a big glass building with students walking through a lawn in front
Cesar Chavez Student Center at San Francisco State University. (Photo/Wikimedia-Briantrejo CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sides clash over competing California State University ethnic studies requirements

With the yearlong fight over an ethnic studies curriculum in public high schools still unresolved, another battlefront has formed at the college level.

Two opposing plans for an ethnic studies requirement at the 23 California State University campuses are now on the table, with proponents of each criticizing the other. One plan includes Jewish studies among an array of courses that would satisfy the requirement, while the other does not.

A plan passed last week by the 25-member CSU Board of Trustees and supported by Chancellor Timothy White would institute a three-unit, lower-division ethnic studies course requirement that could be satisfied either with a traditional course in the discipline or by taking a class focused on, for example, Jewish studies, LGBT history or social justice movements.

The other plan, already approved by the California Legislature and awaiting Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature, would restrict the requirement to a traditional ethnic studies course in one of four communities of color: African American, Asian American, Latinx and Native American.

Should the governor sign AB 1460, it would become law and supersede the chancellor’s plan, going into effect in the 2023-2034 academic year.

Traditional ethnic studies professors and academic bodies, such as the California Faculty Association, support AB 1460. They criticized the chancellor’s plan because, in their view, it overly broadens the definition of ethnic studies. They also say they were never consulted by the CSU task force that developed the plan.

One critic, CSU trustee Silas Abrego, voted against the chancellor’s plan, later telling the Los Angeles Times, “A student could meet this requirement without ever having to take [a traditional] ethnic studies course.”

Marc Dollinger
Marc Dollinger

Marc Dollinger, a Jewish studies professor at San Francisco State University, which is part of the CSU system, sympathizes with Abrego’s view and does not think Jewish studies should be part of the core ethnic studies menu.

“This is about educating students about racial justice,” he said. “Ethnic studies was created in the ’60s for racial justice. The four groups were picked because their experience is fundamentally different from white America’s. Today we’re all about racial justice. So I think it’s good for America, and good for Jews, to be involved in racial justice work. Therefore I’m in.”

He also noted that 12 to 15 percent of Jews identify as Jews of color.

Dollinger, an authority on Black-Jewish relations, pointed out that most CSU campuses already have diversity and/or social justice course requirements. At SFSU, his Jewish studies courses satisfy a social justice requirement, as well as an American ethnic racial minorities requirement. Given all that, he believes all students would benefit from taking a traditional ethnic studies course.

“The goal is to have undergrads take a course from a community of color perspective,” he said.

Some of Dollinger’s colleagues in other CSU Jewish studies departments disagree. Professor Jeffrey Blutinger, who directs the program at Cal State Long Beach, signed an open letter to the governor from current and emeritus professors, condemning AB 1460 as discriminatory.

The bill, they say, “is trapped in a limited conception held by some activists in the late 1960s; it is time California moved into the 21st century and broadened its definition to include the other ethnic groups who make a home here in California, such as Jews, Armenians, Arabs, and South Asians, all of whom are excluded by this bill.”

The letter also blasted the bill for not including a defined social justice component, and for the Legislature’s “extraordinary intrusion” into the academic independence of the CSU system.

The debate mirrors an ongoing controversy regarding a proposed ethnic studies curriculum for public high schools. The original draft displayed what some state lawmakers called “an anti-Jewish bias” (including reference to the BDS movement) and was ultimately ordered to undergo revisions by the California Department of Education. An updated version is slated to be unveiled by mid-August. Meanwhile, numerous individual school boards around the state have passed resolutions endorsing the original curriculum, which excludes Jews and a number of other ethnic and cultural groups.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.