24 hours in Ohio

On the Road No Comments »

    Maggie Stern and I drove to Ohio for the finale of her exhibition of stitched work at the University of Findlay.  24 hours on the road, and 24 hours in a swing state 10 days before the election.

Plenty of billboards reflecting the negative tone of the 2012 campaign – Obama cast as the enemy of life and faith, Romney as the enemy of the middle class.  On the lawns of Waterville, just outside of Toledo, many more Romney/Ryan signs.  The Obama/Biden signs were not only rare but with print so tiny that they were almost illegible, as though supporting the sitting president were slightly shameful.

Many Romney signs next to “Pray to end abortion” placards – those I understood.  But some of the Romney signs were accompanied by others that proclaimed, “Save freedom of religion.”  Those I really did not understand.  What’s the argument that the Democrats are clamping down on freedom of religion?  Is this about contraception and Obamacare?   I really can’t follow the twists and turns of that argument.

Our friends’ mailbox was stuffed with good wishes from many campaigns.  Several pieces devoted to Jewish voters who used to support Obama but now support Romney.   Since our friends don’t have an obviously Jewish name and are not affiliated Jewishly, they probably weren’t targeted for this reason.  It probably just makes good Republican politics in the Ohio suburbs to claim that even those liberal stalwarts the Jews are abandoning the president.

On the cultural front, we journeyed to the Toledo Museum of Art, just celebrating its centennial with a splendid exhibit of 39 Manet portraits.  A coup for the TMA – this is the only stop for the exhibit in the U.S., before it heads to the Royal Academy of London in January.  Some old favorites (“The Railway” from the National Gallery) and a couple of the famous paintings of Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzales, along with some lesser-known works.  Displays of early cartes de visites suggested Manet’s complex relationship with the new art and techniques of photography.   A highlight for us: the spectacular design of the layout of the exhibition itself, with stunning “windows” from room to room that kept you looking backwards and forwards, and rich colors on the walls behind the paintings giving the whole space a striking warmth.  That was the work of our talented friend Claude Fixler.

Maggie’s “Green Man” (sold!)

Maggie’s exhibit at the University of Findlay was devoted to her stitched work on vintage handkerchiefs.

Maggie Stern and Lynn Whitney

She has been working in this medium for around two years now, and she has invented a captivating collection of characters – each hankie tells a very short “story.”   Maggie gave a charming talk about how she came to do this work, saluting her local friend Lynn Whitney,  who now teaches photography at Bowling Green State.   [Check out Lynn’s amazing project documenting the building of a new bridge over the Maumee River!]  Then faculty and students from Findlay and Bowling Green State University besieged her with questions.  Jeff Salisbury, who teaches photography at the University of Findlay, was our gracious host.

A bonus at Findlay was our discovery of the hidden gem, the Mazza Museum.  It turns out that one of the largest collections of the art of children’s books (7000 plus pieces!) was right next door to the gallery.  We spent a pleasant hour in the museum admiring the work of dozens of Caldecott and Newbury winners, among a host of other artists.

Ohio provided its share of natural beauty too . . . a double rainbow at sunset over the browning cornfields . . .   before we made the long drive across I-90 back to Massachusetts.

Social Justice: Towards A Working Description

Brandeis University, Higher Education 3 Comments »

Last night I told a group of Brandeis undergraduates that they should work on deepening the conversation about social justice on our campus, but that they did not need to hasten to “define” the term.

But today I’m inclined to disregard (partially) my own advice, if for no other reason than working descriptions can be helpful in starting conversations.

On my way home last night, I challenged myself to describe social justice in a way that was clear, accessible, and provided some boundaries.  There’s a litany of philosophical and historical literature on the meaning of social justice.  I don’t mean to enter that terrain.  Instead, I’m interested in some basic language that can help our campus community think more clearly, deepen its engagement, and work together more productively.

This means that I am more interested at the moment in social justice as a process than as an outcome.  In campus communities, this is generally how we use the term, to describe a certain form of activism, and attitudes that accompany it.  In other words, those engaged in the process of social justice may have different ideas about what constitutes a just society.  Those working under the banner of social justice may well argue vociferously about where they are going, while agreeing that they are all working within a certain mode of action.

