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The University of California system plans to institute a proposed admissions requirement in ethnic studies, but the process to draft and approve course criteria has dragged on for more than two years and been at the center of controversy about how Israel would be discussed in high school ethnic studies classes, if at all.
Some pro-Israel organizations have called on the system to quash plans for the requirement altogether, while ethnic studies professors have grown frustrated by the lag and worry the Israel-Hamas war will only further derail the requirement. Meanwhile, a state law mandating high school students take ethnic studies, which was the basis for the UC requirement, has been at the center of similar discussions.
At the heart of these debates are larger questions about the definition and scope of ethnic studies, which traditionally includes fields such as African American, Chicano or Latino, and Native American studies.
An October letter to UC system leaders, disseminated by the AMCHA Initiative, a campus antisemitism “watchdog” organization, demanded that the UC requirement be “immediately rejected.” The letter is signed by 115 pro-Israel alumni and student groups and other organizations and lambastes the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council for making a public statement that accused UC leaders of anti-Palestinian bias in their remarks condemning the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks.
“UC faculty who cannot acknowledge that the Hamas massacre is terrorism and a crime against humanity … must not be trusted to establish state-wide ethnic studies standards for California students,” read the letter.
The public statement by the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council said UC leaders sought to present Palestinians and Israel as equally powerful forces and “to equate the two and to hold the oppressed accountable for ‘terrorism’ reinscribes a colonial narrative that seeks to have the world believe that history began on October 7, 2023.”
Ethnic studies scholars argue their discipline has been mischaracterized and misunderstood.
Christine Hong, a professor of critical race and ethnic studies and literature at UC Santa Cruz, who served as co-chair of the ethnic studies implementation work group last year, said opponents of the requirement describe the field as “dividing the world into oppressors and victims.” But she believes “it centers the critical perspectives and the modes of knowledge of peoples and communities who have historically been excluded from the project of knowledge formation.
“We all have something to gain from a shared investment in justice, and justice for the broadest possible collective,” said Hong, who is also one of the founding members of the Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism, a national group of scholars. “We all have something to gain from a structural critique of racism and colonialism.”
A Messy Journey
The crafting of the UC admissions requirement has been a bureaucratic saga, and Israel has been a sore point since the beginning, said Sean Malloy, a professor of history and critical race and ethnic studies at UC Merced.
The Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS), the Academic Senate committee responsible for overseeing admissions requirements, voted in November 2021 to approve the course criteria for an ethnic studies requirement, drafted by a group of mostly ethnic studies faculty members assigned to the task. The criteria were then, per the usual process, sent to the systemwide Academic Council, which then sent it out to relevant campus-level committees for review. BOARS members ultimately voted in favor of a revised version of the criteria incorporating feedback from the campuses in June 2023, according to meeting minutes, though the committee asked for more information on how K-12 schools would meet the requirement.
A third vote was held in November 2023, but this time, the committee voted against approving the criteria and sending it to the Academic Council. Six BOARS members voted against, five voted to approve and one abstained, according to the meeting minutes.
“The whole process became very irregular at this point,” Malloy said. He believes it isn’t a coincidence that the criteria—already approved twice—were voted down just weeks after the Israel-Hamas war broke out.
It wouldn’t be the first time Israel came up in the process. Drafters of the criteria, Andrew Jolivette, chair of ethnic studies at UC San Diego, and Hong, released a letter in May 2022 asserting that BOARS members wanted a “watered-down” version of the requirement because they feared criticism from right-wing onlookers and “caved to spurious charges” that the criteria were antisemitic.
“This is a LIE,” the letter reads. “Nowhere in our course criteria do we mention Israel, Jewish people, or Judaism, much less any specific religion.”
A BOARS committee meeting held in December led to more confusion, according to a member who requested anonymity. The committee chair, Barbara Knowlton, suggested that they make ethnic studies a recommendation instead of a requirement, because it would be hard for high schools to implement.
Knowlton declined to comment about the meeting or the decision process. But some committee members reportedly argued that the concerns were unfounded and that they hadn’t come prepared to vote on such a change.
At a meeting on Friday, BOARS decided to pass the criteria along to the Academic Council for their consideration with an accompanying explanation of their deliberations and without the committee’s formal approval, the committee member said.
“I don’t know what the source of resistance is,” said the member, who believes the requirement enjoys widespread support and that the accusations of embedded antisemitism are largely “fringe.” But nationwide, there’s pushback to any curriculum that “reflects the different kinds of people that are in our society.”
There’s also speculation the Board of Regents could tank the requirement later in the process because of tensions over the antisemitism charges.
Hong said when she was appointed to the criteria drafting group in 2020, the process was expected to take a year. It’s now been about three years and the criteria have been revised five times.
