California State University Trustees OK Ethnic Studies Mandate for Undergrads

California State University, Chico.

(CN) — In the largest shakeup of its academic system in decades, the California State University Board of Trustees voted Wednesday to require all undergraduates to take an ethnic-studies or social-justice course to graduate.

But the move was opposed by advocates of robust ethnic-studies programs who say the mandate dilutes their goals.

The requirement, affecting some 430,000 undergraduates taking courses across CSU’s 23-campus system, will take effect beginning in 2023.

A majority of the 25-member board voted to approve an amendment — proposed by the office of the CSU chancellor — to Title 5 of the California code of regulations that will update general education requirements for undergraduates. The move came after the board’s Committee on Educational Policy approved the proposal on Tuesday.

CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said in a statement after the vote the requirement will better equip graduates to address the complexities of the world’s problems in a comprehensive way.

“This action, by the CSU and for the CSU, lifts ethnic studies to a place of prominence in our curriculum, connects it with the voices and perspectives of other historically oppressed groups, and advances the field by applying the lens of social justice.” White said. 

Five trustees on the full board — including two longtime social-justice activists and State Superintendent Tony Thurmond, who is Black — voted against the measure, saying it defines ethnic studies too broadly and includes little input from faculty. 

Trustees, including Silas Abrego, criticized the measure for leaving room for students meet the credit requirement with social-justice courses, meaning they may never take an ethnic-studies course.

Theresa Montaño, professor of Chicano studies at California State University, Northridge, took to Twitter after the vote to criticize the board’s action.

“Let’s be clear, what does CSU BOT just passed an ‘ethnic studies’ requirement that does nothing to ensure that students take ethnic studies,” Montaño tweeted. “White supremacy reigns supreme in the BOT!”

Critics of the board’s measure also say it dilutes the concentration of ethnic-studies courses as defined in a bill by California Assemblymember Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat.

The bill, Assembly Bill 1460, would create a three-credit course requirement for graduation that could be taken in Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies, or Latino/Latina studies.

The bill, requiring only Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature to take effect, would supersede the board’s action Wednesday.

The California Faculty Association, the union representing CSU faculty, said in a statement it was disappointed by Wednesday’s vote.

 “How the board can look at anyone with a straight face and say that an ethnic studies requirement can be fulfilled without ever having to take a course in ethnic studies is beyond believable,” the union said.

The board failed to consult with CSU ethnic-studies faculty, the majority of whom are people of color, according to the union.

“In this moment of nation and state’s needs to address systemic racism, anti-black racism, and white supremacy culture, the Board of Trustees failed to act and failed to lead,” the union said.

The faculty union is a main sponsor of AB 1460.

Students and faculty across the California State University system have long struggled for a robust ethnic-studies program.

At the CSU Los Angeles campus, the ethnic studies struggle is also part of a larger demand that administrators adopt an antiracist framework for university policies and services, including by defunding campus police and offering free tuition to Black and indigenous students.

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