To my mind, a working description of social justice should be simple and inclusive, while at the same time helping to clarify the boundaries.  It shouldn’t settle all disputes, but it should provide a clearer basis for argument.

So here’s a working description of social justice that might provide such a starting point for discussion:


Social justice:  Working with the disadvantaged to change society for the benefit of all.


This phrase encompasses a pretty broad range of endeavors, but it also poses four simple tests for whether some activity falls under the social justice banner:

1)   Are you “working with” others?

2)   Does your collective action involve “the disadvantaged”?

3)   Is your work designed to “change society”?

4)   Will your changes be “for the benefit of all”?


Let me elaborate on each of these.  I believe that these questions may draw some helpful lines that distinguish social justice from other worthy and important human endeavors (as well as distinguishing social justice from some unworthy activities).


  1. “Working with.”  Social justice is not a solitary activity.  If you sit in the library and write a powerful diatribe against political corruption, that may inspire others to undertake social justice work, but the writing itself not an act of social justice.  Social justice begins when you put your efforts alongside other efforts, when you talk with others, when you put yourself side-by-side with other people.


Furthermore, “working with” suggests a particular form of collaborative activity.  It suggests activity on a basis of equality and mutual respect.  Contrast “working with” with three alternatives:  “working for,” “fighting for,” and “standing with.”   If you are “working for” or on behalf of others, you may be detaching yourself from their struggle, as opposed to being a part of it.  Social justice may indeed sometimes involve “fighting for” others, but it is not always pugilistic.  Similarly, one may “stand with” others in a social justice activity, but “standing” is too passive a word to embrace the whole of social justice action.  “Working with” may be the best way to express the sense of collaborative action on the basis of equality and respect.


2. “The disadvantaged.”   It matters who your allies are.  You can work with others to change society for the better, and you may achieve great things.  But if you and your partners are exclusively members of a powerful elite, then social justice isn’t really the right description for your work.

Of course, “the disadvantaged” is quite a broad category.  It includes those who may lack advantages because of their economic status, their gender, their race, their sexual orientation, their health, or any other number of reasons.

I’m a little worried that “disadvantaged” doesn’t fully capture the tone of mutual respect that social justice entails.  But I haven’t yet come up with a better word.   Some people would doubtless prefer “the oppressed,” and it’s obviously true that in many cases the disadvantaged are indeed oppressed.  But I would hate to see umbrella of social justice limited to those cases of explicit oppression.  Similarly,  one could use  “the disempowered.”  But power dynamics shift very quickly, and part of the point of social justice is that those who lack certain advantages may acquire power through collective action (while still living with the consequences of their disadvantage).

In any case, it seems clear that you can work for many important social ends without including the disadvantaged in your efforts.  For example, a group of wealthy women and men could team up to save a particular tract of virgin forest from a timber company.   I would argue that we could give that kind of work many laudatory names, but that we might not call it social justice.


3. “To change society.”    This phrase may seem innocuous, but I think that including it in this working description may actually make a lot of people unhappy.  Some will find it too mild:  “change” doesn’t necessarily imply the kind of radical transformation that many people who align themselves with social justice hope to achieve.  On the other hand, including this phrase draws a deliberate line between social justice and other important work, because it suggests that to “count” under the social justice rubric, your work must have a broader political purpose.

So one distinction here would be between “social justice” and “service.”   It’s obviously hugely important to meet the specific needs of individual men, women and children.  And one can and should be able to help people and address their needs without getting involved in social change.  So I would say that service without that broader political purpose is vital, but we may not want to insist that it falls under the rubric of social justice.

In other words, if you work in a soup kitchen preparing food for the hungry, you are performing a vital and valuable service.  If you work in a soup kitchen and also work alongside homeless people to improve city services, or to change laws that criminalize vagrancy, we might term that both service and social justice.

I realize that some people balk at this distinction.  Perhaps there is a better way to phrase it or talk about it.  But one way or another, I think that social justice has to involve change beyond its impact on individual lives.


