Fil-Am professors voice concerns over new Cal State University ethnic or social justice studies requirement

Starting in the 2023-24 school year, Cal State University students will be required to take an ethnic studies or social justice class in order to graduate. | Photo courtesy of CSUN

Undergraduate students of the California State University system — the largest public university system in the United States — will be required to take an ethnic studies or social justice class in order to graduate.

The new “Ethnic Studies and Social Justice” requirement comes as the university’s Board of Trustees voted on Wednesday, July 22, to approve an amendment to Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations that modified its General Education (GE) requirements to include a course for students to “understand ethnic studies and social justice.”

“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 perspective 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 announcing the change. “It will empower our students to meet this moment in our nation’s history, given them the knowledge, broad perspective and skills needed to solve society’s most pressing problems. And it will further strengthen the value of a CSU degree.”

The course requirement will go into effect during the 2023-24 school year.

The CSU system, in its history, has taken pride in the fact that it became the first university in the U.S. to establish a College of Ethnic Studies when San Francisco State University created it in 1969. The new requirement marks the first major change to the university system’s GE requirements in 40 years.

The change, however, has been met with criticism, with some professors and activists saying the amendment’s progressiveness missed the mark on addressing the importance of ethnic studies by failing to tightly define what the courses should entail.

One critique has focused on the fact that students would be able to fulfill the three-unit, lower division requirement without even taking an ethnic studies course.

“For many of us, the CSU Ethnic Studies and Social Justice requirement is disingenuous to its name,” Tracy Lachica Buenavista, a Fil-Am professor at California State University Northridge’s (CSUN) Department of Asian American Studies who has been involved in advocating for an ethnic studies requirement, told the Asian Journal.

CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White said on Wednesday that this was because ethnic studies “has matured” and become “more than what it used to be.”

However, the California Faculty Association (CFA), one of the requirements opponents, said that it was “disappointed” in the Board of Trustees’ decision to move forward with a “diluted Ethnic Studies and Social Justice course requirement.”

Another large concern has been over the Board of Trustees’ supposed failure to consult with ethnic studies advocates like the CSU Council of Ethnic Studies, which also opposed the amendment.

For many opponents, the process of creating the requirement was a low blow to ethnic studies educators and academics who had worked hard to develop courses and curriculum.

“I think the execution of how they proceed was not ideal,” Melanie Sabado-Liwag, a Fil-Am public health professor at Cal State LA’s Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services, told the Asian Journal.

As a faculty member who also does curriculum for the college, she said she too would have felt offended if the system decided to require a public health course but did not consult with anyone from the public health department.

“They could have gotten all of that information if they spoke to the ethnic studies colleges or departments of these universities to get a feel as to what they suggest,” added Sabado-Liwag, saying that it was unfortunate that the new requirement did not include any preliminary context as to what its goals or criteria would be.

Many have pointed out that because many of ethnic studies faculty are people of color, the exclusion of their voices and input was as the CFA put it, “a real example of how systemic racism works in the CSU.”

Buenavista said it was worth noting that the Board of Trustees members who voted against the new requirement were trustees of color and the one student trustee.

“So one should question an Ethnic Studies and Social Justice requirement that is largely favored by white decision-makers but largely opposed by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) constituents,” said Buenavista.

An alternative to the new requirement favored by the new requirements opponents has been AB 1460, which was sponsored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), and set out a more narrow requirement by having students take a three-unit ethnic studies course focused on four historically defined racialized groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latino Americans.

Those against AB 1460 say that the Board of Trustees’ requirement allows for more voices of other marginalized and oppressed groups — like the Jewish, Muslim, or the LGBTQ communities — to be heard.

As a response to the criticism, Buenavista said that women and gender nonconforming and queer people of color have made their home in ethnic studies due to racism in other fields.

She added, “For the CSU Chancellor’s Office and Board of Trustees to imply that Ethnic Studies is exclusionary because we might not focus on white ethnic minorities or people minoritized in ways other than race is just another way of promoting color, evasiveness, and denying the reality that racism is alive and well in our society.”

“I think in this moment of Black Lives Matter, Filipinos, Asian Americans, and other people of color have to put our money where our mouths are and support AB 1460. The future of a more racially just an inclusive California is dependent on the passage of AB 1460,” said Buenavista.

The bill passed in both the Assembly and Senate, and was expected to arrive on California Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk this week.

There was no update as to whether Newsom signed it as of press time.

If the new requirements do not get superseded by AB 1460, Sabado-Liwag said she hopes they get clearer on how the requirement would be implemented.

As a professor of public health, she sees how important such courses can be for students whose majors are not as interdisciplinary as others.

“At a public health perspective, we try to educate our students to think about it from a life course perspective as well,” said Liwag-Sabado. “It brings value, but I think that whoever’s teaching the course needs to show, explain, and drive the importance of how this impacts the person.” (Rae Ann Varona/AJPress)

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Dr. Melanie Sabado-Liwag’s last name. 

  1. Smacks of pure, naked, white privilege! How can the Trustees could think of legislating such a requirement without consulting one of the major stakeholders, i.e., the ethnic studies folks? The White Father knows best, I suppose.

  2. I said from the beginning progressive anti-Americanism was just another form of white supremacy. Democrats never change.

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