After 40 Years, Ethnic Studies Program Still Faces Hardship

Photo: Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley celebrated its 40th anniversary on May 1, 2009. Next year, the department will lose financial support with an expected 8 percent budget cut.
Emma Lantos/Staff
Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley celebrated its 40th anniversary on May 1, 2009. Next year, the department will lose financial support with an expected 8 percent budget cut.

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Ethnic Studies
Looking Back 40 Years Later

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In February 1969, Upper Sproul Plaza more closely resembled a warzone than the center of a prestigious university.

Students were dodging tear gas thrown by police from helicopters, and protest organizers were being beaten by police forces on the steps of Sproul Hall.

"The campus was like a battlefield," said Carlos Munoz, a professor emeritus of ethnic studies.

This was a separate struggle from free speech, one for an ethnic studies program few recognize for its tumultuous establishment.

Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, the department has established itself on campus but continues to face budgetary and structural challenges.

Harvey Dong, a campus lecturer for Asian American studies within the department, said that although he did not come to UC Berkeley as a student to be a revolutionary, he was pushed by the climate of the era.

"We felt that the world was changing very rapidly and we saw ourselves as being part of that," he said.

In the 1960s, Dong and others organized a movement called the Third World Liberation Front, which brought students together to demand minority representation in academic programs.

After months of student-led protests, the campus agreed in the winter of 1969 to begin an ethnic studies department. This agreement included plans to transition the department into a separate college of its own-a goal that has never been realized.

But a separate ethnic studies college may not be the best course of action, according to Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost George Breslauer.

"There was some rationale for a (college) that would partially insulate these departments from mainstream trends," he wrote in an e-mail. "Today ... (the program) will be enhanced by a cross-fertilization that would be inhibited by walling off the identity-based departments in a separate college."

The ethnic studies college at SF State University-the only college of its kind in the nation-was also founded in 1969. About 6,000

students take ethnic studies classes per semester, said the college's dean, Kenneth Monteiro.

"Our program has two missions," he said. "One is to be the major for students. At the same time, it is our intention to be part of the education of the whole university."

At UC Berkeley, ethnic studies expects an 8 percent cut next year as part of campuswide budget cuts, said department chair Beatriz Manz. The program has trouble supporting graduate student instructors, an issue that will be worsened by decreased funding.

"We have competition from other private universities like Yale and Harvard who can give better packages to their students, and we lose some advantage because we don't have financial support," she said.

According to Manz, the department has difficulty raising private funds since most graduates go into academia rather than business.

UC Berkeley is not alone in these challenges. The ethnic studies

department at the University of Hawaii will face a 4 percent cut next year, which has led to fewer lecturers and decreased support for graduate students.

"These are severe because they're not cutting meat but also bone," said professor and department chair Ibrahim Aoude.

Regardless of budget problems, the department at UC Berkeley produces successful graduates prepared for the competitive job market, said Associate Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres.

"They understand the fabric of our society," he said. "They go for a medical profession or law, become advisors in college or teachers."

According to Larry Estrada, president of the National Association for Ethnic Studies, ethnic studies has international importance.

"Even President Obama emphasizes that one of the challenges within this century is race relations in the world," he said.

Junior Justine Rivero said she has had to defend her decision to concentrate in ethnic studies.

"Employers have asked me in a condescending way, 'What do you plan to do with that?'" she said. "I try to explain ... It's a direct reflection of the community around me."

ASUC Executive Vice President Krystle Pasco, an ethnic studies major, said that she believes she can compete with more science-oriented graduates in the current job market.

"With an ethnic studies background, I have an understanding that not many will," she said. "I could go into any field and apply what I've learned."

Dong said the continued vitality of the department is in its students' hands.

"It took student involvement and activism to get ethnic studies established," he said. "It will take the same thing for it to go any further."


Contact Keena Batti and Leslie Toy at [email protected]

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