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Writing their own History

San Francisco State University is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the student-led strike that brought about the creation of the College of Ethnic Studies.

In the early 1950s, Dr. Joseph White lived in the Fillmore District in San Francisco and attended San Francisco State College, now called San Francisco State University. His life was relatively simple; he took the number 22 bus to school, hung out with friends in jazz clubs, and studied courses in psychology. But something was missing.

“Now, when I was an undergraduate student at SFSU, Black folks were invisible in the curriculum,” says White. “They were invisible in the administration and invisible in the faculty. And the same was true for when I was there for the master’s program, so I never had a Black teacher in all of my higher education.”

Fast-forward to 1968, when a new generation of students walked the SFSU campus, and White was the dean of undergraduate studies. The political and cultural climate in the United States was at its boiling point. There was the Vietnam War, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy. The students were not only fueled with the desire to end the social and political injustice of their time, but also to gain equal rights to a college education.


heir demands for the admittance and enrollment of more students of color, the hiring of more minority faculty members and the creation of a School of Ethnic Studies resulted in a formation of alliances among racial and ethnic groups, mainly the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front. Their combined efforts made it possible for their voices to ring loud and clear — for five long, tumultuous months.

From Nov. 6, 1968 to March 21, 1969, the students led a strike that made an enormous impact on the higher education system in the United States and resulted in SFSU’s becoming the first and only university to establish a School of Ethnic Studies, now called the College of Ethnic Studies.

The strike was not peaceful, though. During its initial stages, students marched into the administration building and later set up picket lines around the campus. They disrupted classes in session, shattered windows, set off up to four fire bombs, and made threats to students who went to class and professors who held class, says White.

University president S. I. Hayakawa opposed the students’ protests and called for increased police presence, up to as many as 300 officers a day. After a week of confrontation between students and the police, the campus was temporarily shut down from Nov. 13 to Dec. 2, 1968. Few classes were held when the campus reopened.

White, who in 1969 co-drafted the legislation resulting in the Equal Opportunity Program designed to boost minority student enrollment with then-California State Assemblyman Willie Brown, was stuck in the middle, between emotion and protocol.

“The students were mad because they didn’t feel like I was revolutionary enough. The senior administration was mad because they thought I should settle those kids down,” says White, a retired UC Irvine professor emeritus of social science. “It was intense.”

Changing Higher Education and the World

Growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Dr. Laureen Chew experienced hints of racism while attending a predominantly White Catholic school, but was a relatively quiet young woman. Attending SFSU changed her perception of the world. She worked in the library on campus in 1968 and was a member of the Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action, an entity of the Third World Liberation Front. She went on strike, was arrested and went to jail for 20 days.

“Issues of equity and access are etched in your psyche when you go through something like that,” says Chew, now the associate dean of the College of Ethnic Studies. “Once I got involved, there was no turning back. I really felt we could change this world.”
And they did.

This month, SFSU is recognizing student and faculty struggles and successes during a 40th anniversary commemorative celebration of the student-led strike of 1968. This four-day conference and cultural festival includes a range of panel discussions, media workshops, art displays and other activities. Current students, faculty and administrators, as well as those who participated in the strike, will be present.

“It might be unusual that a president is celebrating a strike,” says Dr. Robert Corrigan, current president of SFSU. “But it reflects my own view that San Francisco State is a much better institution than it was 40 years ago, precisely because of the strike for a College of Ethnic Studies.” During the strike, Corrigan was a professor at the University of Iowa in the American studies department and remembers the impact it had on that campus.

“We got word of what San Francisco State was starting to do, and we (established) one of the first Black Studies Departments,” he says. “The university president invited me to lunch to talk me into starting the program. I agreed to do it, and what an experience —developing a program, running summer institutes, boning up on unfamiliar materials to add to courses I already taught, doing research in a new area, and reaching out to a national community in need of retooling — and re-educating myself en route.”

Corrigan sees the strike as paving the way for equity and social justice on campuses nationwide. “It was an extraordinary thing that was spreading across America: the notion that we had to open up universities to a population that was being excluded, expand the curriculum and bring into focus the contributions that ethnic and national minority groups had made to the history of our nation and the nature of our society.”

The Evolution of Ethnic Studies

Out of the more than 30,000 students on the SFSU campus, 63 percent are minority students, and 6,000 of them are enrolled in courses offered by the College of Ethnic Studies. With 100 full-time professors, the college offers majors and minors in five departments: Africana Studies, American Indian Studies, Asian American Studies, Ethnic Studies and Raza Studies. Plans to expand the curriculum include a department of Arab and Muslim studies.

education system gives very little understanding of those cultures, and we can’t interact in a world where we don’t know who are our neighbors,” says Dr. Kenneth Monteiro, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies.

Throughout U.S. history there have been large numbers of Arabs and Muslims in the United States, from the beginning of the colonial period, Monteiro says, providing an example of history that is lost in traditional teaching, but gained in an ethnic studies program.

In addition to the expanded curriculum, the College of Ethnic Studies’ role on campus has changed during the course of the last 40 years, breaking down barriers within university departments.

“There is now development of courses in other colleges that deal with ethnicity and diversity,” says Corrigan.

For instance, White’s daughter, Dr. Lisa D. White, was a student at SFSU during the 1970s and experienced how her education was enriched with ethnic studies courses. Now as the associate dean of the College of Science and Engineering, Lisa White is witnessing how the courses help shape general education requirements and major programs in her own discipline and beyond. “I think the College of Science and Engineering has always looked very creatively at how to be interdisciplined. Look at the impact of diverse individuals in business, science and in the arts. I get a lot of inspiration from that,” she says.

The Struggle Continues

Although students now have access to a wide range of ethnic studies programs at SFSU, there is concern about the future of the College of Ethnic Studies, says Chew. Since 1970, the College of Ethnic Studies has awarded 1,119 baccalaureate degrees and 142 graduate degrees.

“We are a small college compared to other colleges on campus,” says Chew. “Given that, it is understandable that faculty and students in the college may feel vulnerable, that our ‘voices’ and content in the College of Ethnic Studies can be integrated into other colleges, that there may no longer be a need for a College of Ethnic Studies, especially when resources are tight.”

Ed Jr. M. Arimboanga, a senior at SFSU, hopes to apply to graduate school and become a middle school or high school history teacher. The Asian American studies major, whose minor concentration is in history, says the College of Ethnic Studies has provided a secure avenue for people of color to achieve their goals.

“It has opened doors to a lot of us, even if it is in the areas of academics, arts and sports,” says Arimboanga, who is of Filipino descent. “I think those people in that generation really opened a lot of doors for us … . People of color began to define their own history, write their own history, tell their own history.”

But as Arimboanga also attests, this time of celebration is “bittersweet.” While there has been progress in underrepresented communities, he says, minority struggles seem to have become more complex.

“Issues ranging from inequitable tracking in public schools to pipelining youth straight into prison are just a couple of examples of how the movement has become more complex rather than progressive,” he notes. As the students of SFSU move forward in their higher education, despite issues of race and class, they will earn their degrees and enter their professional or academic careers. And one thing is certain.

“You can’t be a student at SF State without realizing the ultimate impact of the change that occurred,” says Corrigan, “even though it was years before you were born.”

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