Sonoma State University, SRJC broadening ethnic studies as social justice, racial equity push intensifies
Sonoma State University will broaden its ethnic studies offerings to include social justice courses after the California State University Board of Trustees last week changed its general education graduation requirements for the first time in 40 years.
The one-course requirement will take effect at all 23 CSU campuses starting in the 2023-24 school year, ensuring every undergraduate student enrolls in a class that studies the intersection of race, ethnicity, class, gender or religion with a core discipline like history or literature, for example.
The decision was embraced at Sonoma County’s two major higher education campuses, including Santa Rosa Junior College, where efforts to reintroduce the second ethnic studies department in the college’s history are taking shape.
The CSU trustees’ vote came the same day the Academic Senate at SRJC unanimously voted to form a task force that will help craft a new ethnic studies department at the college, and acknowledges a sense of urgency to introduce a Black studies curriculum, which was a demand from the Black Student Union.
Sonoma State has required ethnic studies for years, said Karen Moranski, interim provost and vice president of academic affairs. The 8,600-student university will now have to expand the requirement to include social justice, and prioritize those courses for underclassmen to comply with the new rule.
“To the extent it’s a new requirement for us, it’s not,” Moranksi said. “We have always valued ethnic studies disciplines on our campus and worked hard to ensure all of our students at the undergraduate level complete an ethnic studies requirement.”
The Rohnert Park-based university implemented a system last year to expedite approvals for new ethnic studies courses so students had more options to fulfill their school’s requirement, Moranski said.
SSU will begin approving new courses this fall and reapprove new ones to mirror the new systemwide definitions laid out last week, she said.
Even though the junior college faces hardships from declining enrollment — down 20% since 2011 before the pandemic forced distance learning — SRJC President Frank Chong, who was an ethnic studies major at UC Berkeley, said sitting idle would be more detrimental.
“I’m thinking about how many students we’d lose who have been turned off not having disciplines and course content they can relate to,” Chong said. “If you look at demographics in California and Sonoma County, the growth areas are Latinx, Asian American, Black Americans who think their stories haven’t been told. I think it’s a wise investment.”
Creating the department also would help Santa Rosa students who transfer to a CSU school, and make ethnic studies a more sustainable discipline overall, Chong said.
The vote by CSU trustees has been met with criticism, though, viewed by many as a watered-down alternative to Assembly Bill 1460, which was approved by the state Legislature in June and is awaiting a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The bill if it become law would take effect sooner, at the start of the 2021-22 school year, but is more narrowly focused on the traditional racial ethnic studies disciplines of Black, Latino, Indigenous and Asian communities. The new CSU requirement is much broader, including sexuality, religion, immigration status, ability and age as subjects students can take to meet the criteria.
SSU faculty have been split on how narrow they want their disciplines to be, said Moranski, who anticipates that will be a key discussion this fall.
The same sentiments are at SRJC, said Julie Thompson, an English professor and president of the Academic Senate.
“For people who have long been associated with ethnic studies, they have a strong commitment to their understanding to what ethnic studies is,” Thompson said. “When we choose our disciplines, for a lot of us it’s a strong calling. To see it morph and change can be pretty unsettling.”
You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @YousefBaig.