California State University students required to take ethnic studies or social justice class under new policy

Credit: Larry Gordon / EdSourceStudents are shown on the Cal State Northridge campus. Students at Northridge and across the system could soon be required to take an ethnic studies class. Credit: Larry Gordon / EdSourceStudents are shown on the Cal State Northridge campus. Students at Northridge and across the system could soon be required to take an ethnic studies class. Students at California State University for the first time will be required to take a course in ethnic studies or a class with a social justice component under a policy approved Wednesday by the system’s Board of Trustees. 
The trustees voted 13-5 to approve the new general education requirement for students who enter the 23-campus system beginning in 2023-24. Students will be required to either take a class in one of four ethnic studies disciplines — Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies or Latina and Latino studies —  or a class in another discipline as long as the course has a social justice component. It will be up to each of the campuses to determine which courses meet the requirement. 
The new requirement is opposed by several lawmakers and the California Faculty Association, who instead favor AB 1460, legislation that would impose a stricter ethnic studies requirement. Under that law, students beginning with those entering the system in 2021-22 would be required to take a class in one of the four ethnic studies disciplines and couldn’t satisfy the requirement with a course outside of those disciplines. 
AB 1460 was approved last month by the state Senate. The Assembly must now approve minor amendments before it is sent to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom. The Assembly can take up the bill after it reconvenes next week and the legislation could be on Newsom’s desk within weeks.
If it is signed into law by Newsom, it would supersede Cal State’s own requirement, according to the California Faculty Association, the union representing faculty across the system. Several lawmakers and the faculty association say AB 1460 is a better proposal because it specifically requires students to take a class in ethnic studies, while the policy approved by the trustees does not do so. 
CSU’s proposal passed despite a request from the five dissenting trustees to postpone the vote. Among those who supported delaying the vote was Tony Thurmond, the state superintendent of public instruction. Other trustees argued that their proposal was adequate and said that setting course requirements is the domain of CSU and its trustees and not the state Legislature. 
Lillian Kimbell, the chair of the board, argued that postponing the vote would have been the equivalent to “killing the item” because the Legislature would be able to send AB 1460 to Newsom’s desk before the next Board of Trustees meeting in September, meaning that the governor would have to make a decision before the trustees could weigh in.
Chancellor Tim White and several trustees said their own proposal is sufficient and argued that ethnic studies is at the proposal’s core, even though it doesn’t specifically require students to take a class in ethnic studies. The requirement could be satisfied by a range of courses, including disciplines that explore other historically oppressed groups, such as LGBTQ or Jewish studies.
“The proposal champions the study of racial and ethnic groups and gives students a chance to connect with other marginalized groups,” White told the trustees.
The idea of requiring students to study the contributions and histories of nonwhite ethnic and racial groups is longstanding in California. The current push, though, is happening following nationwide anti-racism protests that were ignited by the police killing of George Floyd.
“Advocates for making a course in ethnic studies a requirement for graduation have waited long enough for the CSU to act,” a group of 20 lawmakers said in a letter to Chancellor White. “The changes proposed by the Chancellor’s office will significantly water down the intent of AB 1460 and will result in something akin to a ‘diversity’ requirement, which was not developed in collaboration with the CSU Council on Ethnic Studies.”
The five trustees who voted against CSU’s proposal were Silas Abrego, Hugo Morales, Lateefah Simon, student trustee Maryana Khames and Thurmond, who is an ex-officio member in his role as state superintendent of public instruction. 
“As I understand it, ethnic studies really is the movement where we should hold the fidelity to four groups, in particular African Americans, Chicanos and Latinos, Indigenous people and Asian Pacific Islanders,” Thurmond said during Tuesday’s meeting. “While there are very important conversations to have for others who may fall outside those groups, it has been impressed on me that that’s the basis of ethnic studies.”
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