California State University

Divided CSU Board Mandates Ethnic Studies/Social Justice Course

Amid debate on whether the requirement goes far enough, the CSU Board of Trustees voted to add an ethnic studies/social justice course requirement.

Diploma in hands at graduation ceremony

The California State University Board of Trustees Wednesday approved the creation of an ethnic studies/social justice course requirement, despite objections that including "social justice" classes waters down the intent of the proposal.

Some dissenters on the board argued that allowing students to take a social justice course means they would be able to meet the requirement without ever taking a traditional ethnic studies course on the history of the Latino, Black, Asian-American or Native-American communities.

The social justice provision allows students to meet the requirement by taking classes on other populations, such as the Jewish community, the disabled, the LGBT community and women/gender studies.

The board approved the policy on a 13-5 vote, with one abstention.

Board member Silas Abrego unsuccessfully sought to postpone the vote on the proposal, saying the university needed more consultation with ethnic studies faculty members, and objecting to the idea that a CSU student would still be able to graduate "without ever having to take an ethnic-studies course."

"So why do we keep referring to it as an ethnic studies requirement when it isn't true?" he asked.

After a lengthy discussion, the board rejected the proposal to continue, then voted down a proposal by board member Hugo Morales to remove the words "ethnic studies" from the mandate.


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"This is about 'social justice,' which we have championed," Morales said. "Let's call it that. When we call it something that it's not, an ethnic studies requirement, that's not what it is."

Other board members, however, insisted that ethnic studies courses focused on the four traditional groups are the "anchor" of the requirement, but including other groups is more reflective of the current U.S. population and engages more communities that have also faced historical oppression.

"To me, it is better to have the broader lens," board member Rebecca Eisen said.

She said she has confidence that the CSU faculty who develop their classes to ensure that ethnic studies will serve "as an anchor" in the curriculum so "the core of this requirement is not lost, watered-down, weakened in any way."

CSU Chancellor Timothy White insisted the traditional ethnic studies courses "remain the anchor of this proposal and for the course offerings," but he said it offers a diverse student population a more diverse array of options to meet the requirement.

The board's vote could ultimately wind up being moot, depending on the actions of the state Legislature, which is expected as early as next week to give final approval to legislation mandating that the CSU require students to take a traditional ethnic studies course. If the governor signs the legislation, it would override the Board of Trustees' vote.

White and some board members said during a committee discussion Tuesday that such a move would be an unprecedented intrusion by the Legislature into the board's purview of setting curriculum.

White reiterated Wednesday that it was important for the board to act on the CSU proposal, so Gov. Gavin Newsom will be able to examine it alongside the state legislation.

The board's vote marks the first change in the CSU's general education curriculum in 40 years. If it stands, the university's measure will take effect in the 2023-24 school year. The proposed state legislation, if it is passed and approved by the governor, would take effect in 2021-22.

The California Faculty Association opposed the CSU measure. CFA President Charles Toombs said earlier the university's proposal undermines the entire intent of the ethnic studies movement, which is to recognize the "customs, history and traditions" of communities of racial and ethnic groups in California.

"AB 1460 acknowledges the historical failure of the CSU system to institutionalize inclusive curriculum, the sociopolitical urgency of the moment elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-Black racism, and the longterm social benefit of an ethnic studies course requirement," Toombs said in a statement. "AB 1460 was student-, Ethnic-Studies-faculty- and community-driven, and its passage would be akin to civil rights efforts of the past."

Executive Vice Chancellor Loren Blanchard insisted, however, that the CSU plan "doesn't in any way undermine ethnic studies."

"For a generation that is demanding change, this is our opportunity now to act and to ensure that CSU's graduates have the knowledge and actionable tools to recognize, question and ultimately dismantle racial and social injustices," he said.

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