The ethnic studies centers at UCLA were established forty years ago, in a context of social and political conflict inspired in part by a continuing pattern of race-based discrimination and prejudice throughout American society. At UCLA, for example, a white fraternity desecrated the Mexican flag as part of Viva Zapata parties, and African American students couldn’t rent an apartment or get a job in Westwood. Asian Americans were referred to as Orientals—“which put us in the category of rugs and vases,” as one former student puts it. Not even ten Native Americans were students.
Recognizing the injustice being done to their people, young scholars of color challenged their universities to provide a curriculum that would acknowledge their histories and cultures and let them to explore these within the academy. At UCLA, African American students proposed a “black studies” program in 1968. They found a receptive listener in the new chancellor, Charles E. Young, who “thought this would contribute to the understanding and resolution of national social problems.” Young supported the students—with funds to develop a proposal and with his mature counsel on what such a plan should include.
Four centers—in African American, American Indian, Asian American, and Chicano studies—were established as organized research units, with a related interdepartmental academic program. Their infancy was almost as troubled as their birth: There were few if any faculty to support research and teach classes. The larger academic community was at best skeptical about the viability of the new programs. The very student activism that gave birth to the centers at times threatened to tear the fledgling centers apart.
About the same time, the Institute of American Cultures was established, first as a conduit for funding and eventually as a bridging structure with a range of responsibilities: providing research grants to faculty and students, sponsoring special events in areas of interest to ethnic studies, and most recently, engaging in research initiatives supporting comparative or interethnic studies.
In spite of their rocky start, all of the centers blossomed in adolescence, developed strong and loyal leadership, and now have grown into a maturity that is firmly rooted in academic research. The ideals and passions of their student founders, however, are still visible in their programs of outreach and in a research agenda that serves the community as well as the academy.