4. “For the benefit of all.”  This is another seemingly innocuous phrase whose implications may raise hackles.   What I’m getting at here is that “change” doesn’t say quite enough – social justice involves change whose benefits are widely distributed.  For one thing, it means taking into account the unintended consequences of specific changes, so that promoting benefit for one group of people does not advertently or inadvertently cause undue harm to others.

For example, imagine that you waged a successful fight for costly but necessary services for a small group of people suffering from a debilitating rare disease.  If the powers-that-be funded this program by slashing preventive care health services to a large group of others, it would at least raise questions about whether this “change” really was “for the benefit of all.”

I recognize that this will become quickly controversial, and it starts to climb into the thickets of the different branches of ethics.  The point is not that the phrase “for the benefit of all” settles any particular question, but that it puts the question of broader effects onto the table.

The phrase “for the benefit of all” leaves deliberately open the question of what “the benefit of all” looks like.  It can encompass a wide variety of political ends and visions of the just society.   I prefer this approach, because I would like to see the “social justice” umbrella cover a broad ideological spectrum.  But others would doubtless prefer language that specifies more precisely what a better world would look like.

By the way, one helpful implication of this innocuous phrase is that it helps keep social justice separate from certain forms of extremism.  For example, a suicide bomber who kills civilians on behalf of an oppressed people might argue that he is “working with the disadvantaged to change society,” but it is obvious that his actions are not “for the benefit of all.”


All of this is intended just as a starting point for discussion.  I could poke plenty of holes in this myself.  But I offer it as a way to get the ball rolling as we at Brandeis try to bring more coherence, energy, inclusiveness, and effectiveness to the social justice dimension of the campus.

A Bold Opportunity for an American University

Brandeis University, Higher Education 2 Comments »


One day in the not-too-distant future, some courageous private American university is going to show the world exactly what its students know, and what they know how to do.

This school – let’s call it Ollie University – is going to undertake a heroic, long-term effort to prove its claims about its education.  It is going to answer those who doubt that the liberal arts provide any solid basis for future achievement.  It is going to answer those who question the value of higher education, in an era of $50,000 tuitions.  It is going to respond to graduate schools and employers, who say that they can learn little from private college transcripts where everyone seems to be above average.

For many years, Ollie has asserted to everyone who will listen that it does provide value.   Its students, Ollie says, can think well, write well, and analyze complex problems.  They aren’t trained in narrow technical fields.  They have skills that are transferable from field to field and will serve them well their whole lives.  Those skills are enormously difficult to measure, but Ollie is sure – really sure! – that its students are acquiring them.

But on this day in the not-too-distant future, Ollie will decide that there is a better way than simply asserting that its education is first-rate.  Over a long period of time, and with a great deal of effort, Ollie will take up the challenge of actually demonstrating in a comprehensive way how well its students can write, think critically, analyze data, cultivate the imagination, and bring to bear multiple disciplines and perspectives on complex problems.  Indeed, it may go even further, and seek innovative ways to assess how successfully it moves students to become global citizens, or to embody qualities it trumpets like social justice, moral courage, and the ability to work successfully in a team environment.

In taking up this challenge, Ollie will be taking some big risks.  After all, it is enormously difficult to assess the outcomes of a liberal arts education, and Ollie will have to take the chance that enormously difficult does not mean impossible.  But there is the risk that it will prove to be so difficult that Ollie’s best efforts can’t handle it.

There is the risk of being out in front of the pack. Many American universities have gone in the other direction – assessing their students less and less.  So there is the risk that students won’t necessarily like the idea that Ollie is going to assess their work in a rigorous way.

There is also the risk that it’s going to hard to get everyone on board with a big effort like this.  Some faculty members will find this prospect exciting, while others will see it as an existential threat to their independence and to the integrity of their institution.

And who knows, the doubters may be right.  A big effort like this, done badly, runs the risk of doing more harm than good, especially if it is done on the cheap and if it doesn’t respect the diversity and creativity of methods that the best faculty members bring to their trade.

These risks are real.  And that’s why when Ollie moves forward in full knowledge of those risks, it will be doing something bold.

