Last month the leaders of the California State University thought they sent a signal to Sacramento: Let the university system pick its own curriculum.

The governor and lawmakers clearly thought differently.

On Aug. 17,  Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill into law, simultaneously mandating that students take ethnic studies as a graduation requirement at the 23-campus system and overruling the university’s more modest graduation requirement for an ethnic studies and social justice requirement that it approved in July.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat and author of the bill, AB 1460, taught Africana Studies, an ethnic studies discipline, at San Diego State University for several decades. She and other backers called the CSU ethnic studies and social justice plan watered-down.

“We’ve been told that one should move the system, get in front of the system, push the system when the system is being unresponsive,” Weber said at an August rally in support of the bill, which was three years in the making. “And that’s what has happened here with the faculty and staff and students.”

The Legislature passed the bill on Aug. 3.

Ethnic studies courses typically examine the persecutions, contributions and power dynamics affecting four ethnic and racial groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina and Latino Americans. The four groups combined account for about two-thirds of California’s population.

Starting in the 2021–22 academic year, California State University has to provide for courses in ethnic studies at each of its campuses. The graduation requirement of one, 3-unit course begins for students completing their degrees in the 2024–25 academic year.

“This has been a priority bill for us,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, Chair of the California Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus and Democrat from San Francisco, during the August virtual rally in support of the bill.

The governor’s signature means the bill supersedes the graduation requirement approved by CSU leadership earlier this summer. But the run up to his decision was contentious.

A chief criticism of CSU’s ethnic studies and social justice requirement is that it doesn’t ensure that a student actually take an ethnic studies course. The CSU proposal, championed by Chancellor Timothy P. White’s office and approved by the Board of Trustees in July, would have given students a wider list of options, including courses related to Jewish issues, women’s rights and LGBTQ people, among others.

That paradox actually prompted the board’s top supporters of ethnic studies to seek a name change to the CSU policy to call it just “social justice” instead. The rest of the board disagreed and passed the proposal by White’s office. The board’s strongest backers of ethnic studies ultimately voted against the ethnic studies and social justice proposal.

“A student could meet the social justice requirement without ever having to take an ethnic studies course,” said trustee Silas Abrego during the July meeting and who voted against the proposal from White’s office. “So why do we keep referring to it as an ethnic studies requirement, when it isn’t true?”

The labor union of CSU faculty slammed the board’s decision. The CSU is “disrespecting the voices and stories of the experts” who study ethnic studies, said California Faculty Association President Charles Toombs at the August rally in support of AB 1460.

At the Board of Trustees meeting in July, Chancellor White defended his office’s proposal, saying “student choice matters here to me.” He also contended that disciplines such as ethnic studies, which was borne out of student protests at San Francisco State in the 1960s, evolve. Leaning on his own background in the life sciences, he said “the disciplines matured” from plain biology to biochemistry and genetic biology.

“Ethnic Studies has matured. It’s deep, it’s powerful, but it’s more than what it used to be,” White said.

The faculty union and other critics of the CSU plan charged that White’s office didn’t consult with the CSU Council of Ethnic Studies, made up of faculty experts in the field. A 2016 task force report on ethnic studies that White commissioned recommended that the CSU create an ethnic studies graduation requirement.

The Academic Senate of the CSU in January issued a resolution to require an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement. After system and campus feedback, the senate amended that resolution in March by welcoming other disciplines, such as in Jewish, Muslim, LGBTQ, women studies, as long as the requirement would “retain the core definition of ethnic studies.” The Senate, like the chancellor’s office, opposed Weber’s bill for its “legislative intrusion.”

One Democrat in the state Legislature agreed. Sen. Steve Glazer of Contra Costa County, who was once a CSU Board of Trustees member, argued against the bill in part because of the precedent it would set.

“How would you feel if the governor was named Trump. How would you feel if the United States Senate, of today, represented our state Senate tomorrow,” he said in June during Senate debate about the bill. “Do you want that leadership telling our academic community of what needs to be taught?” He ultimately abstained from voting on the bill in June when the Senate approved it.

Sen. Holly J. Mitchell, A Los Angeles Democrat who supported the bill, took a different tack.

“My hope is that these graduating students will come and be the future leaders, the future corporate leaders, business leaders,” allowing the state to “step away from having to have conversations and validating why diversity helps your business, why a diverse campus is healthy for the next generation of leaders.” is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.