The California State University system’s office of the chancellor in Long Beach. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Following a lengthy philosophical discussion on the intent of ethnic studies courses and the university’s autonomy, a California State University Board of Trustees committee Tuesday backed a requirement for all students to take an ethnic studies or social justice class.

The proposal, which will move to the full board on Wednesday, was met with opposition from some committee members who said the inclusion of a “social justice” course option would still allow students to graduate without ever taking a traditional “ethnic studies” class on the history of the Latino, Black, Asian-American or Native-American communities.

Committee members Silas Abrego and Maryana Khames called for a delay in the vote, saying the policy proposal needed more work and suggesting the broadening of the measure to include social-justice courses effectively negated it as a true ethnic studies requirement. The “social justice” provision would expand the types of courses students could take to meet the requirement, including classes focused on the Jewish community, the disabled, aging populations, the LGBT community and women/gender studies.

Although the idea of a delay appeared to generate some initial support, it quickly evaporated for two reasons — a desire for the full Board of Trustees to weigh in on the measure, and the state Legislature’s anticipated approval next week of a bill that would mandate the CSU require a traditional “ethnic studies” course focused on a community of color, without a “social justice” option.

If the legislation, Assembly Bill 1460, is given final legislative approval, it will move to the governor’s desk. If the governor signs it, it will override whatever action the CSU Board of Trustees takes.

University officials and some committee members decried the legislative proposal for being what they called an unprecedented and “extraordinarily dangerous” intrusion by the state into the governance of the CSU, and a usurping of the Board of Trustees’ authority to determine curriculum.

The committee opted to advance the discussion to the full board, with only Abrego and Khames objecting.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White said it is critical for the board to vote on the university’s proposal so Gov. Gavin Newsom will have a clear statement from the trustees when he decides whether to sign AB 1460.

“I think this issue of the government specifying a specific curricular area is extraordinarily dangerous and has never … happened before in higher education,” White said. “… By delaying, we de-facto give no choice to our progressive governor when that bill lands on his desk.”

White added, “At the end of the day, the Board of Trustees must lead. Must lead. Not react, but lead.”

White and other board members also dismissed criticism that the university’s policy is watered-down because of the social justice option. White said expanding the course options gives students a wider array of choices.

“When we constrain ourselves to a limited number of areas, we exclude those who also need attention,” he said.

Committee member Rebecca Eisen also disputed the characterization that the policy somehow dilutes ethnic studies.

“To me it is ethnic-studies-plus, not ethnic-studies-minus,” she said.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, who authored AB 1460, told the committee the CSU proposal “does not really address the need” for ethnic studies. She also disputed claims that the legislative action will “interfere with the institution.”

“It recognizes the fact that ethnic studies is an important part of California history,” Weber told the panel.

Weber said the legislation is the result of years of inaction on the issue by the CSU.

The California Faculty Association is also opposed to the CSU measure. CFA President Charles Toombs said earlier the university’s proposal undermines the entire intent of the ethnic studies movement, which is to recognize the “customs, history and traditions” of communities of racial and ethnic groups in California.

“AB 1460 acknowledges the historical failure of the CSU system to institutionalize inclusive curriculum, the sociopolitical urgency of the moment elevated by the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-Black racism, and the long- term social benefit of an ethnic studies course requirement,” Toombs said in a statement. “AB 1460 was student-, Ethnic-Studies-faculty- and community- driven, and its passage would be akin to civil rights efforts of the past.”

Executive Vice Chancellor Loren Blanchard insisted, however, that the CSU plan “doesn’t in any way undermine ethnic studies.”

“For a generation that is demanding change, this is our opportunity now to act and to ensure that CSU’s graduates have the knowledge and actionable tools to recognize, question and ultimately dismantle racial and social injustices,” he said.

In a report to the board, Blanchard and Associate Vice Chancellor Alison Wrynn contended that the CSU proposal is more inclusive that the proposed state legislation and more relatable for the university’s diverse student body. They said the legislative proposal excludes courses on ethnic groups such as Jewish or Middle Eastern studies, gender and women’s studies, sexuality studies, disability and aging studies.

— City News Service

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