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Overruling Cal State trustees, Newsom approves new ethnic studies requirement

A banner in support of ethnic studies at Cal State L.A. in 2014.
A banner in support of ethnic studies at Cal State L.A. in 2014.
(Rick Loomis / Los Angeles Times)

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill late Monday requiring all 430,000 California State University undergraduates to take ethnic studies, a notable rebuke to the university’s governing board, which had passed its own, much broader requirement last month.

The decision comes amid a growing push for ethnic studies in public education following Black Lives Matter protests and calls to dismantle systemic and unconscious racism, starting in schools.

The bill signed by Newsom, AB 1460, requires all CSU undergraduates to take at least one three-unit course in ethnic studies, defined as having a focus on African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/a Americans and Native Americans.

Authored by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus and a longtime professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State University, the legislation will go into effect beginning with students graduating in the 2024-25 academic year.

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“We’re elated,” Weber said. “It’s been quite a journey, and we take a sigh of relief that that journey has ended.”

The California Faculty Assn., a sponsor of the bill, said that California will be the first state in the nation to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in a four-year public university system.

“Governor Newsom, by signing AB 1460, has demonstrated his understanding of the power of a true Ethnic Studies graduation requirement to change people’s lives and to change the racial trajectory this state and country are on,” president Charles Toombs said in a statement Tuesday.

The bill supersedes a related mandate passed by the Cal State’s board of trustees. That mandate, favored by the chancellor’s office, called for a three-unit course on ethnic studies and social justice, defined broadly to include Jewish, LGBTQ and disability studies. Students could have satisfied it by taking a class focused only on social justice or social movements — a point of concern for ethnic studies purists.

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Newsom was sure to generate criticism no matter his decision. Cal State Chancellor Timothy White, members of the university’s board of trustees and the university’s systemwide academic senate had opposed Weber’s bill, expressing concerns about legislative interference into matters of curriculum. White’s office had estimated the cost of the legislative requirement to be about $16.5 million each year, compared to $3 million to $4 million for its version of the proposal.

Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for the chancellor’s office, said, “The university will begin work to implement the requirements of the new legislation.”

The legislation was opposed by some Jewish groups, who said they feared it would foster “anti-Zionist advocacy and activism” at the CSU, though they did not provide specific examples.

But ethnic studies students, faculty and allies said the time is past due for the CSU, the birthplace of ethnic studies, and where Latino, Black and Asian American students are the majority, to create a dedicated requirement. They said California law similarly requires students to take a course in American institutions and ideals. And they criticized the chancellor’s office for developing an overly broad proposal without consulting experts.

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“We saw it as an effort to dilute and to not deal with the real issue of, is ethnic studies required at the CSU,” Weber said. “It was also a proposal that came from those who are not even scholars in the field.”

Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State L.A. and a leader of Black Lives Matter, said at a news conference this month that Black studies “literally saved my life” as a young person growing up in East Oakland.

She said Weber’s bill was one of just three bills Black Lives Matter California has supported. She had called on the governor to sign it in order to create an “authentic ethnic studies” requirement at the CSU.

“We are in a Black lives matter movement moment, and the intentionality behind that moment is saying let’s dismantle white supremacy,” Abdullah said. “The notion that someone with no background in ethnic studies could seek to redefine it and make it so broad that it’s meaningless.... It’s the equivalent of saying, ‘All lives matter.’ Either you believe Black lives matter, or you don’t.”

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A separate bill, expected to be taken up by the legislature this month, would make ethnic studies a requirement at all public high schools. State officials last month released a new draft of a “model curriculum” for the course, nearly a year after the first draft was shelved over controversy over which groups were included and excluded. The latest draft reestablished a focus on African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/a Americans and Native Americans.

At Los Angeles community colleges, where the vast majority of students are also Latino, Black and Asian American, faculty have recently called on the chancellor’s office to create a special task force on ethnic studies.


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