Ethnic Studies: The "Stress Test" of Education in California

Posted on 30 June 2009

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joanne barker.jpgJoanne Barker, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Chair, American Indian Studies Department
College of Ethnic Studies, San Francisco State University

If public higher education in California were put to a "stress test," one measure of its health would be the condition of Ethnic Studies. This is because Ethnic Studies came about as a result of an historic alliance between faculty, staff, students, and members of local communities to make the state's universities relevant and responsible to the large numbers of Californians who were once excluded from college curriculum and opportunity.

If California's legislature approves the massive budget cuts proposed for public higher education, the effects will devastate Ethnic Studies programs and wreck college opportunity for the communities they represent and partner with.

An example is the American Indian Studies Department (AIS) within the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University. Founded in 1969, AIS struggled for 40 years to establish a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Spring 2008 and grow to 5 tenure-track faculty in Fall 2009.

Due to the cuts already imposed on public higher education over the last several years by California's legislatures, AIS has already been forced to cut back to a scant schedule of 10 sections per semester since the 2008-09 school year (down from about 20 sections each semester in 2001-02).

In preliminary estimates of how the proposed cuts will translate from the $584 million estimated for the CSU to a dollar amount for AIS, our schedule will have to be scaled back from 10 sections to 6 sections per semester in 2009-10. This means that we will have to eliminate all elective courses and offer only those core to the major and those that satisfy general education requirements. One result will be that AIS will not be able to graduate its current majors/minors, nor attract new students to the program.

Our students already find it difficult to graduate within four years because AIS has not been able to afford to offer even its core courses more than once or twice a year. This inflexibility has caused many of our students to give up and drop out, because it is impossible for them to balance it with the fact that they have to work several jobs to support themselves and their families.

This is true for Michelle Rodriguez “a California Indian student and AIS major “ who is deeply concerned that she will simply not be able to afford to finish her degree in her senior year in 2009-10 due to AIS scheduling and a pending lack of financial aid.

The proposed budget cuts for AIS will also most likely mean that we will not be in a position to reappoint either of our two lecturers, faculty who work in the CSU on temporary contracts. One “Kathy Wallace” is a California Indian elder who has taught for over 30 years in higher education and within Native communities in the traditional arts and sciences of California Indians. She embodies the founding principles of Ethnic Studies by bringing much-needed cultural knowledge to the classroom and leadership in the department and campus community. If the proposed cuts are implemented, we will simply not be able to reappoint her or our other lecturer in the coming school year.

The proposed cuts will also result in our losing Native and other students of economically disenfranchised backgrounds at San Francisco State University as they are the ones who cannot afford to begin or finish their degrees.

As Wallace observes, California's universities are "losing ground by allowing under-represented groups of students to slip through the cracks and lose the chance of raising the educational level of their people, “Higher education will again fail to be responsive to the needs" of our communities. "Students from AIS are extremely affected by the decisions because the faculty is so small to begin with and already spread so thin. Further, other departments do not offer any classes that may be substituted for those taught in AIS."

But our fellow departments in the SFSU College of Ethnic Studies “Asian American Studies, Africana Studies, Raza Studies, Arab and Muslim Diaspora Studies, and Race and Resistance Studies” confront a similar fate. As we are forced to reduce course offerings and let go of lecturers “resulting in tenure/track faculty having to pile on additional work loads.” Ethnic Studies students will be the first to go.

I fear faculty from under represented communities across the campus will follow as they leave California for states with more resolute commitments to fund public higher education.

So if a "stress test" on education in California were administered today, the state would fail miserably.

The proposed cuts indicate a severe retreat from the principles of the California Master Plan for Higher Education which assumed that a college education ought to be an option for everyone regardless of their economic means. In the past, this plan has resulted in a steady increase in the access and graduation rates for traditionally under represented students, contributing to their progress through advanced degrees into the public workforce and into the service of their communities as teachers, social workers, scientists, engineers, nurses, artists, writers, managers, and advocates for social justice.

The state is creating a situation now that will permanently undermine this progress, rendering higher education in California irrelevant and irresponsible to the majority of the state's diverse population.

Joanne Barker is a citizen of the Lenape nation (the Delaware Tribe of Indians [Bartlesville, Oklahoma]). She earned her Ph.D. in June 2000 from the History of Consciousness Department at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she specialized in Native law and politics, women's/gender studies, and cultural studies. She is associate professor in the American Indian Studies Department at San Francisco State University. She has been the recipient of the Rockefeller Foundation Humanities Fellowship and the Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. She has published articles in numerous journals and edited and wrote the introduction to Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination (University of Nebraska Press, 2005). She is currently completing her book, Native Acts, contracted with Duke University Press. She is much involved in NAGPRA and related issues of Native cultural self-determination at SFSU.

Who chooses which part of the education is important or not, who affords to cut parts of education just because there are budget cuts? Ethnicity is important for every countries identity, there are other part that can be cut but not those parts that keep the identity of a country. What will those students do after that, get a fake college diploma?

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