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Morgan Ottley is the president of the Black Action Society at the University of Pittsburgh, one of several student groups across the country that are calling on universities to help address racism by making courses on race and ethnicity a graduation requirement. Credit: Photo courtesy Morgan Ottley

When Morgan Ottley, a neuroscience major at the University of Pittsburgh, noticed in the spring of her sophomore year that most of her teachers did not address racial disparities in the medical field, she wanted the university to change its curriculum. Where, she thought, was the instruction on how shingles appear on the skin of Black people? Why was there no mention of Black scientists, like Alexa Canady, who had made noteworthy progress in these fields?

Ottley, now a senior, is pushing Pittsburgh to make classes more inclusive. “Something’s gotta give,” she said. “Why am I not learning about people who look like me?”

Ottley is the president of the Black Action Society, which represents the needs and concerns of Black students at the university. Hers is one of several student groups across the country that are calling on universities to help address racism by making courses on race and ethnicity a graduation requirement.

The University of Pittsburgh has been more responsive to its students’ requests than most universities. A one-credit course on “systemic anti-Black racism and anti-racism” will be required for all freshmen beginning in fall 2020.

“Why am I not learning about people who look like me?”

Morgan Ottley, senior neuroscience major, University of Pittsburgh

“In order to really curate a well-rounded student, in order to curate a real well-rounded professional, there’s conversations that you need to have,” Ottley said. “There’s things you need to learn about. And race just so happens to be one of them.”

The California State University system has also made ethnic studies a graduation requirement. In August, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the change into state law, the first adjustment to the general education curriculum in 40 years.  It will be implemented for freshmen in the 2021-22 academic year. And Western Washington University announced in July the addition of “a general university requirement focused on African American studies and structural anti-Black racism.” Several other schools are considering similar additions.

Calls to make curricula more diverse and inclusive are not new, but activists hope to use the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement to spur change. “What makes it different is that now we have news coverage. We have media outlets who are interested in actually creating stories on these things,” Ottley said.

Related: ‘Black At’ Instagram accounts put college racism on display

Advocates for this curricular change say students need to learn about a breadth of subjects so they can make informed decisions in their community. Although some universities require students to fulfill a diversity requirement, not all of the classes offered to fulfill that requirement address systemic racism against marginalized communities, several students and faculty members say.

The development of the new course at Pittsburgh began when Kenyon Bonner, the vice provost and dean of students, arranged a meeting in June with Ottley and other Black students to discuss the campus climate with senior administration officials.

Leaders from Black student groups then surveyed more than 150 Black students about their experiences at the university. Respondents mentioned instructors using racial slurs, fear of the police and a hesitation about reporting racist incidents.

The students showed the administrators the survey results and a list of 24 demands, including “a mandatory introductory course to touch upon systemic racism, white privilege, and prejudices.”

Efforts elsewhere have been less successful.

In August, students in the Racial Justice Coalition at the University of Massachusetts Amherst met with senior administration officials to ask for a new social-justice general education requirement, but their request was denied, said Zach Steward, a junior studying African American studies and legal studies.

“They didn’t really seem to be willing to address the issues that we pointed out,” he said. The group is now working to gain support from faculty for the new course requirement and plans to meet with administration officials again to discuss the demands.

race and ethnic studies
Kennedy Madrid, a senior at Brigham Young University, started a petition in June to make race and ethnicity classes a graduation requirement. Credit: Photo courtesy of Kennedy Madrid

At Brigham Young University, students face similar resistance. Kennedy Madrid, a senior, and two other students started a petition in June in support of making race and ethnicity classes a graduation requirement. The outgoing president of the BYU Black Student Union echoed the sentiment in the Salt Lake Tribune. By the end of August, about 19,000 people had signed the petition, Madrid said, but administrator have not yet responded to her request to meet with them.

Opponents of mandating courses on race argue that information about the systemic oppression of marginalized groups is not essential knowledge, that students have the option to take these classes and that adding more general education requirements will make graduating more difficult.

Related: How one university is luring coveted honor students with racial justice 

“Students attending a CSU already have the choice to take an ethics studies class if they so choose,” California Sen. Brian Jones, who voted against the bill to make ethnic studies a CSU graduation requirement, said in an emailed statement. “However forcing students to take an ethnic studies class, which will likely result in cutting out one of their classes focused on their career development and possibly delaying their graduation and entry into the workforce, is not appropriate nor wise.”

“If we are serious about democracy, if we are serious about citizen participation, if we are serious about attacking racism in this country, then [ethnic studies is] as important as taking a U.S. history course.” 

Theresa Montalbaño, professor of Chicana and Chicano studies, University of California Northridge

But supporters point to a fundamental reason for general education requirements: universities’ responsibility to develop a well-rounded student.

Theresa Montaño, a professor of Chicana and Chicano studies at the University of California Northridge, said the history of marginalized communities is not commonly known, and this hinders progress. “If we are serious about democracy, if we are serious about citizen participation, if we are serious about attacking racism in this country, then [ethnic studies is] as important as taking a U.S. history course,” she said.

Race and ethnic studies courses often provide students with information they might not have otherwise learned. Keisha Blain, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, teaches a history course on the civil rights movement that some students take to fulfill a requirement. At its conclusion, she said, some students write in the course evaluation that before taking her course, they thought they knew everything about the subject.

“The people who need it more are the people who don’t think they need it, and the people who haven’t thought about it, the people who think that it’s not important,” Blain said.

While requiring designated courses on race and ethnicity is a good step, universities shouldn’t stop there, said David-James Gonzales, an assistant professor at BYU and member of a subcommittee to develop a potential diversity requirement. He thinks professors of other disciplines should integrate the coverage of race and ethnicity within classes they already teach – and believes many are starting to do so.

When he visited the Utah campus over the summer to check his mailbox, Gonzales saw books by Black authors in his colleagues’ mailboxes.

“I can see the desire in my colleagues to inform themselves first,” he said. “The first step is listening, informing yourself, learning,” he said.

This story about race and ethnic studies was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news outlet focused on innovation and inequality in education. Sign up for our newsletters here.

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