Students pursuing an associate degree in California will be required to take an ethnic studies course before they can graduate, according to a recent decision by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.
The new policy requires students to take a three-unit semester or four-unit quarter class in African American studies, Asian American studies, Latinx studies or Native American studies. The course will count toward students’ general education requirements.
“As the largest and most diverse system of higher education in the country, we have an opportunity to break down barriers to equity,” Board of Governors president Pamela Haynes said July 13 in a press release announcing the board's decision. “By building a faculty and staff that look like the students and communities we serve and by putting diversity, equity and inclusion … and anti-racism at the heart of our work, we can help create a system that truly works for all our students.”
A task force that includes students, ethnic studies faculty and members of the community college system’s Academic Senate, led by the chancellor’s office, will decide what kinds of courses will qualify for the requirement and the timeline for it to go into effect.
The requirement could be implemented as early as fall 2022 but is more likely to start in fall 2023, Aisha Lowe, vice chancellor of educational services and support, said during the Board of Governors meeting.
Carlos Guerrero, a professor of Chicano studies at Los Angeles City College and co-chair of the ethnic studies council for the community college system, said the decision came after a “faculty-driven process” supported by students. He said ethnic studies courses help students understand the “multitude” of experiences within American society and ask, “What makes things the way they are?”
“I think it’s important to understand that the American experience is not a singularity, that the American experience is diverse,” said Guerrero. “We want to be able to kind of move beyond the stereotypes that exist, and I think it helps all students understand the complexity of our experience.”
Belinda Lum, a professor of sociology at Sacramento City College and a member of the ethnic studies council, said she saw the value of ethnic studies courses firsthand when she was a student.
“I would say that as someone who is a professor because of ethnic studies, because I saw myself in the books of an Asian American studies class, that I know the power that this curriculum has,” she said during the board meeting.
The move comes after California governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation establishing an ethnic studies course requirement for the California State University system last year after a hard-fought battle by ethnic studies faculty members.
Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicano studies at Cal State Northridge and a member of the CSU council for ethnic studies, said the advocacy by faculty members and the passage of the legislation had a “ripple effect” and she was “thrilled” to hear the community college system was following the lead of the state university system.
“We see the fight for ethnic studies and the fight for an ethnic studies requirement for California students as a part of a movement for ethnic studies,” she said. “We never saw AB1460 as a stand-alone issue.”
One goal of the California Community Colleges task force is to offer ethnic studies courses that align with the CSU requirement so students can transfer to CSU campuses with the requirement already fulfilled.
Guerrero said community colleges were already in the process of trying to get ethnic studies courses approved to meet CSU’s requirement, but many courses have been rejected by CSU. He said some faculty members must reshape their course curricula to meet three out of five “core competencies” outlined for CSU ethnic studies courses and that the process will take time.
Even though students will be able to meet their ethnic studies requirement before enrolling at CSU institutions, Montaño does not believe the move will decrease demand for ethnic studies within the system.
Students still have the option to take their ethnic studies course in their junior or senior year, and “once students take their first ethnic studies course, they’re going to want to take ethnic studies again,” she said. “So we don’t look at this as a competition. We look at this as a victory for ethnic studies.”
Meanwhile, Guerrero expects to see ethnic studies disciplines grow in the California Community Colleges system as student demand rises in response to the requirement. He said some college leaders are concerned about not having enough faculty members with academic backgrounds in ethnic studies, and department chairs are already searching for candidates.
“We’re going to have to hire a lot of faculty in the next two years,” he said. “What a lot of colleges are worried about is trying to find the right hires. It’s going to take a while.”
He noted that there are also concerns that colleges lack the funding for hiring additional faculty members, but he expressed confidence the chancellor’s office would recognize the importance of funding these efforts.
“Like anything else that happens, the funding will be found,” he said. “The money is there when the will is there.”
Montaño, the Chicano studies professor at Cal State Northridge, believes ethnic studies requirements are going to become more commonplace at higher education institutions across the country, especially after protests following the killing of George Floyd last summer and the national response to the shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta earlier this year.
“We’ve always said ethnic studies is inextricably linked to the struggles of BIPOC communities, the everyday experiences of people of color in the United States,” she said. “When you have an increase in racial justice community organizing, you have an increased interest in ethnic studies because ethnic studies is dependent on those movements.”