The largest public university system in the country — California State University — is requiring all students to take an ethnic studies or social justice course in order to graduate, a move that will go into effect at the beginning of the 2023-2024 academic school year.
"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," CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said in a press release. "It will empower our students to meet this moment in our nation's history, giving them the knowledge, broad perspectives and skills needed to solve society's most pressing problems. And it will further strengthen the value of a CSU degree."
This is the first major change to CSU's general education requirements in four decades, and it came with its own share of controversy, primarily due to how broad the requirement is.
"You have the leadership of the Cal State system that pushed for an ethnic studies and social justice requirement. You then have ethnic studies scholars, the faculty union of the CSU and lawmakers who disagree with what the CSU proposed," Mikhail Zinshteyn, a reporter with CalMatters who's been covering the issue, tells NPR's Ailsa Chang. "They want a pure ethnic studies requirement, which would encompass studies in the historic oppression, contributions, and lived histories of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latina and Latino Americans."
The California Faculty Association said in a statement that it was "disappointed" in the decision to "move forward with a diluted Ethnic Studies and Social Justice course requirement." Zinshteyn says their "chief criticism" is that this move does not directly ensure "that a student takes an ethnic studies class to fulfill the ethnic studies requirement."
There's competing legislation that should reach California Gov. Gavin Newsom's desk next week that would require students at CSU — the birthplace of ethnic studies in U.S. higher education — specifically take an ethnic studies class in order to graduate. CSU system administrators say that would be tantamount to legislative interference.
Zinshteyn adds that ethnic studies courses have helped some students "overcome early pressure to assimilate at the expense of their heritage."
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For the first time in decades, the largest public university system in the country has approved a new course requirement for all of its undergrads. Beginning in 2023, students attending a California State University will have to take an ethnic studies or social justice course in order to graduate. But this decision did not come down lightly last week. Some longtime social activists and ethnic studies scholars on the CSU's board of trustees voted against the chancellor's proposal. Mikhail Zinshteyn has been covering this for CalMatters. He joins us now.
MIKHAIL ZINSHTEYN: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
CHANG: So, I mean, you would think that this requirement is a win for both ethnic studies and social justice advocates. Why did some trustees who are social justice advocates vote against Chancellor Timothy White's proposal?
ZINSHTEYN: There are several collective players in this uniquely California debate, and I say that because California and the CSU specifically is the birthplace of ethnic studies in higher education in the U.S. And so you have the leadership of the Cal State University system that pushed for an ethnic studies and social justice requirement. You then have ethnic studies scholars, the faculty union and lawmakers. They want a pure ethnic studies requirement, which would encompass studies in the historic oppression, contributions and lived histories of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latina and Latino Americans.
Their chief criticism of what the CSU board of trustees passed last week is that it doesn't actually ensure that a student takes an ethnic studies class to fulfill the ethnic studies requirement. One thing that is an interesting wrinkle here is that there's a competing piece of legislation that should reach the governor's desk next week. And that would require the CSU to have its students graduate by taking a pure ethnic studies, so focusing on those four disciplines that I described. The CSU says that's legislative interference. Interestingly, the writer of AB 1460, Shirley Weber, is a longtime CSU professor. She is a venerated scholar in her own right on ethnic studies.
CHANG: Well, can you give us more context on why ethnic studies is so significant? I mean, there's all this debate over it, but ultimately, it's going to be only three units out of the total 120 units that undergrads need in order to graduate. So what is so important about having an ethnic studies component?
ZINSHTEYN: The reason ethnic studies came to the fore in the late '60s is because there was this widespread student anger that the higher education curriculum was Eurocentric. It largely disregarded the histories and achievements and persecutions of the four identity groups that we're talking about.
CHANG: Now, I know that you and your colleague Omar Rashad have been talking to students about these proposals. How are students feeling about this new requirement?
ZINSHTEYN: So for students who took ethnic studies, the course helped them overcome early pressure to assimilate at the expense of their heritage. My colleague Omar Rashad spoke to one student who learned through a course on African studies about the contributions and accomplishments of early African civilizations, which drew that student to the major. And he also did a great job speaking to Raven Freebird. She's a recent graduate of CSU Northridge, and she explained how in her sophomore year, she did not feel motivated. She described herself as having not really a purpose. And she stumbled upon this American Indian studies class.
RAVEN FREEBIRD: The ethnic studies class showed me why it's important for someone like me to go to college. And, like, now I want to get my Ph.D.
ZINSHTEYN: She ended up declaring an American studies minor and was eager to learn more about her identity.
CHANG: Mikhail Zinshteyn is a higher education reporter for CalMatters.
Thank you very much.
ZINSHTEYN: Thank you so much for having me, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.