Cal State’s Ethnic Studies Programs Falter in Changing Times

Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times, October 30, 2013

In the 1960s, California college campuses were hotbeds of civil rights and free speech activity, where student protests resulted in the nation’s first ethnic studies programs at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, among others.

Ethnic studies became a sought-after major and a safe setting in which to examine the influence of the state’s diverse population of Latinos, African Americans, whites and Asians, among others.

In recent years, however, some of those programs have been cut back, particularly in the California State University system. Today, students—and faculty—are once again protesting: this time to save ethnic studies majors.

At such campuses as San Jose, Stanislaus, Bakersfield, Long Beach and elsewhere, professors aren’t being replaced, classes are being reduced and majors could be eliminated or subsumed into other liberal arts programs. The moves have reignited old debates—and wounds—about Cal State’s commitment to social and cultural diversity.

Educators and others say that as campuses look to trim costs, ethnic studies programs are bearing the brunt and could be seen as irrelevant.

Administrators counter that many programs are not attracting enough students to fill classes.

The programs also face stiff competition as students of all ethnicities focus more on obtaining degrees with immediate job prospects.

“A discipline like ethnic studies lays itself wide open to the critiques of what the hell do you do with this, can you run a corporation or fly a plane with this?,” said Ron Scapp, president of the National Assn. for Ethnic Studies, which is conducting a national survey on the status of such programs.

But Scapp and others said that debates over immigration, the election of the country’s first black president and the aftermath of the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white man show the nation is still grappling with issues of race and cultural diversity. Ethnic studies programs, he said, offer a forum to tackle these topics.


A recent move to reduce the status of the Africana Studies Department at Cal State Long Beach led the state Assembly to adopt a resolution urging that it and other such programs be maintained. Cal State Chancellor Timothy White put the changes on hold until the campus finds a permanent replacement for former President F. King Alexander.

Proposed cuts on other campuses prompted a delegation of faculty from these programs to request a meeting with White; it is scheduled next week. The group wants a moratorium on proposed changes until a study by the chancellor’s office that is underway reviews policies at all 23 Cal State campuses.


Officials at San Jose State are proposing to reduce African American studies from a department with its own administrative functions and fold it into the sociology and social sciences department. They argue that the program as it currently stands—with one full-time faculty member and about 12 student majors—can’t sustain itself. The move would provide students with a wider variety of courses and they would still be able to major or minor in African American Studies, spokeswoman Pat Lopes Harris said.


Although many ethnic studies programs have fewer students majoring in them, students in other disciplines take the classes to fulfill general education requirements. {snip}


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