The case for Ethnic Studies
Offer curricula that nurture students to succeed

Remarks to California State University Board of Trustees, September 20, 2016

by Molly Talcott, Associate Professor, Sociology, Cal State Los Angeles
CFA Los Angeles Chapter President, and CFA Secretary

Good morning.

My name is Molly Talcott. I’m an associate professor of sociology at Cal State LA, and Secretary of CFA.

I also have the pleasure, once a year, to teach a class in Latin American Studies. When I do so, I witness students lighting up and coming alive as they learn about the diasporas and social histories that have shaped their families, that formed their own identities, and that help them better understand and feel empowered within their own communities.

It’s beautiful to behold students developing their own self-understandings alongside a broader understanding of history, politics, and social life.

Many of us who teach in ethnic and gender studies programs and departments can provide thoroughly inspiring anecdotes about the undeniable benefits of ethnic studies for our students in the CSU. 

And now, we have more than anecdotes to substantiate our pedagogical intuitions. A new study by Stanford University researchers has found that taking ethnic studies improved students’ academic performance and discouraged them from dropping out.

The effects on academic performance were not limited to their ethnic studies classes. In fact, the largest gains for students attending ethnic studies courses were found among young men and among Latinos in the subjects of science and math.

At Cal State LA, my star MA student, Uriel Serrano, who is now headed for his PhD at UC Santa Cruz in a week, was a key leader in our campus’ Men of Color Success Network. Out of that work came his research on the experiences of Black and Latino men students at Cal State LA.

Uriel compiled compelling data of men detailing their experiences of racism on campus and their search for a refuge—which they found in the Pan-African Studies Department. Many noted that had they not found the lifeline that is Pan-African Studies, they would not have stayed at the university.

Given the testimonies of CSU students at prior meetings right here in this room in support of expanding ethnic studies, given the hunger strike at SFSU last spring in protest of cuts to the College of Ethnic Studies, given the massive walkouts that occurred last year at Cal State LA, led by the Black Student Union, and given the dire racial crisis this country is facing—in politics, in policing, in immigration enforcement and more—the CSU Ethnic Studies Task Force report’s recommendation to the Chancellor’s Office to fund hiring for 50 additional tenure-line faculty across the whole system—that’s just about two faculty lines per campus—is a modest recommendation for positive change in our system.

It is a missed opportunity that Chancellor White has failed to endorse this modest proposal. And, with the passage and signing of AB 2016, ethnic studies will become ubiquitous in California middle and high schools, with the CSU scrambling to catch up. It is time that the CSU follow the lead of California’s secondary education system—if for no other reason than to train the future K12 ethnic studies teachers who enroll in the CSU.

In closing, I want to quote the CSU Graduation Initiative website:

“We face a moral imperative to serve our students better by helping more of them complete the college educations that prepare them for full and productive lives.”

I agree with this. CFA agrees with this.

The CSU does have a moral imperative to serve our students, and now that we know,—through mounting research and through our own pedagogical witnessing that drastically increasing support for ethnic studies across the CSU is a central way for us to meet this moral imperative and help students experience the fullness of their lives—it is now urgent that you change course. 

The way to support students’ abilities to graduate is not through enrollment management alone, but instead through offering curricula that nurture students’ whole selves and that prepare them to engage meaningfully in a confusing, unequal, and divided world—with wisdom, intellectual acumen, and emotional resilience. 

Thank you.