Courses on ethnic studies and social justice will soon be required for graduation from California State University after its board of trustees Wednesday approved a proposal to add such courses as a three-unit requirement in the nation's largest public university system.
After six years of developing a plan with a broad array of classes covering ethnic issues and academic studies, the trustees have approved the first changes to the school's general education curriculum in 40 years.
But some critics want a narrower focus only on ethnic studies -- not social justice -- which is part of a parallel proposal under consideration by state lawmakers.
The trustees have been at odds with the state Legislature on expanding the school system's requirements on making ethnic studies a graduation requirement.
The trustees' proposal is much broader than a similar initiative in the California Legislature, which would require California State University campuses starting in the 2021-2022 academic year to offer courses on race and ethnicity focusing on Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latina and Latino Americans. Students would need to take a three-credit course to graduate. The state Legislature's version does not count social justice classes -- only courses focused on certain ethnic studies.
The board's version allows for social justice classes to fulfill the requirement -- prompting critics to argue against it because it would allow some students to skip ethnic studies entirely if they chose the social justice option.
“It’s grounded in ethnic studies, but it is broader, more inclusive, gives students choice,” California State University Chancellor Timothy White said before voting in favor of the move.
The university system's changes will take effect in the 2022-2023 academic year and offer a greater selection of topics than the legislature's bill, which critics said leaves out some areas including Jewish studies. Trustees said their proposal also spells out that students can take courses on social justice that explore issues involving the criminal justice system and public health disparities.
The university's plan will cost $3 to $4 million while the bill is estimated to need $16 million for implementation.
The trustees argue that having the government decide on academic requirements is too broad an oversight -- and some noted that if the Legislature's proposal becomes signed into law, it could result in students being forced two take two three-credit courses to fulfill both requirements.
“Government specifying a specific curriculum area is extraordinarily dangerous,” Chancellor White said. “Let's not cross that Rubicon.”
However, the legislature's bill was written by a former professor and Democratic assemblywoman from San Diego, Shirley Weber, who said the state government intervened with their own bill after years of delay in curriculum changes from the university.
Weber said the school's recommendation “does not respond to the challenges we currently face, has been rejected by the faculty, and is not supported by students."
She also said that the California Faculty Association supports her bill. The association, which represents 29,000 faculty members at California State University, has said the university's proposal is overly broad, allowing classes on social justice when the aim should be teaching students about the experiences of minorities and people of color in the U.S.
And state Sen. Steven Galzer was quick to voice his support for the trustees' vote on Twitter Wednesday, calling it a "bold move" shortly after the measure was approved.
"Students should learn the history and traditions of the various racial and ethnic groups that make up our state," he tweeted.
But a handful of trustees voted against the board's proposal, arguing that it fails to go far enough or taking issue with the fact that social justice courses could be used in place of ethnic studies.
"This is not a requirement for ethnic studies," said Silas Abrego, another trustee, who voted against the proposal because he prefers Weber's bill.
Trustee Lateefah Simon also voted against the bill, criticizing its "social justice umbrella" as a means to avoid forgoing "ethnic studies curricula."
"The requirement the way it’s written will be either an ethnic studies course or a social justice course," Abrego said at a committee meeting on the proposal Tuesday, as the Los Angeles Times reported. "That gives the latitude for a student never to take an ethnic studies course."
Once the Legislature's bill is passed in the state Assembly, it would still require a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has final say.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.