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What Anti-Racism Efforts Could Look Like On Cal State Campuses

California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White announced on Oct. 22, 2019 that he will retire in 2020. (Courtesy of the California State University)
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As conversations over police brutality and racial inequality continue nationwide, students and faculty of California's largest university system have been calling for anti-racism reforms at their campuses.

Earlier this month, the California Faculty Association, the union that represents Cal State University faculty, laid out a raft of proposed changes for the 23-campus system, including that the CSU:

  • Require students to take an ethnic studies course to graduate
  • Defund and disarm on-campus police
  • Offer free tuition to Black and Indigenous students

Sharon Elise, the union's associate vice president of racial and social justice and a sociology professor at CSU San Marcos, said the union was "galvanized by the police murder of George Floyd to really step up" and address racism.
"We witness that our campuses have yet to really reform education, so that it would be culturally relevant to students of color, and that we need to address some of the things that really retard the success of students of color in particular," Elise told our culture and public affairs show Take Two.

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The union wants CSU to support AB 1460, a bill that would require students to take a three-unit class in one of the following ethnic disciplines: Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies, or Latina and Latino studies.

Michael Uhlenkamp, a Cal State spokesman, told us in a statement that CSU is committed to "working to address racial inequities" -- he noted that CSU and the union both support the repeal of Proposition 209, which has for years prevented universities from considering race or ethnicity in admissions decisions -- but otherwise "the tactics to accomplish this differ from what the union is presenting."

CSU Chancellor Tim White put forth an alternative proposal for students to have the option to take either an ethnic studies course or a social justice course before they graduate. A CSU Board of Trustees committee approved the proposal on Tuesday. It now goes before the full board on Wednesday.

But Elise argues a more general social justice course doesn't address the core issue. Ethnic studies "are explicitly linked to the struggles of people of color in society. These programs emerged from those struggles, and they express the academic side of those struggles," she said.

Brett Hernandez, a current student at Cal State LA, said he liked "that people of color are being given a voice to tell their story through ethnic courses," and have the opportunity to share "their history, their American journey, despite all the racial injustices"

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"Ethnic courses should have been made mandatory long ago," he added.

Elise said that based on her 30-year teaching experience, "the fact of the matter is a single course can transform a student's outlook," and will usually "whet the appetite of students for further study and engagement."

Still while AB 1460 has passed in the Senate and Assembly, it has yet to be signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom. If he does sign it, AB 1460 would supersede the chancellor's proposal.


Each of the 23 campuses currently has its own independent police department, and officers in those departments have access to firearms and other weapons.

CSU faculty said the Cal State schools need to "remove armed police from our campuses, and join CFA in exploring community based strategies as alternatives to policing that are based in community accountability and transformative justice."

Elise added that they are advocating for the CSUs to reallocate funds to instead provide more mental health counselors and crisis intervention teams.

"We are told when we come into our campuses as new faculty ... for all kinds of crises that we are to call the police. So this is the kind of training we get in our orientations: call the police," she said. "When you see an upset student: call the police. If you need to address an intense situation, given our own traumatizing experiences with police as well as those of our students, we know police are not counselors. They're not social workers."

There are far too many polie on campus "and they often disproportionately police and harass students of color," said Siana Fields, a student at CSU Monterey Bay.

"I think it might be very striking to some people to have an idea of not having police on campus," she added. "But I think the CFA does an important job of including that there are other ways and other alternatives to policing."

Uhlenkamp said the universities' police departments are all committed to community policing and have pledged to implement recommendations from President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, including providing more data on police shootings and on civilians' attitudes toward the police, as well as removing policies that reward officers who produce more arrests and convictions.

This particular demand comes as the country continues to grapple with the police killings of Black men and women, and as the Black Lives Matter movement pushes for police reform -- a demand that has been promoted regarding campus police at K-12 schools across California, but not yet at public universities.

Earlier this month, LAUSD board members voted to cut $25 million from the L.A. School Police Department. Meanwhile in northern California, the Oakland school board voted to eliminate its police department altogether.


The CSUs are some of the most ethnically and racially divers​e universities in the country: 38% of CSU employees and 60% of CSU students are people of color. But gaps remain.

The faculty union is calling on the CSU to provide free tuition for students who are Black or Indigenous due to a "decades-long trend of declining enrollments amongst" that population.

As part of its call for free tuition for these students, campuses need to "prioritize increasing enrollment and retention rates for marginalized students, particularly Black students," the union said.

In a follow-up interview, Elise said the union thinks tuition should be free for all students, but the short-term focus is on those populations that have seen a decline in enrollment. She said Latinos, for instance, "are in sufficient numbers at our universities, they can have some assurance that they'll find other students like them on campus."

When asked how CSU should fund this demand and others, Elise said the university should "draw from its rainy day funds in the same way that the state has been doing."

"We know it's raining," she added. "And we need to redirect the resources that we do have to prioritize addressing systemic racism, just as the governor has drawn from rainy day funds to address the covid crisis."



Thursday 7/23 at 3:47 p.m.: This story was updated with a follow-up quote from Sharon Elise.

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