Punitive Studies: The CSU’s implementation of Ethnic Studies

BY: Manshaan Singh, Contributing Writer

Let me begin this article by first stating clearly, that this is not the official opinion of the Associated Students,Incorporated here at Cal Poly Pomona, nor is it the official opinion of the Executive Board of ASI or any official group as far as I am aware. This is the opinion of myself, Manshaan Singh, but it is true that it is based upon information I have learned through my role as Vice President of the student government.

I am not opposed to the Ethnic Studies requirement. I don’t think the CPP Academic Senate is either, who just passed a resolution in opposition to the CSU Chancellor’s proposed process for implementing of AB 1460, nor the eleven other campus Senates who did so as well. AB 1460 is a new California law signed in August that makes taking an Ethnic Studies class a graduation requirement beginning with first-year students in the 2021-22 school year.

(Sharon Wu | The Poly Post)

Within faculty circles there has been controversy surrounding how it is being executed and I believe it would be worthy for students to be informed of the situation as well. It is increasingly apparent to me that the Chancellor’s Office seems to be going about implementing AB 1460 in such a way as to be as punitive as possible to those who helped get it passed.

First, we must go back and look at how AB 1460 became law. It was a bill championed and introduced by Shirley Weber, an Assemblymember of California who specializes in higher education matters, having taught in the CSU for 40  years. The history of the establishment of Ethnic Studies has a common theme of being led by grassroots movements, and the same was the case with getting an ethnic studies graduation requirement in the CSU.

In 2014, the CSU Task Force on the Advancement of Ethnic Studies was convened. The task force’s first recommendation in its conclusive 2016 report was to make Ethnic Studies a GE requirement. It cited ways this could be done without increasing units and cutting units from other areas, such as creating “courses that can simultaneously fulfill the general education requirements for diversity, social justice and global perspectives overlays in addition to their designation as either an arts and humanities of social science course.”

In a status report in response to the recommendations released by the Chancellor’s Office in the following year, it is stated that “While ethnic studies has not been made a GE requirement throughout the CSU system, the report’s recommendations are informing campus actions.” Fifteen campuses, including Pomona, had taken some action regarding the recommendation, with more adding to the list in the following status report in 2019.

Although progress was made, it shouldn’t have been a surprise when in February of 2019, three years after the initial report by the task force, AB 1460 was introduced into the California Assembly to make Ethnic Studies an official graduation requirement.

What followed was a wave of advocacy from its proponents, which included the California Faculty Association, Students for Quality Education and an assortment of prominent CSU Ethnic Studies faculty that actually featured some of the members of the task force that made the initial recommendation in 2016. Its opponents included the CSU Board of Trustees, the Chancellor’s Office and the CSU Academic Senate, who cited the dangerous precedent that legislative interference into higher education requirements would set. The CSU administration, not pleased with the idea of the California Assembly deciding graduation requirements, went to work creating their own proposal for an Ethnic Studies requirement.

The Chancellor Office’s proposal was introduced in the May 2020 CSU Board of Trustees meeting, while at the same time AB 1460 was making its way through the state Legislature. It was touted as “A Solution by the CSU, for the CSU”, in which a three-unit GE requirement for Ethnic Studies called Area F would be added to Title V (which is the section of California law that the Board of Trustees has control over), while three units would be taken away from Area D, commonly known as “Social Sciences.” But remember that the 2016 recommendation was to not cut units from other areas.

Feedback on the Chancellor Office’s proposal indicated that there was no consensus amongst campuses as to whether it should be a standalone or GE requirement. Most importantly, AB 1460 does not require it to be a GE requirement. The text of the bill, which is quite short, simply states that it must be an undergraduate graduation requirement that does not increase the units required to graduate. Shortly after the July Board of Trustees meeting in which the Chancellor Office’s proposal was approved, on Aug. 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1460 into law.

One may expect that now that a different Ethnic Studies requirement is being imposed upon the CSU, that the administration would quickly go back to the drawing board to figure out how to implement AB 1460 without cutting departments. Because make no mistake, as faculty in social science departments have indicated, cutting the units from Area D will result in department reductions. It is possible, as indicated by several senators in our Academic Senate, that under the current letter of AB 1460, a graduation requirement could have been crafted in line with what the initial report recommended, which was that courses can be created within areas such as social sciences that would qualify as ethnic studies and fulfill the original requirement as well.

While I understand that the bill does seem to necessitate the courses to be ready to go by next year, the CSU administration has demonstrated that they could have put such changes on the agenda in September, as evidenced by the fact changes to the same section of Title V were put onto the agenda at the September 2020 meeting.

Instead, the changes to Title V that were made while passing a now-defunct proposal for the ethnic studies requirement are being kept, changes that could jeopardize the jobs of people across the CSU. One has to wonder, that although faculty remain united, is this being done to pit them against each other in order to discourage future “overreaches?” Wouldn’t it have made sense to have had a backup plan for AB 1460 ready to go when the Legislature passed the bill in June? Why did the CSU’s plan include removing Area D units in the first place when it was not within the original report nor well-received by campuses?

The other point of contention is the speed at which AB 1460 is being administered. In a communication to campus presidents on Sept. 10, the Chancellor’s Office laid out a timeline for implementation that included very little consultation with the Academic Senate and the CSU Ethnic Studies Council. There has been no opportunity to even question whether letting Title V remain unchanged is the best way to go about this, in addition to the rapid speed at which the core competencies (goals of the classes) are being developed. Members of the Academic Senate have also indicated that they were not met with until late into October.

Moreover, it is the California Faculty Association and Ethnic Studies Council’s (two of the instrumental bodies in passing AB 1460) view that the law calls for a standalone graduation requirement instead of a GE requirement.

I have no conclusive proof that there has been a deliberate disregard for the opinions of the people who helped get AB 1460 passed in favor of a method that would lead to the unnecessary cutting of faculty positions. But what I can see and hear is questions from myself and others that have gone unanswered surrounding why the changes to Title V are being kept. It is also apparent that the CSU was very, very, very against AB 1460 for the precedent it set. I hope that at some point the legitimate concerns being raised by members of the CSU are answered without the smokescreens that have been raised thus far.

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