In the 1960s, California college campuses were hotbeds of civil rights and free speech activity, where student protests resulted in the nation's first ethnic studies programs at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, among others.
Ethnic studies became a sought-after major and a safe setting in which to examine the influence of the state's diverse population of Latinos, African Americans, whites and Asians, among others.
In recent years, however, some of those programs have been cut back, particularly in the California State University system. Today, students — and faculty — are once again protesting: this time to save ethnic studies majors.
At such campuses as San Jose, Stanislaus, Bakersfield, Long Beach and elsewhere, professors aren't being replaced, classes are being reduced and majors could be eliminated or subsumed into other liberal arts programs. The moves have reignited old debates — and wounds —- about Cal State's commitment to social and cultural diversity.
Educators and others say that as campuses look to trim costs, ethnic studies programs are bearing the brunt and could be seen as irrelevant.
Administrators counter that many programs are not attracting enough students to fill classes.
The programs also face stiff competition as students of all ethnicities focus more on obtaining degrees with immediate job prospects.
"A discipline like ethnic studies lays itself wide open to the critiques of what the hell do you do with this, can you run a corporation or fly a plane with this?," said Ron Scapp, president of the National Assn. for Ethnic Studies, which is conducting a national survey on the status of such programs.
But Scapp and others said that debates over immigration, the election of the country's first black president and the aftermath of the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white man show the nation is still grappling with issues of race and cultural diversity. Ethnic studies programs, he said, offer a forum to tackle these topics.
The initial intent of the programs was to increase the numbers of students and professors of color and expand historical perspectives, including those of Native Americans, women, gays and lesbians.
But it was also divisive, with some critics arguing that the disciplines lacked academic rigor. In 2010, Arizona banned school districts from offering ethnic studies programs determined to be radical or fostering racial resentment.
A recent move to reduce the status of the Africana Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach led the state Assembly to adopt a resolution urging that it and other such programs be maintained. Cal State Chancellor Timothy White put the changes on hold until the campus finds a permanent replacement for former President F. King Alexander.
Proposed cuts on other campuses prompted a delegation of faculty from these programs to request a meeting with White; it is scheduled next week. The group wants a moratorium on proposed changes until a study by the chancellor's office that is underway reviews policies at all 23 Cal State campuses.
"We want to partner with the chancellor to look at the status of support for ethnic studies programs at campuses," said Kenneth Monteiro, the dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State. "As the CSU comes out of a very bad economic situation, how can we become better resourced and how can we become more incorporated as leaders helping to grow the university?"
At the Stanislaus campus in Turlock, professors Lilia DeKatzew and Kou Yang said they fear their program will eventually be eliminated after administrators failed to replace two colleagues and have moved to reduce courses and restructure the curriculum. Dissatisfied with the changes, the two announced in May that they would resign at the end of the year. They were told that a temporary, part-time instructor would replace all four positions, DeKatzew said.
"We have dedicated our lives and passion to ethnic studies," DeKatzew said. "But we've found the administration has not been supportive and appreciative of the importance of the program. They've taken the mentality of a corporate business, chipping away at the program little by little."
That worries such students as ethnic studies major Angelina Castellanos, who said that the electives she needs to fulfill her degree requirement may not be offered in the spring and she might have to delay graduation.
"We feel we are not going to have an ethnic studies program," said Castellanos, 26. "They may label it as ethnic studies but we know if faculty doesn't get replaced, we'll be pretty much out of the conversation."
Stanislaus spokesman David Tonelli said the college supports ethnic studies and intends to recruit new tenure-track faculty. But the program is attracting few majors and may need to be included in a broader liberal studies major, he said.
Officials at San Jose State are proposing to reduce African American studies from a department with its own administrative functions and fold it into the sociology and social sciences department. They argue that the program as it currently stands — with one full-time faculty member and about 12 student majors — can't sustain itself. The move would provide students with a wider variety of courses and they would still be able to major or minor in African American Studies, spokeswoman Pat Lopes Harris said.
But department chair Ruth Wilson said the low numbers reflect a lack of investment. She argued that her department and other ethnic studies programs are in a Catch-22: budget cuts that resulted in fewer faculty, courses and student enrollment are now being used to justify further cuts.
"There are students from all ethnic groups that take our courses but when you start chipping away at the status of a program that's already small, it raises a fear among students that the program will disappear," Wilson said.
Although many ethnic studies programs have fewer students majoring in them, students in other disciplines take the classes to fulfill general education requirements. Additionally, the programs provide mentors and role models for students who may be the first in their family to attend college, Wilson and others said.
Not all programs are struggling. Fullerton is planning to establish the nation's first bachelor's program in Vietnamese studies next fall to go along with African American, Asian American and Chicano studies, President Mildred Garcia said.
"The programs are evolving," Garcia said. "What wasn't available in the '60s, but is now, is a knowledge base and academic discipline that has tenure-track faculty engaged in research."
Jessica Um, a Cal State Long Beach accounting major, said the Asian American course she is taking and a previous African American studies class have given her a better grasp of her own history and helped to dispel stereotypes. The Asian American classes at Long Beach are scheduled to be cut next year, among other curriculum changes that faculty say will harm the program.
"Before, I would generalize people and have a perceived outlook," said Um, 20. "Now, I'm learning to think outside of the box."