University senate votes to require racial justice courses for undergrads

The Senate approved the renaming of the Diversity and Social Justice course theme and to make it mandatory for all incoming Twin Cities undergraduates in fall 2021.

by Hana Ikramuddin, Campus Administration Reporter

The University of Minnesota Senate voted to rename the Diversity and Social Justice course theme to “Race, Power and Justice in the United States” (RPJ) and make it a requirement for all undergraduate students on the Twin Cities campus during their Thursday meeting.

In past years, students were required to take four of the five available theme courses: civic life and ethics, diversity and social justice in the U.S., the environment, global perspectives, and technology and society. The new system will still require students to take four total theme courses, but students will now have to take a course classified under the RPJ theme specifically. The new requirement will not add additional credits to a student’s workload. The change will go into effect in fall 2021.

Twin Cities faculty senators voted to approve the proposal with 67 ayes, 15 nays and eight abstentions.

The Council on Liberal Education (CLE), a group of faculty that reviews and approves liberal education courses, brought the proposal to the faculty senate in December. According to Kathryn Pearson, the CLE chair, around a quarter of University students graduate without taking a course with the social justice theme.

Pearson said this proposal was created in response to a request from Executive Vice President and Provost Rachel Croson following the police killing of George Floyd last summer.

The council built on a years-long effort to change the University’s liberal education requirements. In December 2019, the senate voted against all proposed changes.

According to a statement from University Relations, the Office of Undergraduate Education and the CLE will work together on next steps for implementing the change. The new requirement will not impact current students, Pearson said.

Courses that currently meet the standards for diversity and social justice in the U.S. theme will automatically meet the new RPJ theme’s requirements. As courses come up for their regular review over the next few years, however, they will need to be updated to meet the new requirement, according to Pearson.

The Minnesota Student Association voted to endorse the new theme requirement at their Tuesday forum meeting.

“I think the University has a responsibility and a lot of ways partly just given where we are geographically, partly given what the objectives of higher education institutions are to equip students with a diverse worldview,” said Carter Yost, an MSA student representative, who co-led MSA’s endorsement of the new theme requirement.

“I think making this theme a requirement for students is a really great step towards better student understanding,” he said.

Some senate members expressed concern about the new requirement, such as the idea that requiring these courses could place additional emotional labor on students of color who have lived experiences with racial injustice.

Mattea Allert, the speaker for the Council of Graduate Students, said she feels the new requirement does not accurately address student needs.

“I don’t think it’s inherently a bad proposal,” Allert said. “I sort of come from the mindset of opposed to dedicating specific classes to talk about race and social justice, that race and social justice should be brought into … all subjects because it touches everything.”

The University is not alone in this effort. Other Big Ten universities are reevaluating how their undergraduate curriculums consider race and racial justice.

The University of Michigan and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln will be re-evaluating racial themes in their curriculum. Additionally, Penn State will “establish a required, credit-bearing course for all incoming undergraduate students focused on social justice and equity with an explicit exploration of race.”

“We’re failing our students if we don’t make them aware of systemic racial inequality and give them the tools to analyze it and its implications,” Pearson said. “Minnesota has some of the worst racial inequities in education, housing, health care, criminal justice, the environment. And most recently, it’s the site of George Floyd’s murder.”