Gov. Gavin Newsom signed AB 1460 into law on Monday requiring California State University (CSU) to provide courses in Ethnic studies at each of its 23 campuses beginning with the 2021–22 academic year. Students at the nation’s largest four-year public university system must take a 3-credit course in Ethnic studies in order to graduate beginning in the 2024-2025 academic year.
The bill was introduced last year by Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), professor emeritus of Africana studies at CSU San Diego, on behalf of the California Faculty Association (CFA) and with support from the legislative ethnic caucuses (Black, Latino, and Asian Pacific Islander).
The bill passed on Aug. 3 after legislators engaged in personal and passionate debates during committee hearings and on the floor of the Assembly and Senate as each expressed their perspectives on the pressing need for our society to deal with its history of racial inequities.
Ethnic studies is an interdisciplinary study of race and ethnicity that gained acceptance nationally in universities following the 1960s Black student uprisings. Research shows that students of color and white students benefit academically and socially from taking Ethnic studies courses. These courses can play an important role in building an inclusive multicultural democracy.
According to Charles Toombs, CFA president and a professor of Africana Studies at San Diego State, Ethnic studies differ from other disciplines. It is crucial in its own right.
Because of that, AB1460 specifies that CSU students take a course in one of the four historically defined racialized core groups: African American studies, Latino studies, Native American studies or Asian American studies.
The bill states, “It is the intent of the Legislature that students of the California State University acquire the knowledge and skills that will help them comprehend the diversity and social justice history of the United States and of the society in which they live to enable them to contribute to that society as responsible and constructive citizens.”
AB1460 passed despite opposition from CSU Chancellor Timothy White, the Academic Senate of the California State University, and the leadership at all 23 CSU campuses.
Chancellor White asked the Executive Senate Committee at each CSU campus to write a letter of opposition when the bill was introduced. Allison Wren from CSU Academic Affairs Division presented CSU’s three main objections to AB 1460 at an Assembly Higher Education Committee Hearing.
“First, we believe the Legislature should not impose curriculum,” Wren said. “A legislative mandate… does, in fact, threaten the academic freedom of our campuses.”
“Second, the proposed bill is not necessary,” she continued. “We already have cultural diversity requirements on all 23 campuses.”
“Finally, such a requirement could adversely impact our associate degrees for transfers programs. The bill could potentially also adversely impact CSU graduation.”
Weeks before AB 1460 passed, CSU trustees approved an “Ethnic studies and Social Justice” studies graduation requirement as an amendment to the school’s general education curriculum. Its critics say the approval was timed to present Newsom with an alternative to AB 1460.
However, in a letter to Chancellor White before the trustee vote, legislators, led by Assemblymember Weber, pointed out that the policy, “does not respond to the challenges we currently face, has been rejected by the faculty, and is not supported by students.”
“The changes proposed by the Chancellor’s office will significantly water down the intent of AB 1460 and will result in something akin to a “diversity” requirement, which was not developed in collaboration with the CSU Council on Ethnic Studies,” she added.
Weber followed that up by commenting that though it’s written as an Ethnic studies requirement, the policy approved by the CSU board permits students to meet it without actually taking an Ethnic studies course.
By signing AB 1460, Newsom sided with Weber and her legislative colleagues in deciding that a strict definition of Ethnic studies was needed to supersede the policy that CSU trustees approved.
AB 1460 is the first time the Legislature dictated a CSU graduation requirement.
The Legislature fully debated this departure from precedent and concluded that the CSU system on its own lacked the will to adequately tackle society’s reckoning around race and inclusion.
Weber in explaining why it was necessary for the legislature to act said, “I know the Ivory Tower seldom opens its door unless the door’s kicked down. And that’s the reality of the Ivory Tower.”