Debate turns hot over UC proposal to set criteria for high school ethnic studies


A seventh-grader walks by a Black History Month display at Sutton Middle School on her way to class.

UC board that sets high school admissions requirements rejects draft ethnic studies guidelines viewed as ideological and divisive; drafters vow to fight on.

An influential University of California faculty committee has shelved a draft policy to require criteria for high school ethnic studies courses that critics characterized as narrow, ideological and activist.

The professors who wrote the draft are vowing to fight for it, in what could become a combative and very public battle over who gets to decide what California high school students will learn about the heritage, history, culture and struggles of the state’s historically underrepresented groups.

The proposal had gone through several iterations and had appeared to be on track to go before the UC Board of Regents for approval. Instead, the Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools or BOARS, which initiated the effort, has backpedaled amid continued questions and debate within and outside of UC.


Courses meeting the ethnic studies requirement would address each of the following guiding principles. (Go here to read the full proposal.)

  • CENTER an understanding of Indigeneity, routes, and roots through acknowledgement that the course takes place on stolen, unceded land of  Native Peoples and in spaces forged through labor, paid, unpaid, and underpaid. This is taught through anti-racist and anti-colonial liberation, cultural work, self-worth, self-determination, and the holistic well-being of the widest conceivable collective, especially Native people and people of color.
  • CREATE and honor anti-colonial and liberatory movements that struggle for social justice on global and local levels. Engage in the critical study of struggles, locally and globally, against systems and ideas that attempt to divide and conquer people.
  • CULTIVATE communities that foster, acknowledge, and value the relationships of Indigenous and all communities of color for their survival. Place high value on Indigenous knowledges, worldviews, and epistemologies, and those of other communities of color.
  • CRITIQUE histories of imperialism, dehumanization, and genocide to expose how they are connected to present-day ideologies, systems, and dominant cultures that perpetuate racial violence, white supremacy, and other forms of oppressions.
  • CHALLENGE and examine how multiple oppressions and identities intersect (e.g., race, ethnicity, class, gender, culture, nationality, sexual orientation, belief-system, history, language).
  • CONCEPTUALIZE and create spaces that embrace the idea that racial and ethnic groups are not monolithic and model the joy, knowledge, agency, strength, and endurance of Indigenous and People of color communities.

The proposal would add a semester of ethnic studies as a new “H” requirement to the 15 A-G math, English, science, history, foreign language and visual/performing arts courses that are required for admission to UC. It would substitute for an elective or be the focus of an English or history course and not be an additional course. It would apply to California State University applicants, too, since CSU has adopted the same admissions requirements.

Minutes of a May 6 BOARS meeting didn’t specify members’ concerns, other than to state that members “were not persuaded” that the draft criteria’s authors, mostly UC ethnic studies professors, had sufficiently responded to issues BOARS had raised. The minutes noted that an initial version of the UC proposal was similar to the first version of the state’s own high school Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum, which Gov. Gavin Newsom had criticized in October 2020 when vetoing a bill mandating an ethnic studies course as a graduation requirement.

In his veto message, Newsom called the proposed state curriculum framework “insufficiently balanced and inclusive” and said it should be substantially amended. Responding to Newsom’s critique, the State Board of Education adopted a more moderate, broader framework, and last year Newsom signed legislation mandating an ethnic studies course to graduate, starting in 2029-30.

Many of the ethnic studies professors and high school teachers who wrote the state’s controversial first draft disavowed the version adopted in March 2021 as “compromised.” They subsequently formed the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition and wrote an alternative curriculum framework they said is true to the principles that grew out of the ethnic studies movement of the 1960s.

Some of the same professors, in turn, served on a 20-member task force for the draft UC criteria. Three of the six authors of the criteria have endorsed the liberated version and a fourth, Tricia Gallagher-Guertsen, a lecturer in education studies and UC San Diego, is active in the Liberated Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum Coalition. While not identical, the language of the draft UC criteria is very similar to the liberated curriculum, with calls for developing “critical consciousness,” “creating and honoring anti-colonial and liberatory movements that struggle for social justice” and “dismantling systems of oppression and dehumanization” in many forms. (See pages 11 to 13.)

Protests coming

The May 6 minutes noted that BOARS would reconsider how ethnic studies courses might align better with the State Board-approved curriculum.

“No final decisions have been made,” BOARS Chair Madeleine Sorapure, former director of the Writing Program at UC Santa Barbara, said in an email, and the board “continues to engage in a robust discussion.”

