AILSA CHANG, HOST:
For the first time in decades, the largest public university system in the country has approved a new course requirement for all of its undergrads. Beginning in 2023, students attending a California State University will have to take an ethnic studies or social justice course in order to graduate. But this decision did not come down lightly last week. Some longtime social activists and ethnic studies scholars on the CSU's board of trustees voted against the chancellor's proposal. Mikhail Zinshteyn has been covering this for CalMatters. He joins us now.
MIKHAIL ZINSHTEYN: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
CHANG: So, I mean, you would think that this requirement is a win for both ethnic studies and social justice advocates. Why did some trustees who are social justice advocates vote against Chancellor Timothy White's proposal?
ZINSHTEYN: There are several collective players in this uniquely California debate, and I say that because California and the CSU specifically is the birthplace of ethnic studies in higher education in the U.S. And so you have the leadership of the Cal State University system that pushed for an ethnic studies and social justice requirement. You then have ethnic studies scholars, the faculty union and lawmakers. They want a pure ethnic studies requirement, which would encompass studies in the historic oppression, contributions and lived histories of Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latina and Latino Americans.
Their chief criticism of what the CSU board of trustees passed last week is that it doesn't actually ensure that a student takes an ethnic studies class to fulfill the ethnic studies requirement. One thing that is an interesting wrinkle here is that there's a competing piece of legislation that should reach the governor's desk next week. And that would require the CSU to have its students graduate by taking a pure ethnic studies, so focusing on those four disciplines that I described. The CSU says that's legislative interference. Interestingly, the writer of AB 1460, Shirley Weber, is a longtime CSU professor. She is a venerated scholar in her own right on ethnic studies.
CHANG: Well, can you give us more context on why ethnic studies is so significant? I mean, there's all this debate over it, but ultimately, it's going to be only three units out of the total 120 units that undergrads need in order to graduate. So what is so important about having an ethnic studies component?
ZINSHTEYN: The reason ethnic studies came to the fore in the late '60s is because there was this widespread student anger that the higher education curriculum was Eurocentric. It largely disregarded the histories and achievements and persecutions of the four identity groups that we're talking about.
CHANG: Now, I know that you and your colleague Omar Rashad have been talking to students about these proposals. How are students feeling about this new requirement?
ZINSHTEYN: So for students who took ethnic studies, the course helped them overcome early pressure to assimilate at the expense of their heritage. My colleague Omar Rashad spoke to one student who learned through a course on African studies about the contributions and accomplishments of early African civilizations, which drew that student to the major. And he also did a great job speaking to Raven Freebird. She's a recent graduate of CSU Northridge, and she explained how in her sophomore year, she did not feel motivated. She described herself as having not really a purpose. And she stumbled upon this American Indian studies class.
RAVEN FREEBIRD: The ethnic studies class showed me why it's important for someone like me to go to college. And, like, now I want to get my Ph.D.
ZINSHTEYN: She ended up declaring an American studies minor and was eager to learn more about her identity.
CHANG: Mikhail Zinshteyn is a higher education reporter for CalMatters.
Thank you very much.
ZINSHTEYN: Thank you so much for having me, Ailsa.
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