By Eric Gelber
Today’s California Capitol Watch looks at AB 1460 (Weber) (ethnic studies requirement for California State University (CSU) students), which was effective on January 1st.
What issue/problem does the new law address?
According to the author of AB 1460:
Ethnic studies for all students would advance a more inclusive society that values the diversity we represent in several ways. One, it maximizes the knowledge in the classroom by introducing new perspectives that represents a larger universe of experiences in society. Two, it helps students develop critical thinking skills by understanding their world from multiple perspectives, reducing group thinking that can be ethnocentric and intolerant of human diversity. Three, it better prepares our students to be productive and constructive workers/professionals in increasingly diversified and racial minority state. Four, it creates a sense of belonging that enhances graduation and success rates for underrepresented minority students. And lastly, education that reflects all racial ethnic groups’ experiences advances social justice and a democracy that works for everyone. A state curriculum that requires Ethnic Studies will help students learn lessons from the past to construct a better future.
The author further notes that an Executive Order issued by the CSU Chancellor in 2017, capping General Education credits available for students at 48 units, effectively lowered the demand for Ethnicity Studies, Comparative Cultural Studies, Gender, Race, Class, and Foreign Languages at many CSU campuses. The California Faculty Association passed a resolution demanding that the Executive Order be rescinded.
What AB 1460 does
AB 1460, sponsored by the California Faculty Association (a union representing CSU faculty), requires CSU, commencing with the 2021-22 academic year, to (1) provide courses in ethnic studies at each of its campuses; and (2) requires, as an undergraduate graduation requirement commencing with students graduating in the 2024-25 academic year, the completion of, at minimum, one three-unit course in ethnic studies. The university may not increase the number of units required to graduate from the university by the enforcement of this requirement.
AB 1460 includes legislative findings and declarations stating that ethnic studies are an interdisciplinary and comparative study of race and ethnicity with special focus on four historically defined racialized core groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Latina and Latino Americans; that studies have found that both students of color and white students benefit academically as well as socially from taking ethnic studies courses; and, further, that ethnic studies courses play an important role in building an inclusive multicultural democracy.
In January 2014, CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White formed a statewide committee called the CSU Task Force on the Advancement of Ethnic Studies. According to the executive summary of the Task Force’s January 2016 report, “its task was to identify, review and make recommendations concerning critical issues, policies and practices which impact the status, perceived and real value, functioning, sustainment and advancement of ethnic studies in the context of their role in the mission of the university to provide a multicultural quality education which enables and enhances students’ ability to function and relate effectively in a multicultural global society.” Among the Task Force’s 10 main recommendations, it recommended making ethnic studies a General Education (GE) requirement throughout the CSU system. The Task Force identified best practices that allow for an ethnic studies requirement within the CSU’s existing GE patterns and 120 semester unit requirements.
The Task Force’s recommendation was not received favorably by CSU Chancellor White, or individual campus administrations. In response to the Task Force’s report, the Chancellor issued a 2017 status report on campus responses to the Task Force’s recommendations. Specifically, as it relates to the recommendation to make ethnic studies a CSU system-wide graduation requirement, the response stated, “[t]he recommendations were expected to inform—but not constrain—the regular planning process of each campus. While ethnic studies has not been made a GE requirement throughout the CSU system, the report’s recommendations are informing campus actions.”
The status report delineated steps CSU campuses were taking to increase access to ethnic studies courses: Campuses have hired additional faculty in ethnic studies programs to develop and teach new courses and additional course sections. At some campuses, GE programming or campus graduation requirements have been redesigned to include an emphasis on ethnic studies. At others, courses offered by ethnic studies departments have been redesigned to ensure availability to students earlier in their education. These efforts will result in more student awareness—earlier in their college years—of ethnic studies curricula and the opportunity to enroll in these courses. Campuses are ensuring ethnic studies courses are well represented in GE categories, incorporating themes and language from the Task Force report into GE policy and strengthening graduation requirements.
Chancellor White’s office offered a counter proposal, approved by the CSU Board of Trustees and the Academic Senate of CSU (ASCSU), that would have re-designated ethnic studies as “social justice” studies and given students a wider list of options, including courses related to Jewish issues, women’s rights, LGBTQ people, and Muslims, among others. In response, proponents of AB 1460 argued that the proposal would water down the ethnic studies requirement.
AB 1460 was opposed by all CSU campuses and the statewide ASCSU. Opponents argued that “Legislative involvement in setting degree requirements could ultimately mean that the government’s agenda supersedes faculty expertise as the basis for curricular decisions”. Additionally, ASCSU contended that, “If AB 1460 becomes law, it would set a precedent for future curricular mandates to be imposed by the Legislature, potentially jeopardizing not only faculty control over the curriculum but the quality of the university degree itself”. If the bill were to take effect, it was argued, it would be likely that the Legislature would see additional proposals in future years to add additional graduation requirements—e.g., requirements for gender studies or LGBTQ+ studies, or perhaps a graduation requirement centered on climate change or environmental education.
Concerns were expressed about the bill’s impact on academic freedom: Dictating college-level graduation requirements, it was argued, unnecessarily impinges on the CSU Board of Trustees’ authority to manage the 23-campus CSU system overall and the Academic Senate of CSU (representing CSU faculty) to guide and inform the academic and curricular decisions within the system.
Concerns were also expressed about the impact of the bill on the community colleges. To create a more seamless pathway for community college students to transfer to the CSU, in 2010, the Legislature, in conjunction with the community colleges and CSU, created the Associate Degree for Transfer (AD/T), which, in part, specifies that students are not required to take more than 60 additional semester units to complete their baccalaureate degree at the CSU if they enter the CSU with an and AD/T degree. According to the CSU Chancellor’s Office, since the establishment of the AD/T program, over 112,000 transfer pathways between CSU and community colleges have been approved. A concern was expressed that if the bill passed, these pathways could potentially have to be reexamined in order to accommodate the new requirement. Moreover, because GE requirements are generally completed as lower division courses, community colleges would have to shell out funds, CSU said, to hire enough faculty in the ethnic studies disciplines so that students can transfer to the CSU campuses. It may be of note that neither the Community Colleges Board of Governors nor any community college districts were listed as taking a position on AB 1460, either in support or opposition.
CSU’s latest revisions to its GE breadth requirements policy include reference to the requirements of AB 1460.
Eric Gelber, now retired, is a 1980 graduate of UC Davis School of Law (King Hall). He has nearly four decades of experience monitoring, analyzing, and crafting legislation through positions as a disability rights attorney, Chief Consultant with the Assembly Human Services Committee, and Legislative Director of the California Department of Developmental Services.
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