Race and ethnic studies requirement would prepare students to 'become better citizens'

Group of four students sitting on plaza steps in conversation

In the wake of the 1960s civil rights movement, ethnic studies emerged as a discipline in direct response to student and faculty demands for scholarship that critically examined the histories, cultures, lived experiences and struggles of people of color on their own terms.

Fifty years later, as the country faces yet another national reckoning on race and racism, it's become increasingly necessary that students graduate with an in-depth study of race, ethnicity and systemic oppression, says a group of Portland State faculty who put forward a proposal for a campus wide Race and Ethnic Studies requirement starting in fall 2022. 

"Our students really need the tools to be able to understand and engage in these kinds of discussions not only during their time at PSU, but also once they leave PSU," says Lisa Weasel, chair of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. "We're preparing our students to go out into this world where this is a critical challenge. We see it in the streets, we hear it from our leaders. Students from all backgrounds and experiences need these courses."

The proposed two-course requirement, which is expected to go up for a Faculty Senate vote on May 3, has been designed to equip students with an understanding of how historically rooted and ongoing racism affects institutions in Oregon, the U.S. and the world. 

Students would choose from a list of approved courses that could simultaneously be used to fulfill major, minor, University Studies and/or elective requirements — meaning students won't have to take additional credits for graduation.

One course would focus on the systems, institutions, histories and practices of exclusion in relation to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander groups in the U.S. The other course would focus on the impact of European and U.S. colonialism on racial and/or ethnic groups outside of the U.S. 

The group says the key is that all courses center the experiences, pedagogies and methods of BIPOC communities in the curriculum.

"Content alone isn't enough," says Ethan Johnson, chair of Black Studies and lead author of the proposal. "You can't just have a survey of subjects without critically examining them from a Black, Indigneous or Chicano/Latino perspective. You need people with the expertise in ethnic studies to help students process what those things mean and engage them in ways that people have been trained to do."

A Faculty Senate Race and Ethnic Studies Requirement committee would be tasked with reviewing courses for the requirement. Many of the courses would be housed or cross-listed with SGRN, but faculty across campus would have the opportunity to develop courses that align with the requirement. President Stephen Percy, Provost Susan Jeffords and College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Dean Todd Rosenstiel have pledged $357,000 to fund summer workshops for 90 faculty members from departments across campus over three years. 

Johnson says the proposal offers PSU an opportunity to engage with race and ethnicity in a substantive and meaningful way, and align its resources with what the university says are its values and priorities. Percy has repeatedly said that his highest priority is sustaining and amplifying the university's commitment to racial justice.

The hope is that the requirement would not only help students access the important content and subject matter offered in the historically underfunded units in SGRN and increase demand for these courses, but that it would also encourage departments across campus to prioritize hires who bring a background of race and ethnic studies to their disciplines. 

"They'll have to think about their next hires and think about the courses that fit into the requirement," Johnson said. "That could very well mean they have to hire BIPOC faculty who focus on these areas of study."

Ted Van Alst, chair of Indigenous Nations Studies and interim director of the School of Gender, Race and Nations, says the requirement is as essential as reading or math, especially as shifting demographics mean that America is on its way to becoming predominantly nonwhite.

"You have to understand your fellow citizens who are increasingly coming in from the marginalized to the center," he said. "This skill is something you can use every day as long as you live and work and travel in the world. We're helping our students become better citizens."

And students are asking for it. The student government passed a resolution in support of the requirement and set up a website, Liberation to Education PSU, to share resources and circulate a petition. 

Mamadou Fall, a senior international and global studies major and ASPSU's legislative affairs director, says the requirement would help bridge the gap of understanding between students of color and their white peers.

"We have seen, especially in our educational system, that there is a lack of representation of understanding from students from more privileged backgrounds not being able to understand the frustrations, concerns and trauma of people of color," Fall said. "This also provides an opportunity for students to better understand and advocate for what is right: justice, equality, diversity and inclusion."

The faculty group says the requirement would also build on the topics incoming PSU students will be learning in Oregon K-12 schools as part of the state's revised social studies curriculum around tribal history, holocaust and other genocides, and ethnic studies. 

"Our students coming into PSU will increasingly have this background and will want and need to continue that," Weasel said. 

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