tequila sovereign

The Beginning and End of Ethnic Studies

Joanne Barker


UPDATED: Last week at San Francisco State University (SFSU), the only College of Ethnic Studies (COES) in the United States, was informed that next year’s budget would be cut somewhere between $400,000 and $500,000: based on this year’s budget of $3.6 million, that would mean a 13.8 percent budget cut (see table below).

To be clear, the COES has already experienced severe cuts: for instance, in 2009, the COES had 60 full-time faculty and now has only 37 full-time faculty.

The proposed cuts for 2016-2017 could mean no faculty sabbaticals or course release, no lecturers, no research institutes, no student resource center, and the suspension of all hiring initiatives on new and replacement faculty lines most immediately impacting a current search in Africana Studies. Tenure and tenure track faculty would be expected to make up the difference by significantly increasing their course loads and advising responsibilities. Further, with 40-50 percent less course offerings (considering the total percentage of those courses currenty offered by lecturers), students’ time-to-degree could also be adversely impacted.

The proposed cuts represent the systematic undercutting of COES resources at SFSU over the last decade. It is part of the structural undercutting of Ethnic Studies across the California State University (CSU) system and California public education more broadly. Unexceptionally, it shows what is going on nationally in regards to the advancement of neoliberal agendas to suspend funding of public education and social services (towards their privatization) while increasing funding for “national security” (the military, the militarization of police) as well as government subsidies of corporations and industry.


→ Since 2009, the College of Ethnic Studies has experienced budget cuts totalling about 10.48 percent.

→ The proposed cuts to the College budget for 2016-2017, totalling anywhere from $400,000 to $500,000 or 13.8% of this year’s budget, could result in a combination of specific cuts to the following: The Cesar Chavez Research Institute; Outreach and programming; the Ethnic Studies Student Resource Center; Tenured Faculty MOUs; Sabbatical replacements; Course release for Senate and other service; Work studies; Temporary lecturer appointments.

→ If the cuts go through it means that since 2009, the College of Ethnic Studies has experienced budget cuts totalling about 25 percent.

Working As Learning Conditions

Within the CSU, faculty time is allocated on a five-course per term basis. Each campus, college, and department has modest authority to decide on how to allocate faculty responsibilities and evaluations of performance on that basis.

Generally speaking, faculty tend to secure one course release per term for administrative responsibilities and one course release per term for research and publication. The other three courses they teach, and they are expected to enroll 50 students each. The overwhelming majority of faculty in the CSU are not provided with teaching assistance. This means that faculty are expected to teach three courses and grade the work of 150 students per semester without aid.

The only viable support for faculty research—the foundational basis on which curriculum design, publications, and conference presentations are produced—has to come from a modicum of CSU and campus-based grants and one-term sabbaticals. These grants and awards are highly competitive.

12719227_10153781283551418_6716576196408209125_oAt SFSU and in the COES, faculty wanting time for the professional development of their research and writing or for travel expenses to vet their work at conferences and workshops generally must secure outside funding from equally competitive sources. The policy has been that faculty are “charged” $10-12,000 per course per term for course release. Meaning, effectively, that a faculty person who wants time off teaching for research and does not have a CSU or SFSU grant to do so must secure an outside grant or fellowship at a minimum of $30,000 for a term and $60,000 for the academic year. Since most national fellowships, such as the Ford Foundation, average $45,000/year, CSU and SFSU has created a situation that essentially disqualifies faculty from being able to apply for these awards unless they are willing to make up the difference out of pocket.

Even without viable financial support for research and travel, faculty are expected to publish, present at conferences, and serve their communities. In addition to teaching evaluations, publications and service are used to decide retention and promotion.

And this doesn’t even begin to address the work load, lack of job stability, and salary of temporary faculty. Over the last decade, in fact, course offerings have been so centralized by the SFSU administration that the majority of temporary faculty in the COES have to wait 3 to 4 weeks before the term, and then 1 to 2 weeks into the term, to find out whether or not they have a job and then whether or not their courses will stay on the books for meeting enrollment expectations.

It seems superfluous at this point to have to say that the working conditions of faculty have dire impact on the environment of student learning, advising, and mentoring.

National Politics, National Contexts

The proposed cuts to the COES budget for 2016-2017 will wipe out what is left of any COES support for faculty research, hiring, and collaborations and modest student resources that have survived a decade of systematic gutting. The only way to understand the political significance of these proposed cuts is to situate them within national debates over public education and its responsibilities and relationships to Ethnic Studies.

