In the first major change to general education across its system in decades, all 430,000 undergraduates attending California State universities must take an ethnic studies or social justice course, a requirement approved by CSU trustees Wednesday following a fierce debate that left some longtime social activists in the awkward position of voting “no.”

The board of trustees voted in favor of the requirement, which will take effect starting in 2023 in the nation’s largest four-year public university system. Five members voted against it, including State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and social justice activists Lateefah Simon and Hugo Morales. One trustee abstained.

Two questions dominated their debate: How should ethnic studies be defined? And who gets to decide: faculty, trustees or state lawmakers?

The new requirement, advanced by the office of the chancellor, creates a three-unit, lower-division course requirement in “ethnic studies and social justice.” The requirement could be met by a traditional ethnic studies course or by courses focused on social justice or social movements.

The measure was opposed by some faculty and students who argued it was too broad and developed without appropriate consultation with ethnic studies faculty.

They contended that adding the social justice option diluted the core mission of ethnic studies, which focuses on the history and experiences of four oppressed groups in the U.S.: African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and indigenous people.

Many of those opposed prefer a bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat, that is currently making its way to the governor’s office. Weber’s bill more narrowly defines how the requirement could be fulfilled.

Questions about the content and mission of such a requirement, which have also been raised in the debate over whether to create an ethnic studies requirement at the K-12 level, go back 50 years, 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, at a committee meeting Tuesday.

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 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,” Alison Wrynn, associate vice chancellor for academic programs, innovations and faculty development, said in an interview prior to the meeting. “The notion that this is too broad of a requirement is really belied by the fact that our students see themselves with multiple identities. … Our requirement is going to give them that opportunity to really see themselves in the curriculum.”

Wrynn added that the social justice component was very intentional. “We want our students to understand and make changes in the world,” she said.

But trustee Silas Abrego objected.

“The requirement the way it’s written will be either an ethnic studies course or a social justice course,” he said at a committee meeting Tuesday. “That gives the latitude for a student never to take an ethnic studies course. Is that correct?

“Yes, that could be a possibility,” Wrynn responded.

The California Faculty Association has formally opposed the chancellor’s proposal and endorsed Weber’s bill.

“This moment of heightened attention to race and systemic inequality and oppression is your time to act in support of AB 1460,” President Charles Toombs, a professor of Africana studies at San Diego State, said at the meeting Tuesday.

Toombs said the chancellor’s proposal did not reflect adequate consultation with ethnic studies faculty in particular.

“Since the overwhelming number of the ethnic studies faculty are people of color, the lack of inclusion of their voices is a potent and real example of how systemic racism works,” he said. “Ethnic studies faculty and students are tired of battling our own system.”

The Cal State systemwide Academic Senate opposes Weber’s bill, AB 1460, 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.”


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