The two co-lead authors of the proposed ethnic studies curriculum denounced BOARS’ action after being informed BOARS would no longer would need their help. In a May 12 statement, Andrew Jolivette, professor and chair of Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego, and Christine Hong, associate professor and chair of Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at UC Santa Cruz, accused members of BOARS of caving to “spurious charges” and “fears of Fox News and white supremacist backlash.”

They called on supporters to write UC leaders in defense of the draft criteria; more than 1,200 individuals and organizations as of late May have signed a letter comparing the current effort to extend ethnic studies criteria in high school with the 1968 student strikes at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley that created ethnic studies departments in universities. “The time for ethnic studies was then. The time for ethnic studies is now,” it said.

In an interview, Jolivette said of the pushback to BOARS’ decision, “It’s only going to get bigger, and not go away; there will be protests.”

Jolivette said the writing group had spent a year working on the criteria through several drafts. “We did what we were asked to do. It was a very serious effort and deserves serious attention,” he said.

But last November, when it reviewed the draft, some BOARS members had expressed concern that “the revised proposal still had an activist tone, and suggested reference to the state model curriculum,” according to minutes of the meeting (page 3), only recently published. Writers of the draft assured the committee that “the proposal outlines what courses should strive to achieve, not how to achieve those goals” and that having students intellectually engage with “the political and institutional systems that impact them” shouldn’t be controversial.

BOARS voted to forward the draft to the Academic Council, which consists of the leadership of UC faculty’s Academic Senate for system-wide faculty review as part of an “iterative process,” according to the minutes.

A “narrow” perspective 

On March 30, the Academic Council sent back the draft for more work. In an email to EdSource, Robert Horwitz, chair of the Academic Council and a professor of communications at UC San Diego, didn’t specify what changes the faculty wanted made. He said some campus senates were fine with it as written while others had technical questions. And, without alluding to the Liberated Ethnic Studies curriculum, Horwitz said that “some campus Senates commented that the course criteria were more narrowly defined than the guidelines” in the state’s year-old ethnic studies model curriculum.

Horwitz indicated that he expected that the draft would be sent back by the end of the academic year. The Academic Council would then decide whether to forward it to the UC regents for adoption. But with the sidetracking of the criteria, that timeline would appear unlikely.

Neither BOARS nor the writing committee has released the most recent revision. Jolivette said the committee responded with 30 citations that show the criteria are consistent with the state’s model ethnic studies curriculum.

Hong, his co-lead, said in a May 20 interview with the Bay Area radio station KPFA, that BOARS had been cowed by outside criticism. She called it the “internalization of fear.”

Noting that the UC governance structure is probably 70% white, Hong added, “When it comes to an issue like ethnic studies, we the ethnic studies scholars and teacher practitioners are disproportionately not at the table when decisions are made. It’s not a democratic structure whatsoever, and that has to shift.”

Those who have sent letters opposing the draft criteria include UCLA Law School Professor Richard Sander and the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, a national nonprofit. Both letters state the draft criteria for a new “H” requirement would lead to content that is highly political and ideological.

Sander, in a May 31 letter signed by 172 UC faculty members, wrote the ethnic studies proposal would be “radical departure” from UC’s past approach to courses required for admissions, which “are all about the acquisition of key skills in high school, not about learning specific ideas or doctrines.” The letter called the proposal an “end run around” the State Board’s compromise framework and will be viewed as “presumptuous, disruptive, and disrespectful of California’s public policy-making process.”

In a harsh assessment, FAIR, which will publish FAIRStory, its own version of ethnic studies, in coming months, urged BOARS not to choose the Liberated Ethnic Studies model. That approach promotes “divisive and radical ideas that pressure students to become activists to foment a political revolution” instead teaching “positive and universal lessons in empathy and compassion across multiple ethnicities,” the letter asserted.

Letitia Kim, who is managing director of FAIR’s legal network and is based in the Bay Area, said, “We believe it’s a good thing for people to be exposed to many different ideas, including critical race theory. But it should not be the only lens through which things are being taught.”

Jolivette disputed criticisms of the criteria. “It’s not about bashing whites or any other group based on race. We’re not saying capitalism should be destroyed. This criteria is about making sure we recognize racial divisions so we don’t continue to have the kind of violent acts we saw in Buffalo a few weeks ago,” he said.

“People are uncomfortable talking about race. They are afraid to honestly address the ugly stains of ongoing racial oppression,” he said.

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