Players Battle It Out To Shape Ethnic Studies In Cal State System

Black Lives Matter L.A. leader and Cal State L.A. professor Melina Abdullah speaks at a press conference demanding Abdullah be named dean of Ethnic Studies. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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UPDATE, 1:30 p.m. — This article was updated to reflect an email sent to Cal State ethnic studies faculty saying Melina Abdullah will not be appointed dean.

California is undergoing two ground-breaking developments in ethnic studies.

The first is a forthcoming requirement that all students in the 23-campus California State University system take a three-unit ethnic studies course. What that course looks like is still to be determined, but it's expected to be in place in three years.

The second could put one of those Cal State campuses on the national map. Later this month, California State University Los Angeles will open a new college of ethnic studies that will bring under one roof the departments of Asian and Asian American Studies, Chicana(o) and Latina(o) Studies, and Pan-African Studies.

Most universities have ethnic studies classes, many have ethnic studies departments, but only one other university in the country, San Francisco State, has boosted the discipline to an autonomous university unit as, say, a school of engineering.

"I can't overstate the importance of both the requirement for ethnic studies as well as its status as its own school," said Eric Tang, a professor of Asian American and Black studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

He said both issues put California in the national spotlight.

Both developments in California have generated struggles that have pitted high profile and powerful players in academia and social activism. At issue is who leads the way in shaping ethnic studies. Both sides paint dire pictures if the other side's plans carry the day.

"There's always been a political battle when it comes to who the leadership will be," Tang said.

A CONTENTIOUS BATTLE AT CAL STATE LA

Here in Los Angeles, the most public battle is over the leadership of the new college of ethnic studies at Cal State Los Angeles. For weeks, supporters of Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan African studies at the university and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, have come out on social media and at rallies to push Cal State president William Covino to appoint her as dean.

The campaigns in support of Abdullah ramped up last week after Covino named an Asian American civil rights advocate as interim dean while the university searches for a permanent leader for the school.

On Wednesday, three dozen university students, faculty, religious leaders, and activists gathered in front of the university administration building to rally in support of Abdullah.

"Let Covino listen to us. We are civil rights advocates. We are Black Lives Matter advocates. We're here to say that if it doesn't go down, we're going to make it go down," Pastor William Smart, President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California, told the crowd.

Abdullah has long been publicly critical of Covino. She has said he's taken too much credit for the creation of the ethnic studies school and accused him of erasure and appropriation in an academic journal article.

Supporters surround Melina Abdullah at a rally demanding Abdullah become the dean of Ethnic Studies. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

When Abdullah took the mic at the rally on Wednesday, she said that under her leadership, the new school would reflect the tone of the Black Lives Matter movement.

"Authentic ethnic studies means recognizing that ethnic studies is absolutely about correcting the record, it's absolutely about saying Columbus didn't discover America and Lincoln didn't free the slaves," she said.

On Friday, Abdullah shared a message sent by the university's provost to the Cal State ethnic studies faculty on Thursday night saying she will not be considered for either dean or interim dean.

(Screenshot provided by Melina Abdullah)

SEARCH FOR A DEAN CONTINUES

The university says it continues to accept applications for the permanent job, but it's not clear if Abdullah is being considered.

Last week, the university appointed Stewart Kwoh as interim dean. He's the founding president and past executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles (AAAJ-LA), and a life trustee of the board of Southern California Public Radio, which publishes LAist.

"My background in ethnic studies goes back to the 1960s. I helped to set up the Asian American Studies at UCLA," where he's taught for 30 years, he said. One of his most significant contributions to social justice came in the late 1990s. AAAJ-LA won settlements on behalf of dozens of Thai immigrants imprisoned by the owners of sweatshops in El Monte.

While Abdullah said she respects Kwoh's activism, she said his appointment takes ethnic studies in the wrong direction, ignoring the prominence of Black Lives Matter in the nationwide reckoning over race.

"We're calling on Kwoh to refuse the position and President Covino to reconsider," Abdullah said via text.

THE CSU FACULTY VS THE ADMINISTRATION

There's a related confrontation going on at the university system level over who gets to craft CSU's new ethnic studies requirement.

Last month, the Cal State board of trustees approved a requirement that students take ethnic studies or courses with a social justice component to graduate. The rule gives campuses wide latitude over course content, as well as the ability to design a menu of classes.

But opponents say allowing social justice courses to count toward the requirement waters down the core issues surrounding race.

Ethnic studies "are explicitly linked to the struggles of people of color in society," Sharon Elise, a sociology professor at CSU San Marcos and associate vice president of racial and social justice for the California Faculty Association, told LAist last month, "These programs emerged from those struggles, and they express the academic side of those struggles."

The faculty union favors Assembly Bill 1460, which would require students to take a 3-unit course in one of four specific ethnic studies disciplines — Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies, or Latina and Latino studies.

If Governor Gavin Newsom signs the bill, the law would supersede the administration's plan. He could sign it as soon as this weekend.

The bill has raised criticism from some Cal State trustees that the legislature is intruding on its work.

"I can imagine if we were in a different state that we would be scared out of our wits by the idea that the legislature would be telling us what we should be teaching," said CSU trustee Rebecca Eisen.

CSULA's college of ethnic studies opens in the fall of 2020, only the second such university unit in the nation. (screenshot)

ETHNIC STUDIES CAME LATE FOR THIS STUDENT

Kayla Felton graduated from the elite Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies in 2013. She'd done well in AP Calculus and picked math as her major when she enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. At 0.7%, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has the lowest Black student enrollment of any CSU campus, and by one account the lowest of any university in California.

Felton is Black and grew up in Inglewood.

She marks each of her three years at the campus by the racist student incidents on campus.

"My first quarter at Cal Poly would be the 'Colonial Bros' and 'Nava-hos' Halloween party," held by a campus fraternity.

She left after three years because of the environment on and off campus.

"Not only not welcoming but not understanding us," she said. "There was a lot of stares, people wanting to touch my hair without permission. Anytime we would walk into the library as a group, it would just feel like eyes were consistently on us."

Felton believes an ethnic studies requirement for students would have changed the environment on her campus. Studies show that most students, regardless of race, benefit academically from taking ethnic studies classes.

She said a community college African American history class put her on a new path. She learned about the pioneering Black journalist Ida B. Wells, best known for leading an anti-lynching campaign in the early 20th century.

"[Wells] knew what she was doing was really important. And she, she saw value in it, and she pursued it with everything she had," Felton said.

But Felton said ethnic studies is not coming too late. She's now a Pan African Studies major at Cal State LA and sees Melina Abdullah as a driven Black woman much like Ida B. Wells.

Regardless of who ends up as dean of ethnic studies at Cal State LA, the dust isn't likely to settle any time soon, Tang said.

"It's always going to be a struggle, a challenge, a political one, to keep these things sustained, to say nothing of their growth," he said. "So it requires consistent vigilance, organizing political discussions amongst stakeholders to keep these things going."

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