With the debate settled on whether California college students must study ethnic studies, Gov. Gavin Newsom must decide soon what those courses will look like for students in the nation’s largest public university system.
One version, included in an Assembly bill approved by the state’s Legislature and supported by the majority of ethnic studies instructors in the California State University system, could cost about $16.5 million and would stick to the more traditional types of classes that have dominated the field.
The second version, offered by the chancellor’s office and CSU Board of Trustees, broadens the type of ethnic studies classes students would be required to take to graduate by including new “social justice” classes and cost significantly less.
Newsom will decide by Aug. 19 whether to approve or veto the legislation — Assembly Bill 1460. A final version of the bill passed the Assembly on Aug. 3. If vetoed, CSU could move forward with its 3-unit ethnic studies and social justice graduation requirement. Newsom hasn’t indicated which proposal he will support.
“The ethnic studies and social justice requirement would be inclusive of the four historical ethnic studies disciplines but also include the experiences of other historically oppressed groups,” said Alison Wrynn, associate vice-chancellor of academic programs for CSU, referring to Muslim, LGBTQ and Jewish people. “We could have a course on the economics of racism that would absolutely have a focus on the experiences of people of color.”
The social justice classes also could include a health course that focuses on disparities in urban communities and experiences of people of color in California, Wrynn said. A class like that would allow instructors to focus on the disparities in COVID-19 infections among Black and Latino communities, unlike the Legislature’s proposal, she said.
The CSU proposal is also, in comparison, cheaper to implement than the plan included in the Assembly bill, according to the university system. The system estimates its proposal would cost no more than $4 million, because it would require the hiring of fewer faculty than AB 1460. It would also give the 23 university campuses more time to implement for students entering in 2023-24. AB 1460 would go into effect for those entering in 2021-22.
“The pandemic is going to be incredibly disruptive … and to put AB 1460 on top of (our faculty) in the next six months is a daunting request in such budgetary times,” Wrynn said.
Robert Keith Collins, chair of CSU’s Academic Senate, which has opposed the AB 1460 legislation, said the CSU version would allow faculty to talk with each other about their professional backgrounds and teach subjects they’ve been trained in even if they’re not currently teaching them.
“At places like Howard and Temple universities, sometimes they’ll have faculty with a Ph.D. in political science or history, but they’re equally knowledgeable in Africana studies,” he said. “If they get a job as a political scientist, under AB 1460 it’s easy to overlook them.”
The $16.5 million cost estimate for AB 1460 is based on the number of faculty who would be needed to teach about 30 students per class, per campus in one of the four core ethnic studies disciplines: African American, Latino, Asian American and American Indian studies, across the system.
About one-third of CSU campuses have “robust” ethnic studies programs, including San Francisco State, Cal State L.A. and San Diego State. But another one-third have few ethnic studies classes. CSU Maritime Academy is the only campus in the system that doesn’t have any ethnic studies courses, Wrynn said.
Theresa Montaño, a Chicano and Chicana studies and Teacher Education instructor at Cal State Northridge, said she doesn’t agree that it would be a heavy lift for the system to hire and build ethnic studies courses across the state. Montaño, a member of the California Faculty Association, supports AB 1460 along with the CSU faculty union.
“Those of us who have strong ethnic studies department like at Northridge will be called upon to work with other CSUs to build their departments and their courses,” she said. “We can offer our courses online until some of the CSUs are able to develop their course work and departments.”
Montaño said supporting the legislation to focus on the four traditional ethnic studies courses is not about invalidating the importance of disciplines like Jewish, women’s or Muslim studies but recognizing those are religious or gender studies and don’t share the same background or history as racialized groups in America.
“I absolutely believe Jewish, Muslim and Armenian studies are valid academic disciplines, and if anyone tries to go after those departments, I would be the first to defend their right to exist,” she said. “But their history in this country and in the ethnic studies movement is not the same.”
A key difference from traditional ethnic studies course and the broader social justice courses is the point of view of the course, she said.
“Yes, we have intersectionality, like how within the Black community there are Black Jews,” Montano said. “But that intersectionality is dealt with in Black studies.” People of color are not the central focus group of Jewish or Muslim studies, she said.