The Academic Senate at Cal State Los Angeles on Tuesday approved a graduation requirement that students take at least one course focusing on race and ethnicity, after weeks of sometimes acrimonious debate that divided students and faculty.
Students would have to take two diversity courses, one of them on race and ethnicity, to complete general education requirements needed for graduation. The motion won on a vote of 33 to 18.
For supporters of an ethnic studies requirement the vote was only a partial victory; the 55-member senate previously had rejected a motion that one of the two diversity classes be specifically in an ethnic studies department -- Asian/Asian American studies, Chicano studies, Latin American studies and Pan African studies or in related courses in some other departments.
Opponents of that motion argued that issues of race and ethnicity should be integrated throughout the curriculum, allowing faculty, in say the sociology department, to teach a related course while giving students greater choices.
It had also created divisions within ethnic studies, with the Chicano studies and Asian studies departments opposing the original motion.
Bianca Guzman, chairwoman of Chicano studies, said her department had not taken a position on the alternate motion -- the one that was approved that required the one course on race and ethnicity.
"I don't have any thoughts on it," Guzman said after the vote. "I don't know how it's going to move forward as policy."
Melina Abdullah said she would have preferred that faculty support a specific role for ethnic studies departments but was pleased with the outcome.
"I'm grateful that the majority of the senate think that race and ethnicity is an important part of the curriculum," said Abdullah, chairwoman of the Pan African studies department.
Many students argued that ethnic studies faculty have a particular expertise in race and ethnicity and said they would continue to push for their role.
"It's not the motion we wanted, but it's a step forward," said Lawrence Gandara, 27, who is majoring in English and Chicano studies. "We're working with students across the state at other campuses to support ethnic studies."
A meeting of the senate last week was disrupted when several students began shouting and interrupting speakers and was adjourned before a vote was taken. Edward Klein, a professor of speech disorders, called that meeting a disgrace and said he had been prepared to vote against the alternate motion but changed his mind.
"Six years ago now a new president was elected and a lot of people hoped that he was going to spend a lot of time speaking about race and ethnicity," said Klein, referring to President Obama. "But aside from two eloquent speeches that has not happened. The question becomes when and where do we start the discussion. We have an opportunity of starting this discussion here and now."
Cal State L.A. President William Covino, who has ultimate authority over academic policy, attended the senate meeting and said he would approve the race and ethnicity requirement.
"It maintains Cal State L.A.'s strong commitment to ethnic studies," Covino said after the vote. "It allows for broad participation and is an important step forward."
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