Who Will Teach Ethnic Studies?

California State University will require students to take ethnic studies, but the faculty and system remain divided over how to put the new requirement into place.

November 24, 2020
(Getty Images/Lyubov Ivanova)

Months after California State University’s new ethnic studies requirement was signed into law, the debate over it lingers. Instead of whether students should be required to take a class in ethnic studies, the system and the faculty now disagree over how the requirement will be adopted.

Ethnic studies advocates on the CSU faculty want students to complete the single-course requirement with trained ethnic studies professors, who generally teach within the system -- not at the community colleges from which more than one-third of Cal State undergraduates transfer. And because the curriculum is a primary domain of the faculty, system professors want leeway from campus to campus on how the requirement works.

The Cal State system, meanwhile, wants to make the new ethnic studies course a uniform, lower-division requirement that is part of the general education program. This means that transfer students will have to take ethnic studies before coming to the CSU. It also means community colleges will have to ramp up their ethnic studies instruction -- and probably their hiring -- to accommodate students who wish to transfer. And so the CSU ethnic studies faculty members who advocated for the new law, known as AB 1460, likely won’t ever engage with many transfer students.

This, they say, circumvents the spirit of the law, which was passed to help students across the system better understand the society in which they live.

From AB 1460: “It is the intent of the Legislature that students of the California State University acquire the knowledge and skills that will help them comprehend the diversity and social justice history of the United States and of the society in which they live to enable them to contribute to that society as responsible and constructive citizens.”

The law defines ethnic studies as Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies or Latinx studies. CSU campuses will have to have course offerings starting next year, so that all students graduating in 2024-25 can take at least one course.

Cal State faculty groups were hoping that the system’s Board of Trustees might listen to their concerns at a meeting last week. The systemwide faculty Council on Ethnic Studies’ views on the matter are well-known, and the system’s Academic Senate passed a resolution earlier this month advocating campus autonomy with respect to AB 1460’s adoption, including that it may be adopted as either a lower- or upper-division requirement.

The board was responsive to one long-standing faculty concern: that the required course be specific to ethnic studies, and not ethnic studies or social justice generally, as the board approved in an earlier policy iteration this summer.

On the lower-division, campus autonomy issue, however, the board accepted CSU’s position, said Melina Abdullah, a professor of pan-African studies at the system’s Los Angeles campus and a member of the Council on Ethnic Studies.

“This is an effort by the [system] chancellor’s office to push it down, and really, push it off, onto community colleges,” Abdullah said of the requirement. “They were the most vigorous and really the only opponent to AB 1460 in the first place, so it makes sense that they’d want to pass the weakest implementation plan possible.”

The CSU system has argued that a systemwide requirement needs a systemwide adoption framework.

“The biggest reason,” said Michael Uhlenkamp, a spokesperson for the chancellor’s office, “is to eliminate the possibility for any potential confusion for students and maintain consistency across the campuses. All incoming students would have a firm understanding of which courses to take, regardless of whether they are a first-year student at CSU Channel Islands or a transfer student to Sonoma State.”

Abdullah and others disagree that a campus-to-campus adoption plan would cause mass confusion, however, and argue that the system would never deign to tell professors in other fields how and when students should meet their requirements.

“Nobody would dispute that math faculty are best positioned to determine what math classes students should take, or biology faculty, or philosophy faculty,” she said. “And ethnic studies is the only discipline in which the vast majority of the faculty are people of color.”

Hollis Robbins, dean of arts and humanities at Sonoma State, said that "faculty trained in ethnic studies fields should be the key voices in implementing the requirement at the campus level." Sonoma State has long had a "robust" ethnic studies requirement of its own, fulfilled largely by courses in American multicultural studies, Chicano and Latino studies, and Native American studies, "and our faculty in these departments will play a critical role in the implementation process" for the new law.

Robbins added, "We have courses that may fulfill the requirement across the university, but ethnic studies faculty will be key to approving those classes."

Kenneth P. Monteiro, acting director of the César E. Chávez Institute at San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies and chair of the system’s Council on Ethnic Studies, said via email that the chancellor’s office “forced” on the system “the most administratively complex, expensive, intellectually unsound” requirement model. He also said that by making ethnic studies part of the general education curriculum instead of a free-standing requirement, pre-existing social science general education requirements -- including those that focus on diversity -- are likely to be weakened. This pits diversity “allies” against each other in a totally unnecessary way, he added.

“We are profoundly disappointed, because he began his tenure with great promise but leaves while placing a thorn in our side,” Monteiro said of CSU chancellor Tim White.

California Community Colleges had no comment on trustees’ vote, but an administrator previously told EdSource that the change would cost some $45 million, mostly for hiring new professors to teach ethnic studies.

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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