Who Should Teach Ethnic Studies?

Cal State Los Angeles professors vote to require all students to take a course in race or ethnicity, but fail to adopt proposal that course be taught in ethnic studies department.


February 27, 2014

Part ideological debate and part departmental turf war, a multiple-week conflict at California State University at Los Angeles has ended in the following resolution: Students will be required to take one course on race or ethnicity but they need not find that course in an ethnic studies department. The Academic Senate decision followed at-times-heated discussions among faculty and student protesters about just what diversity is and who should be teaching about it.

Faculty on both sides of the debate said the controversy helped open up dialogue about race on campus like never before.

“Clearly we face a long road with our colleagues, who demonstrated in the debate that they don’t understand ethnic studies as a discipline,” said Beth Baker-Cristales, head of Cal State Los Angeles’s Latin American studies department. But, she said, “I’ve been on campus 12 years now and this is the most meaningful and honest conversation about race we’ve ever had. That’s the wider success, the more important success.”

The controversy began earlier this year when a committee made up mostly of faculty members proposed revisions to the university’s undergraduate general education requirements, as the university moves from a quarter to semester system. Currently, students must take two diversity-related courses in order to graduate, but they need not necessarily be about race and ethnicity. A course about ancient civilizations qualifies, for example. That requirement would remain under the proposed changes, but the definition of “diversity” would be expanded from those that deal “both in theoretical and practical issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and class and provide a comparative treatment of no fewer than two internationally, nationally or regionally significant cultures” to a slightly more inclusive definition, with a new focus on disability, sexuality religion or age in the fundamental definition of diversity. "Particular attention" would be paid to race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic class, but courses in them wouldn't necessarily be required.

The newly proposed language says students who have successfully completed diversity courses will be able to:

  • Demonstrate understanding of theoretical and practical factors of race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic class, disability, sexuality, religion or age.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the intersectionality of these factors, with particular attention paid to race, ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class.
  • Demonstrate understanding of the diversity of intercultural and intracultural relationships.
  • Demonstrate civic literacy and an awareness of social justice that would enable effective participation in a diverse society.

Following that proposal, some faculty members put forth a proposal of their own: that at least one of the two required diversity courses be taken or at least cross-listed in one of the four ethnic studies departments – Asian/Asian-American studies, Chicano studies, Latin-American studies and Pan-African studies – specifically. That meant students couldn’t satisfy the diversity requirements in outside departments, such as history or sociology, alone. Currently, there are many courses in those and other departments that would qualify, as they focus on issues of race or ethnicity.

Advocates of that second proposal said it would help boost enrollments in ethnic studies, which traditionally don’t have high numbers of majors but serve an important role in the curriculum. And with enrollments tied to funding, they said, the issue could eventually be one of departmental survival. They also said it was important for professors trained in ethnic studies to be teaching ethnic studies – not just covering an ethnic studies issues in, say, English – given the discipline’s particular pedagogical and epistemological orientation.

“Teaching ethnic studies is grounded in the idea of lived experience, and the experiences of our students become entwined in their intellectual pursuits,” said Melina Abdullah, chair of Pan-African studies. “It’s a space for them to center themselves in their own experiences – and that particularly important for students of color.” Discussions about power structures also are central to ethnic studies, Baker-Cristales said.

But those opposed said the requirement could prevent ethnic studies departments from building their majors, as they focused on general education needs. And having to filter so many students through relatively small departments could impede them from graduating  on time – a big challenge to completion, especially at a campus such as Cal State Los Angeles, with so many first-generation and underrepresented minority students. And another learning outcome requirement that all general education courses focus on “diversity” where possible already ensured that it was covered across the curriculum, opponents said.

As the debate over the new requirement heated up on campus, and students took notice and began to attend Academic Senate meetings, the faculty become more and more divided on the issue -- even ethnic studies professors. Baker-Cristales and Abdullah openly supported the in-house teaching requirement, while the chairs of Chicano studies and Asian/Asian-American studies did not. A senate member described the the inter-ethnic studies departments' interactions as "very divisive."

Bianca Guzman, chair of Chicano studies, declined to comment on the matter. Ping Yao, Asian/Asian-American studies chair, said via email that she supported the final Academic Senate resolution, which passed earlier this week. Under that requirement, which senators said was proposed last week as a kind of compromise, students must take one course in ethnic or race studies but not necessarily in an ethnic studies department. Yao said she supported it because there already were numerous opportunities to educate students in her discipline through the current general education program.

Although it was proposed last week, senators didn't get to vote on the final resolution at that time. It was called off amid protests and calling out from protesters -- mostly students, but also some faculty and members of the off-campus community. Kevin Baaske, Academic Senate chair and professor of communications, described some of the protesters' behavior as "jeering and interrupting." It was "quite a mess," he added. Edward Klein, chair of the department of communication disorders and a faculty senator, said it was so inappropriate some senators considered voting against the measure on principle. A lecturer in Pan-African studies was particularly vocal, senators said. That lecturer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Jelani Hendrix, a recent graduate of Cal State Los Angeles who majored in Pan-African studies, who participated in the student protests, said he and other students were fighting for a voice in a debate in which they saw themselves as primary stakeholders. Hendrix also said he saw the question at Cal State Los Angeles as part of a broader “trend” toward eliminating ethnic studies, including at other Cal State campuses, such as Long Beach, where the Africana studies department faces closure, and at San Jose, where it's been proposed that the African American studies department merges with the departments of sociology and interdisciplinary sciences.

Abdullah said faculty members said they felt "intimidated," among other coded terms, but that the protesters were not offensive and had nothing for which to apologize. She noted that the Los Angeles City Council also voted this month in support of ethnic studies on campus. She said she's planning to continue to lobby to administrators and even legislators on the value of ethnic studies.

In an email, a  university spokeswoman said President William Covino, who has ultimate authority over academic policy, would approve the race and ethnicity requirement as passed by the Academic Senate, as it maintain's the university's "strong commitment" to ethnic studies.

Klein said he was still bothered by the “unfortunately personal” nature of the debate. In the end, he did vote for the ethnic studies general requirement, which passed 33 to 18. Despite the flawed tone, he said the debate brought to light long-simmering thoughts and feelings about race on campus. Cal State Los Angeles is no worse off than the rest of the country – and in fact could be better than most campuses – when it comes to race relations, he said. But the issues still demand attention.

Baaske, the chair of the Academic Senate, agreed, saying, "when we get into conversations about race and ethnicity it's uncomfortable ground sometimes for all participants. We're one of the first campuses in quite a while to have conversations about some of these issues and that's a good thing."

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