SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - Trustees of California State University, the nation's largest four-year public university system, voted on Wednesday to make ethnic and social justice studies a graduation requirement.
It would take effect in three years and would be the first change to the school's general education curriculum in over 40 years, coming amid a national reckoning over racism and police brutality.
Meanwhile, the state Legislature is on the verge of passing a bill to require ethnic studies, a more narrowly focused proposal that wouldn't count social justice classes. If signed by the governor, it would overrule the school's action, a scenario denounced by school leaders as an intrusion into academia.
The Assembly has to review minor amendments before sending the bill Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has final say. Some trustees said if the Legislature's proposal is also approved, it might result in students being required to take two 3-credit courses in course topics.
The plan approved by California State University's trustees allows students to choose from a wider array of ethnic studies topics to fulfill the course requirement than the Legislature's bill. It allows students to take courses on social justice that explore issues such as the criminal justice system and public health disparities.
"It's grounded in ethnic studies, but it is broader, more inclusive, gives students choice," said California State University Chancellor Timothy White before voting in favor on Wednesday.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, a San Diego Democrat and former professor, authored the Legislature's bill. While trustees and legislators agree on the need for more ethnic studies, Weber and supporters of her proposal say the mandate adopted by the university system is weaker because it allows social justice classes.
"This is not a requirement for ethnic studies," said trustee Silas Abrego ahead of Wednesday's vote. He was one of the few members to vote against the university's plan, saying the ethnic studies faculty was not consulted on the school's proposal. He favors Weber's bill.
Her bill would take effect sooner, in the 2021-22 academic year, and require students to take one course focusing on Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans or Latina and Latino Americans.
The university system's proposal would take effect in the 2022-23 academic year and offers a greater selection of topics than the Legislature's bill, which critics said does not include some courses such as Jewish studies. The university's plan would cost $3 million to $4 million, while the bill is estimated to need $16 million for implementation.
Tony Thurmond, who as State Superintendent of Public Instruction sits on the board, voted against the university's proposal. He spoke in favor of the bill's tailored approach to four ethnic groups.
As chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, Weber wrote earlier this week her legislation was prompted because the university was too slow on setting a requirement after announcing ethnic studies plans almost five years ago.
She noted the California Faculty Association supports her bill. The association, which represents 29,000 faculty members at California State University, has said the aim should be teaching students about the experiences of minorities and people of color in the U.S.
Trustee Lateefah Simon called the school's proposal "exhaustive" and "thoughtful," but voted against it, saying its "social justice umbrella" approach might allow students to "forgo ethnic studies curricula."