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Critics of a proposal by the University of California Los Angeles to add a compulsory course on community and conflict to its general education requirements for the College of Letters and Science say that the idea is akin to peddling old wine in a new bottle, and not much different from a diversity requirement that was voted down by faculty in 2004.

Next month, faculty members are expected to vote on the measure, variations of which have been decades in the making. In 2004, faculty members rejected a proposal that would require a diversity course before graduation. Before that, in the mid-1990s, there had been talk of a similar requirement, but the Academic Senate at the time decided to encourage inclusion of multicultural studies into different courses, according to reports.

Faculty leaders and students who have worked on the current proposal say that it is broader and thus more acceptable to faculty members. Kyle McJunkin, director of curriculum coordination and operations, said there has always been an interest in the university in having such courses as a requirement. “From what I gather, the earlier efforts were poorly defined and the inclusion of the word ‘diversity’ in the requirement seemed like a loaded word to many because it means different things to different people,” he said.

The new proposal would require students to take one course (out of 10 they have to take to fulfill their general education requirements) in the area of community and conflict, to be defined by the College of Letters and Science. Currently, students take 10 courses (amounting to at least 48 units) to fulfill their general education requirements. They can choose from courses dealing with the foundations of arts and humanities, foundations of society and culture, and foundations of scientific inquiry. The community and conflict course will deal with tensions between different groups that may develop due to competing interests, and will look at ways at finding common ground by “an appreciation and understanding of the social responsibilities of a common citizenship.” A sample list of courses that the university’s Faculty Executive Committee said could become part of the requirement includes: Introduction to American Indian studies, History of Asian Americans, Interracial Dynamics in American Culture and Society, and Work, Labor and Social Justice in the U.S., America in the Sixties, the Holocaust in Film and Literature and a course called Mystics, Heretics and Witches in the Western Tradition.

Michael Meranze, chair of the Faculty Executive Committee, stressed in an e-mail that that the community and conflict requirement is not designed to be a diversity requirement. “The requirement is quite serious about the problem of community and conflict as it has emerged as a modern problem. Again, this emphasis on the modern forms does not place some sort of chronological limit on the possible topics for courses,” he said.

Although there are general courses offered by ethnic studies departments that might qualify for the proposed requirement, he said, there is no necessary or logical connection between the two. “For example, one professor I have spoken to who is interested in teaching a course that might fulfill this requirement works on the problem of genocide.  I could just as easily imagine courses having to do say, with the wars of the 20th century (or the Civil War in the U.S., for that matter) that would be perfectly appropriate for fulfilling this requirement if it is approved,” Meranze said.

The current effort can be traced back to a "Principles of Community” statement that the university affirmed in 2010, saying that it was committed to “diversity, inclusiveness, freedom of expression, civil dialogue, and a discrimination free environment for faculty, staff and students.” Earlier this month, Meranze wrote a letter to faculty members saying that the proposed changes would strengthen civil dialogue, diversity and freedom of expression on campus. If approved, the requirement may become a reality by fall of 2013.

Cameron Campbell, a professor of sociology who also serves on the Faculty Executive Committee, said developing such a requirement is logistically complicated and the current approach might work to satisfy the interests of different parties. One problem with the 2004 proposal, an official said, was some faculty members saw it “as political correctness run amok.”

Though officials are optimistic this time around, some faculty members have raised questions. One of them is Matthew Malkan, a professor of physics and astronomy, who said that if one looks at all the statements advancing the current proposal, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that this is a diversity requirement by any other name. “It is not possible to distinguish it from the diversity requirement logically or intellectually,” he said.

Malkan, who wrote a letter to Meranze asking about the intellectual motivations of the requirement,  expects the voter turnout to be low, and he said he was concerned about trying to find out what problem the current proposal is designed to fix. “Since some of the stated goals here are the stated goals of various GE requirements at other UC campuses such as Berkeley and San Diego, we can easily find out what was achieved and accomplished based on similar if not identical wording,” he said.

Some students groups, before and now, have campaigned for the change.

Tlaloc Vasquez, an undergraduate majoring in international development studies and Chicano/Chicana studies and a student member of the Faculty Executive Committee, said the proposed change was a move in the right direction. “Right now, a student can spend four years in UCLA and not have a class requirement that would have anything to do with ethnic communities or the narratives of different people,” he said. “We hope to engage students in a critical dialogue and start a space to talk about these issues.” The eventual goal could be an improvement in the campus climate, he said.

Sofia Campos,a student who previously served on the faculty committee, said classes revolving around “community and conflict” could be one area where UCLA could improve, especially because many other universities already include such requirements in their curriculum. “This was difficult to navigate and there is more work to be done but everyone is on the same page in thinking that this needs to be done,” she said.

There is acknowledgement on campus that there needs to be more community engagement and discussions around race, she said, and pointed to two recent incidents, one where a student posted a YouTube video that mocked Asians talking loudly in the library and another where door and fences of apartments near campus were defaced with anti-Latino graffiti, as examples of why such discussions may be necessary. (Some faculty members question if this can be achieved through a one-course requirement.)

Kevin Hovland, director of global learning and curricular change at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, said many universities take a broader approach to the issue, with such courses embedded in the curriculum. “It is much harder to have one single course or a requirement that will satisfy everyone,” he said. “But if you have it embedded all through the curriculum, students will have multiple chances to re-engage.”

The AACU, as part of its “shared futures” initiative – a plan to build a network of educators committed to change to prepare students in an “interdependent but unequal world” – has worked with institutions to prepare students for similar challenges. “What we are finding is that many universities are focused less on a single course, but have interdisciplinary threaded options where students learn about the real world from multiple disciplines, that may include topics dealing with democracy, poverty or social justice.”

Ani Torossian, an undergraduate majoring in political science, said there was a need for a more serious overhaul to make racially sensitive issues more prominent in the curriculum. “As it stands now, it is a change only in name. Some of these courses are already available,” she said. “I would love to see new courses based on contemporary society or history. Something on the Arab Spring, for example.”

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