Universities around the country continue to grapple with inequities that are ingrained into their institutions.
Following months of racial justice protests that increased transparency around racism in higher education, universities are considering curriculum changes as a primary channel to foster informed and inclusive environments.
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill requiring California State University students who enter as freshmen in 2021-22 to take an ethnic studies requirement in order to graduate. The requirement, mandated across all 23 campuses, requires students to take one course in either Native American studies, African American studies, Asian American studies or Latinx studies.
The bill wasn’t passed without opposition. The competing plan, proposed by the university system, presented a broader ethnic studies curriculum which incorporated a social justice angle. These classes aimed to bring current events into the classroom, including police brutality, immigration status and public health disparities.
The discourse around how best to define ethnic studies, and how specified these courses should be, is ongoing at USC.
History of the diversity requirement
USC has yet to institute a specific ethnic studies requirement that would require students to take a class on one of the aforementioned groups. Rather, USC’s general education curriculum is rooted in two diversity requirements that offer courses across a broad thematic range.
But there’s a distinction between ethnic studies courses and the existing diversity requirement at USC.
In 1995, USC implemented its first diversity requirement. The courses offered focused specifically on how identity and inequalities impacted the American social, political and economic landscape.
This preliminary diversity requirement came under review, facing criticism from faculty members underscoring that these courses failed to present information through an international lens.
In 2015, faculty moved to implement a second requirement which expanded the existing courses into two general education requirements, turning the original six general education requirements into eight. The current diversity requirements — “Citizenship in a Diverse World” and “Traditions and Historical Foundations” — are what students must take to graduate.
Despite the expansion, the parameters around diversity remain broad, according to Viet Thanh Nguyen, an English, American Studies and Ethnicity and Comparative Literature professor at USC, who worked on the committee that approved courses for the former diversity requirement.
Nguyen reaffirmed the importance of ethnic studies courses as providing a space to address real world events impacting different groups and demographics. He referenced the Black Lives Matter protests, police violence and the recent attack against Asian American women in Atlanta.
“In my mind, it all points to a very particular set of historical issues in the United States that are tied to the International, but need to be addressed in terms of the particular American confluence of race, violence, class, labor exploitation, and so on, which is what an ethnic studies requirement would do,” Nguyen said.
This requirement could provide students with a nuanced and dimensional exploration into how history shapes the inequities of the present, Nguyen explained.
“So the reason to talk about different groups, whether you call them ethnicities, or races or cultures and so on, is not to celebrate them, but to talk about why they exist in this country defined the way that they are and that their existence in this existence in this country is tied to power and exploitation and imbalances,” Nguyen said.
Debating the curriculum
Deciding how to designate a curriculum that talks about different groups is complex, said Richard Fliegel, the associate dean for Undergraduate Programs in Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences who oversees the general education curriculum development. To institute an additional ethnic studies requirement, or to replace existing curriculum, would require a broad collective consensus from faculty across different disciplines and areas of studies at USC.
“Arriving at that kind of a consensus of the faculty is something that takes some work, and in fact, changes over time,” Fliegel said.
Beyond the need for agreement across faculty, Fliegel also explained that an ethnic studies course may narrow the intersectionality that the existing diversity courses attempt to achieve, as the wide-ranging classes explore a multitude of demographics, identities and histories.
“We can’t have an endless series of requirements that respect the lived experience of each group individually, and that’s usually why we end up with requirements that don’t specify the particular dynamics of difference but that encourage people to understand the kind of analysis that would allow us to transcend those attitudes,” Fliegel said.
But for professors and students alike, a broad diversity curriculum dilutes necessary conversations around power at a local, national and international level.
“I think the University and the faculty are generally kind of conservative,” Nguyen said. “They don’t want to have a requirement that basically confronts power.”
Tangible action on behalf of the University is required in order to unpack and dismantle harmful power structures, Nguyen said.
“So we will have the administration putting out statements [saying,] ‘Hey, anti-Asian hatred and violence are wrong.’ That’s fine. But let’s do something about it, and actually use a core course, to talk about something like anti-Asian hatred and violence,” Nguyen said.
Concern around racial inequality and violence can’t be rooted in performative actions, Nguyen explained.
“And not just that, obviously, but again, how racism and violence against minorities, whether it’s physical violence, or structural violence, labor exploitation, sexual violence — all of these are issues of power that need to be addressed in our curriculum, not just at the level of the rhetoric of the university,” Nguyen said.
Many faculty members feel the administration is falling short of instituting necessary curriculum changes.
Ariela Gross, a professor of law and history and a chair for the Concerned Faculty of USC, said anti-racism training for faculty and students is important in raising awareness around bias and harmful language.
“When we talk to students about their experience, one of the first things people will talk about is better training, better anti-racism training,” Gross said.
Gross mentioned the @Black_at_USC Instagram and the impact that microaggressions and racist comments have on students. While bias training is important, she emphasized that it isn’t enough.
She further explained that curriculum requirements should ensure that no USC student can graduate without an understanding of race and racism.
“I’m a historian, I’d like to learn this history to know how we got here, to both learn about the history of these movements and struggles,” Gross said. “Black Lives Matter didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s building on the shoulders of all of these past movements. But also to understand where these structures came from, where this ideology comes from.”
Gross, along with other faculty members, is teaching classes that facilitate discourse around injustice and racism, specifically as it pertains to USC.
Gross and Sam Erman, a professor of law, are teaching a research seminar for graduate students focusing on the history of discrimination at USC. Students are creating scalar projects that detail instances of racism and discrimination by the University throughout different time periods. This course will be taught at the undergraduate level next year.
“There are a number of these initiatives around the University, so students and faculty are already starting to do this work, even though the administration is kind of lagging behind,” Gross said. “But the history committee report, which is just being finished, will be calling on the University to kind of take up that mantle and do this work and take ownership over that history.”
Despite the opportunity for an ethnic studies requirement to provide a space where power structures rooted in whiteness, violence and exploitation are addressed, some students feel curriculum isn’t the most efficient channel to inform students.
“As students, when we’re in a class, when it’s a required class not one that we necessarily choose to be in, we take it without having a regard to actually maintain or retain the information provided to us,” said Zaria Kelley, a sophomore majoring in psychology and board member of the Black Student Assembly.
Rather than instituting a required course, Kelley emphasized the need for students to look to existing clubs and cultural centers on campus.
“One of the biggest things is to listen to the voices of different clubs on campus, especially if they’re minority representative,” Kelley said. “I know that we have a lot of cultural centers on campus so the clubs associated with those or the centers themselves.”
While cultural centers and clubs provide a space for students to learn about topics and groups outside of their own identities, it’s important that students don’t center their voice over those who the space is created for, Kelley explained.
Fliegel also echoed the importance of extending beyond curriculum to reduce harmful behavior and microaggressions on campus. He explained that collaborative experiences and interpersonal relationships among students are essential to creating an inclusive community.
“You kind of discover on an experiential basis that some biases that you may have been raised with, coming from outside, don’t bear up and you begin to change your personal feelings about other people, and that I think is something that happens in social contexts,” Fliegel said.
An ethnic studies program, that could foster greater racial consciousness, sensitivity and understanding could facilitate necessary discourse around power and prejudice, consequently creating a student body better prepared to understand and combat injustice after college.
“A curricular requirement in ethnic studies, or the equivalent, would be extremely important in telling students that part of what it means to be a resident or a citizen of this country is to be cognizant of how crucial inequality — especially inequality around race, class, gender — has been fundamental to this country,” Nguyen said.