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In the wake of the heartless killing of George Floyd, and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exact a devastating and disproportionate toll on communities of color, never before have I sensed a feeling of helplessness so profound, held by so many.

Outrage is justified and protest imperative, but nothing less than bold, systemic change can begin to correct the racial injustice that has for so long plagued our nation.

Timothy P. White

Special to CalMatters 

Systemic.

As chancellor of the California State University, I have always bristled at the word “system” as a coldly inaccurate way to describe the CSU’s vibrant and varied 23 institutions of higher learning. But system it is.

Indeed, I am privileged to lead what is the largest and most diverse four-year university system in the country – 481,000 students. Twenty-three CSU campuses grace our state, from Humboldt State in the north to San Diego State in the south. With more than 3.8 million CSU alumni serving in every imaginable capacity throughout California and beyond, the CSU is a powerful economic engine – through times of prosperity, adversity and recovery.

I am equally proud to say that the CSU has long been a catalyst for creating a more equitable society and is a standard bearer for inclusive excellence. Our flagship student-success program, Graduation Initiative 2025, seeks to eliminate equity gaps and to help more students from all walks of life achieve the lifelong benefits of a high-quality college degree.

But I acknowledge that we must do more. Now is the time for deeper, systemic action to promote social justice in its full breadth and to re-evaluate the structures that constrain us from becoming the full embodiment of our core values.

Here are our next actions.

Ethnic Studies Courses on CSU Campuses Statewide Have Helped Our Students

First, the CSU unconditionally supports Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5. Authored by Assemblymember Shirley Weber, a Democrat from San Diego, ACA 5 allows voters to repeal provisions of Proposition 209 that have blocked proven strategies to improve educational equity and degree completion for students of color, including scholarships and recruitment and retention programs – for both students and faculty – based on race/ethnicity. ACA 5 will eliminate these barriers and allow the CSU to consider race as one of many factors when developing programs.

And just last week, the police chiefs of our 23 campus police departments – with my full support and that of all CSU campus presidents – pledged their commitment to adopt the recommendations of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and to disavow the carotid chokehold, which has no place in our society, on campus or off.

And on July 21, after much consultation with faculty, students and other stakeholders, the CSU will advance to its board of trustees a proposal requiring every CSU student to complete a course in ethnic studies and social justice as a component of their CSU degree.

More than 50 years ago, and born out of protest, the nation’s first ethnic studies college was founded at San Francisco State. Since then, ethnic studies courses on CSU campuses statewide have helped our students appreciate the rich variety of personal experiences, histories, barriers and world views that exist among us, while giving students from diverse backgrounds a rightful sense of pride and belonging on our campuses.

Courses Will Be Designed Locally by Faculty on Each Campus

The first significant addition to the CSU’s general education requirements in 40 years, the proposal builds on this long-standing history, while answering the demand for systemic change.

For the first time, all CSU students – roughly 125,000 each year – would choose from an array of courses that explore ethnic studies, as well as the broader scope of social justice. And that is consequential.

Our students will learn to identify and critically analyze repressive structures within our society, as well as how those structures relate to all forms of oppression. We want to inspire in our students a lifetime of engagement toward a more just society.

These courses will be designed locally by faculty on each campus, reflecting the unique communities we serve, as well as the varied experiences of our diverse students.

It is our aim that, with eyes wide open, all CSU graduates in every major will be equipped to see, question and dismantle the racial and social injustices that stain our nation – and take action to advance true systemic change.

About the Author 

Timothy P. White is chancellor of the California State University, csu-chancellor@calstate.edu. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters. 

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