Faculty, alumni recount fight for passage of diversity requirement
May 15, 2015 2:52 a.m.
After College of Letters and Science faculty voted down a diversity requirement proposal in 2004, the question for some was, “What do we do now?”
Raymond Knapp, a musicology professor who had chaired the Academic Senate Undergraduate Council around that time, said he remembers having a hard conversation with former Undergraduate Students Association Council Academic Affairs Commissioner Sofia Kozak after the results came out.
“Nothing” was the answer he had. They would have to wait. It was the first time a requirement had gone to an official vote, and they had lost 108-141.
But Knapp would stay years longer at UCLA than Kozak, so the defeat was different. He assured her that, despite any failures of a proposal, students still had a diversity curriculum at UCLA.
Eleven years later, the diversity requirement has passed at UCLA, requiring this fall’s first-year students to take one diversity-related course before they graduate. The course must compare inequalities between different communities through racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and other frameworks.
But the groundwork for this requirement started decades ago, when faculty diversity was slim and the university was figuring out ways to handle the increasingly diverse student body they expected to come.
Karen Rowe, an English professor who came to UCLA in 1971, said the requirement stemmed from a series of calculated decisions, including hiring faculty for a broader range of research areas and establishing interdepartmental programs, that changed the infrastructure of the university.
On the threshold of the ’80s, everyone was anticipating a more diverse student body, said Dana Trapnell Tibbits, the Student Educational Policy commissioner on USAC during the late 1970s. Trapnell Tibbits was involved in helping administrators shape programs to help improve the experience of minority students on campus.
“There was a lot of consensus about things that needed to happen,” Trapnell Tibbits said.
In the mid-1970s, the California legislature called for the University of California to have a student body with the same racial makeup of graduating high school classes. Racial quotas were not allowed after the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke 1978 Supreme Court case, but affirmative action policies still allowed the UC to increase diversity in its student population until 1996, when Proposition 209 passed. The Institute of the American Cultures at UCLA was also established in 1969, marking a key point for UCLA’s ethnic studies programs.
At a conference at Lake Arrowhead in the ’80s, Rowe said the administration told departments they had to start hiring a mass of diverse faculty.
“Hiring had been really tokenism before this, but it then became a policy of critical mass,” she said. “It had been percolating, but to me that was the key linchpin in moving toward a conscious articulated policy and diverse curriculum in all areas.”
Then-Chancellor Charles E. Young, who proposed the first gender and ethnic studies requirement at UCLA in 1987, said he felt it was important to increase diversity in the student and faculty bodies so that individuals did not feel isolated at UCLA.
“UCLA obviously became stronger and reached its greatest height academically during that period when it became more and more ethnically diverse,” he said.
A diversity requirement wasn’t on everyone’s radar, however. Gary Shuster, the Academic Affairs commissioner in 1987, said his office wasn’t focused on a requirement because the culture was too conservative back then. Instead, it focused on advocating for the establishment of a foreign language requirement.
“It was just a different time, this was back when people were proposing things against affirmative action,” he said. “We were pushing for things that were politically impossible but could be part of the university over time.”
When the 2004 proposal went to a faculty vote, Rowe said she had a gut feeling it wouldn’t pass. There had been a lot of changes in the university and she didn’t think faculty were ready to handle it all at once.
“Departments, as human structures, are like human beings,” she said. “If you feel like you are being bombarded, it roils the psyche of the subject – not to mention the institution was dealing with other politics around it.”
Matt Malkan, an astronomy professor, has been one of a group of professors vocal against the requirement over the years, arguing that the repeated votes on it betray the democratic process and that a requirement would not benefit students.
Malkan likened the 2015 vote on the most recent proposal to the 2000 Bush versus Gore vote, where the margin was close. He said he thinks more faculty members would have changed their minds if the opposing arguments had been more publicized by university officials, who have openly pushed for the requirement to pass.
After the 2008 recession and several campus climate incidents in the UC system in the later 2000s, many people started to think that they had waited long enough to restart the push for a new requirement.
Layhannara Tep, academic affairs commissioner in 2009-2010, said her office had already begun working on circulating a petition for a new requirement that year, but they cited incidents such as the Alexandra Wallace “Asians in the Library” video, a “Compton cookout” event and a noose hung at UC San Diego, to ensure that UCLA administrators realized that these problems still existed.
She graduated in 2011, and in 2012 the Community and Conflict in the Modern World proposal failed to pass a College faculty-wide vote 175-224.
“(The proposal was) in the faculty’s hands and I kind of felt like I was watching it fail. I felt like I could no longer do anything about it,” she said.
When she heard a new diversity requirement proposal was coming up again last year, she said she was excited, but it was still a solemn moment for her because she felt ongoing campus climate problems were the reason some UCLA administrators were paying attention to the movement.
For Knapp, in the end it wasn’t a “euphoric hooray hooray” when it passed, but he was glad that all the committee’s work done for a requirement had paid off.
Still, he said there is a feeling they should not have had to fight this hard for the requirement in the first place.