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Proposed UC ethnic studies requirement spurs campus support, fears of controversy

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CHARLIZE CHIU | STAFF

A letter signed by 176 university faculty members — 59 from UC Berkeley — opposed the requirement and cited concerns over its content and legality.

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OCTOBER 19, 2022

A proposal that would make ethnic studies an A-G requirement for California schools has been formally on the table since October 2020. The proposal to add the requirement was later approved by the Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate.

However, minor concerns about the language of the course criteria were voiced as afterthoughts to the approval, according to Senate Chair Mary Ann Smart.

Ethnic studies as proposed by the UC Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools is defined as “the critical and interdisciplinary study of race, ethnicity and indigeneity with a focus on the lived experiences and perspectives of people of color.”

Smart said campus senate members raised concerns about mentions of the word “critical,” language that they said did not guard against criticisms from conservative perspectives which, they feared, would see ethnic studies as “indoctrination.”

“There was a concern that because Berkeley and the University of California more generally tend to be targets for right-wing critics, some of this language should be rethought so as not to attract attack from the outside,” Smart said.

Michael Chang, a campus ethnic studies lecturer and government civil rights attorney, said he recognizes the criticism and asserted the importance of hearing out all parties in terms of their concerns or issues with how the course would be taught.

Instead, it would be grounded in root causes that would create a self-awareness for public school students, he said, especially given the current state of the United States.

“This is a very confusing time and an example of why a history of the United States that is honest and truthful and transparent is necessary for students to understand why such events could occur in the United States,” Chang said.

Chang added that from his academic background, he sees the term “critical” to mean having an honest and transparent conversation about race, rather than depicting US history as simply “bad behavior.”

Jesus Barraza, campus ethnic studies lecturer who focuses on Chicanx/Latinx studies, said it is a “necessity” to have education reflect different perspectives than those which are traditionally taught, especially for people of color.

“As someone who went through public school education without any kind of ethnic studies, other than what my sister who went out to college and was able to bring back to me, I didn’t have a sense of my own history within this country.”

Like Chang, Barraza supports the proposal and its intentions to provide an education that is relevant to students’ experience.

In terms of how the requirement relates to campus, Barraza said when students learn the basis of an ethnic studies education, the American Cultures requirement will allow them to further that education in a more specific and complex way on campus.

“To me it’s also who are the students that we’re getting and what kind of knowledge do they come in with,” Barraza said. “How does that knowledge help to create the students we need to graduate from this place, who are going to be leaders in this world we are turning them out to?”

However, criticisms of the proposal and its potential consequences remain. A letter signed by 176 university faculty members — 59 from UC Berkeley — opposed the requirement and cited concerns over its content and legality. The letter, which was issued spring 2022, stated that the proposal adopted a “highly political and ideological” formulation and had lacked proper documentation and transparency.

According to the letter, faculty were fearful over the university’s actions appearing  “politically motivated” and “secretive.”

“If it goes forward, it is likely to provoke great public controversy, rebellion from many high schools, litigation against the University, and perhaps legislative intervention,” the letter reads.

Corrections: A previous version of this article omitted the fact that although the Berkeley Academic Senate raised some minor concerns on the language for course criteria, the proposal to add the requirement was approved by the Berkeley Academic Senate without qualifications or conditions.

Contact Maya Jimenez at 

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OCTOBER 24, 2022