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UC Berkeley campus (Photo/file)

Ethnic studies debate comes to UC system with proposed admission requirement

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A proposed new requirement for entry into the University of California system has reignited the debate over ethnic studies in the Golden State.

The proposed rule is being considered by the academic senate, a faculty body under the auspices of the governing Board of Regents. It would add ethnic studies alongside history, math, foreign language and other prerequisites to the list of required courses for admission into the prestigious university system.

Developed by a faculty workgroup of experts convened by UC President Michael V. Drake, the new requirement establishes criteria for an acceptable course in high school ethnic studies — the study of race and ethnicity with a focus on people of color — that goes beyond the principles underpinning the state’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum for public high schools, approved in March 2021. The criteria would apply only to students seeking entry in the nine UC schools, which together admit roughly 130,000 freshmen each year.

Among the workgroup of six UC faculty who wrote the proposed regulation are some who had vigorously and publicly opposed revisions to the approved ESMC — which high schools are encouraged but not obligated to use to meet the state requirement — such as removing reference to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

Representing the latest salvo in the nearly 3-year-old fight over ethnic studies in California, the proposal demonstrates the enduring impact of dissenting groups such as the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Institute, which aim to win a more radically left-wing ethnic studies curriculum in high schools, even after setbacks at the state level. Supporters of the proposed regulation say it would ensure that ethnic studies courses remain true to the origins of the discipline, which emerged from protest movements such as the Third World Liberation Front of the 1960s and ’70s.

And yet to critics, the proposal represents a backdoor effort to circumvent the statewide model curriculum and influence classroom education in a lurch to the left, and may harm Jewish students or students who support Israel.

The nonprofit Amcha Initiative, a Santa Cruz-based organization led by activist Tammi Rossman-Benjamin that combats antisemitism on college campuses, has gathered more than 1,800 signatures, including 1,200 with some connection to the University of California, on a petition calling on academic senate chair Robert Horwitz and his colleagues to reject the proposal. The petition calls the ethnic studies regulation “the direct result of a small group of activist-educators” vying to “circumvent state law and manipulate the UC governance process.”

Amcha sent J. a list of the signatories, covering about 13 pages of single-spaced names.

From a Jewish perspective, according to Amcha, of primary concern is the embrace of critical race theory, a worldview that centers race as a totalizing force within American society. This view has rigid definitions of marginalized groups that exclude certain minorities, according to Amcha.

“Jews are perceived as ‘white’ and ‘privileged,’ squarely on the oppressor side of the race-class divide,” the Amcha petition says.

The language in the proposed regulation also gestures toward anti-Zionism — a position common in ethnic studies circles. The text stresses indigeneity, placing it first among a list of six course content guidelines, saying for a course to meet the requirement it must “center an understanding of indigeneity,” for example by acknowledging the course is being taught on “stolen, unceded land,” with an eye toward “anti-colonial liberation.”

Among the authors are Andrew Jolivétte, chair of the ethnic studies department at UC San Diego, who spoke out strongly against revisions to the state ESMC at a 2021 webinar organized by the Save Arab American Studies coalition, and Christine Hong, an associate professor of ethnic studies at UC Santa Cruz who joined an August 2020 webinar organized by the pro-BDS Arab Resource and Organizing Center called “Arab American Studies, Palestine and the Fight for Ethnic Studies.”

Critics see efforts to remove references to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel or to add lessons on groups considered white, such as Jews and Armenians, as conceding to conservative forces. The State of California caved to “pro-Israel lobbyists,” an activist said; the Liberated ethnic studies group described the revisions as replacing ethnic studies with an “all lives matter” movement.

The regulation returns to some of the jargon common in the first draft of the ESMC. It says, for example, that to meet the requirement, the course shall “place high value on Indigenous knowledges” and shall “center an understanding of indigeneity, routes, and roots.”

It describes ethnic studies as a discipline based on the “transformation of society and the world,” stating that courses must “challenge traditional Western educational approaches.” Ethnic studies shall critique “dominant narratives of power,” it says, including “claims to neutrality, objectivity … and meritocracy” in order to “examine their harm to Indigenous and other communities of color.”

Like in the first draft of the ESMC, the regulation lists forms of bigotry to be studied, including anti-Blackness, anti-Indigeneity, xenophobia, patriarchy, ableism and anthropocentrism (human-centered), but not antisemitism.

If passed, the new rule would “have a dangerously divisive and harmful impact on many California students,” the Amcha petition contends, but is “particularly threatening to Jewish students.”

“At a time when anti-Jewish sentiment, hostility and violence has reached truly alarming levels, a required ethnic studies class encouraging students to view Jews as ‘white’ and ‘racially privileged’ is tantamount to putting an even larger target on the back of every Jewish student,” it says.

The regulation is currently winding its way through the UC administrative system. On March 30 the academic council sent the regulation back for revisions to a committee called BOARS, the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools.

Academic senate chair Horwitz told J. in an email that members raised a number of questions about the new rule for BOARS to consider. He said “technical questions/concerns” were brought up, for instance, about how the ethnic studies course requirement would apply to applicants from private schools.

“Some campus senates commented that the course criteria were more narrowly defined than the guidelines approved by the CA State Board of Education in its Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum,” he added.

Whether BOARS would be considering concerns raised by Amcha, Horwitz did not say, while adding that, “prior to the Council meeting, Senate leadership received many external emails and petitions. We noted them.”

Once BOARS revises the regulation, it will come back to the academic council for a second discussion, Horwitz said. If approved, the regulation will be sent to the full academic senate. The process may last into the fall, and would give high schools until 2030 to implement appropriate courses.

Under California’s new ethnic studies law, fall 2025 is the deadline to implement a suitable ethnic studies course for state high schools.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.