The student-led strikes of the late sixties and early seventies were about redressing the curriculum of public education. The central criticisms that coalesced strike demands (which led to the formation of the COES at SFSU and Ethnic Studies programs around the country) was the responsibility and relevance of higher education not merely to the communities it served (though it was about that) but to its historical and institutional service to a particularly conservative, racist, and sexist notion of United States history, culture, society, economics, and politics. The strikes, in other words, were strikes against the way the erasure, distortion, and outright lies within higher education about United States history served the political agendas of whiteness, heteronormativity, and class exploitation.

But the response to the strike demands was uneven and often failed, characterized by the treatment of Ethnic Studies faculty, staff, and students as “window dressing” for university public relations (often presenting itself as an institution of social justice and equity) and of Ethnic Studies curriculum as a quaint and largely optional set of electives. Yes, even within the CSU and at SFSU, Ethnic Studies faculty tell many stories of being told that their professional journals and associations do not stand up to the scholarly rigor or intellectual relevance of their peers, that their courses are interesting but not ultimately necessary, and that their students would do better pursing more employable degrees.

The truth is that ever since the formation of Ethnic Studies, public officials and university administrators have been trying to “roll back” the changes. They have not used striker and subsequent critiques of higher education as an occasion to question university curriculum or the function of public education more broadly. Instead, they have indulged false nostalgia in attempts to get back to the day when those critiques were seen to be silenced or at least inconsequential.

power_to_the_people_by_acffOn May 11, 2010 Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed House Bill 2281 to prohibit a school district or charter school from including in its program of instruction any courses or classes that: 1) promotes the overthrow of the Federal or state government or the Constitution; 2) promotes resentment toward any race or class (e.g. racism and classism); 3) advocates ethnic solidarity instead of being individuals; 4) are designed for a certain ethnicity. The law had to allow: 1) Native American classes in order to comply with federal law; 2) grouping of classes based on academic performance; 3) classes about the history of an ethnic group open to all students; 4) classes discussing controversial history. The bill was lobbied by Tom Horne, superintendent of public instruction, to cut the Mexican-American Studies offerings within the Tucson Unified School District because he thought them “destructive ethnic chauvinism and that Mexican American students are oppressed.”

On September 13, 2015, faculty, students, and staff at the University of California, Berkeley, submitted a letter with over 660 signatures to the Chancellor, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost contesting a proposed “repositioning” of the Center of Race and Gender that would effectively downgrade its budgeting and institutional support.

Arizona’s HB 2281 and budget changes at UCB foreshadowed SFSU’s proposed 40 percent budget cuts to COES.

Of particular concern is how the cuts and their legal counterparts represent a broader conservative political agenda to “roll back” the institutional and political reformations of Ethnic Studies in public education.

Rather than looking for ways to advance Ethnic Studies, and its potential for raising serious questions about the implications of things like military spending and the militarization of the police, university administrators and public officials are strategizing how to end it.

The immediate goal of budget cuts serves conservative, neoliberal interests to diminish the potential critical attention and student empowerment within Ethnic Studies as a discipline and curriculum to revolutionize imperialist, racist, and sexist norms within public education and U.S. society.

Hand of deth


(1) The College of Ethnic Studies includes the following departments and programs: Africana Studies Department, American Indian Studies Department, Asian American Studies Department, Latina and Latino Studies Department, and the Race and Resistance Studies Program (including the initiative in Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diaspora Studies).

News Links

Things you can do to support:

  1. email and call the SFSU President Leslie Wong: email: president@sfsu.edu; office: (415) 338-1381
  2. email and call the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Sue Rosser: email: srosser@sfsu.edu; office: (415) 338-1141
  3. organize and email group letters of support through your programs, departments, associations, and organizations
  4. join the Facebook page for updates
  5. sign the student petition here

9 thoughts on “The Beginning and End of Ethnic Studies”

  1. If our history is a lesson, we will likely need to go on strike again … just as a national student/teacher movement begins to bring Ethnic Studies to the center, careerist administrators try to destroy these seminal departments where it all started. Shame on them. It’s their jobs that must go!


  2. Wow, would never have thought a college in the Bay Area would make such an intelligent move as to save money by cutting funding to its most useless departments. Good for them!


    1. How is it useless? Let’s cut all history courses in that case. Not just in SF State but all schools everywhere. Get a clue. Your name says “Think Smarter” but you don’t seem all that smart at all.


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