She noted that the criteria were designed so that high school teachers can offer a variety of courses that satisfy the UC ethnic studies requirement, including English and history classes. The UC requirement is also intended to closely align with the state’s high school ethnic studies graduation requirement.
But professors involved received hate mail accusing them of antisemitism early in the process, including threats of violence, she said.
“I think of this moment of ethnic studies expansion as potentially a moment of progress,” she said. But simultaneously, it’s “a moment of enormous peril.”
Hong believes the Israel-Hamas war has led to “an assault on academic freedom” and exacerbated a chilling effect on discussing the region in the classroom.
A State-Level Controversy
The admissions requirement’s long path to implementation is intertwined with that of Assembly Bill 101, legislation signed by Governor Gavin Newsom in 2021 requiring public high school students to take an ethnic studies course to graduate by the 2029–30 academic year. The schools must start offering these courses by 2025–26.
Newsom vetoed a similar bill in 2020 and called the original model curriculum “insufficiently balanced and inclusive” in his veto message.
The curriculum was revised, and the present law includes guardrails that these courses must not “reflect or promote, directly or indirectly, any bias, bigotry, or discrimination against any person or group of persons on the basis” of any group protected in the California Education Code. The changes were applauded by the state’s Legislative Jewish Caucus, which raised concerns that the previous curriculum had anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bias.
The guardrails have recently been a point of contention.
Brooks Allen, education policy adviser to the governor and executive director of the California State Board of Education, sent a letter to K-12 school district leaders in August warning that some “vendors are offering [curriculum] materials that may not meet the requirements of AB 101” and reminding them about the guardrails.
Kenneth P. Monteiro, professor emeritus and former dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, noted that these guardrails haven’t been included in other state-level curricula.
“It’s like having all the kids go out to recess and only picking out the Black and brown ones to tell them, ‘And make sure you behave,’” he said.
The UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council said in a September letter to Newsom and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond that the guardrails have been “weaponized by pro-Israel groups to enact anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian censorship.”
Malloy said he’s concerned about the lack of clarity in the guardrails.
“Nowhere, anywhere could I find a list or even a set of guidelines as to what exactly they’re not supposed to teach” in these high school courses, he said.
He believes the vagueness of the guardrails allows state lawmakers to functionally but not explicitly ban high school teachers from discussing Palestinian perspectives. He said teachers don’t necessarily know what parts of the old curriculum were discarded to create the new one, and he suspects teachers will avoid talking about Israel altogether to avoid running into trouble.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder and director of the AMCHA Initiative, also dislikes the guardrails, but for entirely different reasons. She called them “so weak as to be meaningless.” However, she believes an ethnic studies requirement at the UC system would be worse. She suspects all California high schools, public and private, would require ethnic studies if students needed it to get into the UCs, and it would inevitably be tainted by anti-Zionist animus.
“Even if it doesn’t come out overtly, even if it’s just a foundational principle, that foundational principle is indicative of a kind of rot at the core of the discipline,” she said.
Defining Ethnic Studies
While critics of the requirement believe anti-Zionism is core to ethnic studies, that’s up for debate among scholars.
Hollis Robbins, dean of humanities at the University of Utah, said there are bigger questions and disagreements about what ethnic studies is.
Robbins, who previously oversaw ethnic studies departments as dean of arts and humanities at Sonoma State University, highlighted a 2020 state law that mandated ethnic studies for undergrads in the California State University system, defined as the “interdisciplinary and comparative study of race” with a special focus on Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latina and Latino Americans.
She noted that the UC Ethnic Studies Faculty Council defined ethnic studies differently in its letter to Newsom and Thurmond about the guardrails. They described it as a field that “analyzes, confronts, and intellectually dismantles historical and institutionalized forms of racism, apartheid, settler colonialism, and empire in and beyond the United States.”
Robbins said the second definition has grown increasingly popular, and those differences within the field affect how Israel is discussed on campuses.
She also noted that Jewish studies or the study of the Holocaust generally doesn't fall under ethnic studies, partly because the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics categorizes Jewish studies under philosophy and religious studies.
Malloy also emphasized that there’s diversity within the discipline.
“In any academic discipline, faculty argue amongst themselves,” he said. “For me, Palestine is crucial to ethnic studies, but that is not true of some of my colleagues.”
Monteiro, the San Francisco State emeritus professor, said he understands that anti-Zionism can be used as a “surrogate” for antisemitic messaging, but he believes it’s important to parse the difference between ethnic studies scholars critiquing Israel’s policies and targeting Jewish people for their ethnic or religious identities.
“Ethnic studies is based on criticizing power structures, and all nation-states are power structures,” he said.