now, we call on Governor Newsom: Be a national leader on inclusive and diverse learning. Help us become the best state we deserve to be.”
Kenneth Monteiro, a professor at San Francisco State University and the chair of CSU’s Ethnic Studies Council, said during the May trustees meeting that he and other ethnic studies faculty weren’t consulted before the chancellor’s office developed its own proposal. He asked the trustees to consider the task force’s original recommendation which demands a stricter ethnic studies requirement, rather than the chancellor’s proposal.
CSU estimates that the legislature proposal would cost $16.5 million per year to offer new courses and for administrative expenses. The CSU proposal would be less costly because students would be allowed to satisfy the ethnics studies or social justice requirement by taking existing courses. CSU estimates it would cost between $3 and $4 million annually.
“Put directly, we ask the (chancellor’s office) and the ethnic studies faculty to return to you with the original proposal that is also based in supporting AB 1460,” said Monteiro, who is also the former dean of San Francisco State’s College of Ethnic Studies.
It’s not clear if White’s proposal will be approved by trustees when they are asked to vote on it during their July meeting. The proposal received a mixed response when it was brought forward as an information item in May. 
Among the trustees who criticized the proposal was Silas Abrego. 
“When you place ethnic studies in a position to compete with mainstream departments, which would be the case here, ethnic studies would once again be pushed to the back of the line,” Abrego said at the time.
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