Ethnic Studies Department Chair Denise Isom at third annual event honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

Starting Fall 2021, Cal Poly will require students to take an ethnic studies course once approved by California Gov. Gavin Newsom.

The California Senate voted 30-5 Thursday to pass Assembly Bill (AB) 1460, a bill that requires all California State Universities (CSU) to implement a three unit ethnic studies course as a requirement for graduation. If Newsom signs the bill, it will become a law. 

These courses will focus on four ethnic groups: Native Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinx Americans.

This new requirement will be implemented for the 2021-22 academic school year and will only be applied to students graduating in the 2024-25 academic year and beyond. The number of units required to graduate with a bachelor’s degree will not increase.

The California State University (CSU) Council on Ethnic Studies and the Academic Senate of the CSU will collaborate to establish “core competencies,” or learning goal outcomes, for students to achieve through an ethnic studies course. These goals will be approved before the 2021-22 academic year.

The bill says that ethnic studies courses are beneficial for both students of color and white students and are essential in “building an inclusive multicultural democracy.”

“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,” the bill text read.

As Cal Poly is the whitest public university in California, ethnic studies associate professor José Navarro said that this new requirement will greatly benefit Cal Poly students.

“The ethnic studies bill will help Cal Poly students because they are white and wealthy, and because they need to learn a certain competency,” José said. “[Students] need to learn these histories because they need to learn to work and operate in a diverse world.”

With events such as the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity member Kyle Watkins that wore blackface in 2018 and the Chinese Student’s Association’s Zoom meeting being disrupted by strangers saying racial slurs, ethnic studies associate professor Jenell Navarro said that an ethnic studies requirement will combat these racist actions on campus.

“Much of the efforts for diversity and inclusion at Cal Poly have been symbolic efforts, or just rhetorical efforts, a lot of talk or statements and those types of things, but this is an action item,” Jenell said. “[AB 1460] is a structural and systemic change in our curricular model, where every single student now, can’t have an excuse [for ignorance].”

The movement for ethnic studies began Nov. 6, 1968 when a coalition of student groups at San Francisco State University demanded an ethnic studies program.

The bill requiring CSU students to take an ethnic studies course was introduced Feb. 22, 2019 and was passed by the State Assembly on May 23, 2019.

In March, the Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) Board of Directors endorsed the bill as it was waiting to be read for a third and final time in the Senate.

Although the bill is now passed, it is unknown how the university will implement it into their required curriculum.

University Spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote in an email to Mustang News that the university is focusing on the success of students and their graduation time while upholding state and federal laws.

Although the bill can be struck down by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Lazier said that the university is “working to infuse diversity, equity and inclusion into [Cal Poly’s] pedagogy and curriculum, including in general education” regardless of the bill.

Jenell said that in order to provide ethnic studies courses to the whole university, more lecturers need to be hired. Currently, there are 12 faculty and lecturers within the Ethnic Studies Department.

As Cal Poly implemented a university-wide hiring freeze, it is unknown when it will be lifted and if ethnic studies lecturers will be hired to meet the increased demand.

José, who serves on Cal Poly’s Academic Senate, said that the university does not plan to hire more professors to serve an increased demand for ethnic studies courses.

Another possible solution is to increase class sizes of these courses, which Jenell said can decrease the value of the information.

Although class sizes can alter the learning experience, both Jenell and José said they agreed that the most important factor is the ethnic studies courses need to be taught by someone who has studied and has expertise in the subject.

Jenell said that with the current Black Lives Matter movement and students protesting, the expertise of ethnic studies can help to make the university better at educating and serving their students and faculty.

“We shouldn’t just learn by doing, we need to do better,” Jenell said. “We need to learn by doing better.”

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