How will Ollie do this?  I don’t know exactly.  I know that it will not be a series of multiple-choice exams.  Perhaps it will be some version of a portfolio process that has been used successfully for qualitative assessment in many educational institutions.  In any case, I can’t know the exact process now, because developing a good set of assessment tools will be a community project that will engage the best ideas from Ollie’s faculty members first and foremost, but also from its students, its alumni, and other strong thinkers.  It’s a project that needs to be undertaken with a deep consideration of Ollie’s goals and values.   And the process itself will be a creative, dynamic, stimulating collaboration for all of Ollie’s extended community.

When Ollie overcomes these obstacles and does this right, a lot of good things are going to happen.  Ollie will be saluted as a leader in higher education, and it will have a huge advantage in the “marketplace.”  Potential students and parents will flock to Ollie, because it (far ahead of other American colleges and universities) will be able to show them what they are getting for their $250,000.   Ollie’s graduates will have greater success in the job market, because the university will be able to show potential employers what tangible skills its graduates will bring to the workplace.  And Ollie will raise a lot more money, because it will be able to make a powerful and specific case about its excellence to donors and potential donors.

But these positive developments, wonderful though they may be, are not the best thing that is going to happen to Ollie as a result of this effort.   The best thing that is going to happen to Ollie is this: its teaching and learning are going to get even better.  Once Ollie really pays close attention to what its students know and know how to do, it will have an invigorating effect on what and how Ollie teaches.  After all, good teaching and good assessment go hand-in-hand.  As its faculty members and leadership learn more about students’ capabilities, they will learn more about their own strengths and weaknesses.  Ollie will develop innovative new pedagogies to match the dynamic sense of discovery that it wants to inspire in its students.

With this powerful assessment process, Ollie will also be perfectly placed to respond to other massive developments in higher education.  It will be prepared to incorporate on-line learning into its framework, because it will have the tools to assess how effectively students learn in various formats.     It will have the nimbleness to foster flexible and individualized approaches to learning, because the outcomes will be clear and visible.  And it will have a firm foundation for how its liberal arts methods succeed in a world where “the practical” often has the upper hand.

Eventually, other institutions will try to replicate Ollie’s efforts.  Its success will be contagious.  Besides, American universities are going to come under increasing pressure from politicians, parents, and the public to prove their mettle.   Lots of schools will benefit by these efforts.

But Ollie, by being first and making this a hallmark of the institution, will be the institution that benefits the most, because it will be the recognized leader.  Everyone else will be playing catch-up.  The investment will be significant, but the payoff will be substantial – and measurable!

Not every institution of higher education is well-positioned to do this right.  The personalized approach required will mean that Ollie will be on a relatively small scale – with fewer than 1000 graduates per year.  It will be a school deeply committed to the liberal arts, to teaching, and to strong values.  It will also work best at an institution at with a powerful research enterprise, where strong teaching and cutting-edge discovery go hand-in-hand.   It will be willing to do something bold, while at the same time seeking to preserve its distinctive qualities.

Who will be like Ollie?

A new framework

Brandeis University, Uncategorized No Comments »

This week Brandeis University released a “preliminary framework” for a long-term strategic plan.   The framework celebrates the University’s unique combination of being a small liberal arts institution and a major research university.

There are things to like here.  The document calls for renewed emphasis on individualized, discovery-based education for our students – more initiatives, as I understand it, like the Brandeis in The Hague, where our students get intensive exposure to the highest levels of international justice under the guidance of Professor Richard Gaskins.

It also calls for new programs in “Integrated Arts” and “Legal and Ethical Studies.”    I am excited by the idea of building further connections between the arts and the Brandeis value of social justice.  In the area of Peacebuilding and the Arts, Brandeis has a unique resource that is truly distinctive and which has helped spark visible change in communities

And I support the further development of a Brandeis approach to law and justice.  Of all the universities in this country that do NOT have a law school, Brandeis is already arguably the institution that has the most ambitious range of programs in this area, including the legal studies program, the Brandeis Institute for International Judges, and the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

I am also excited about the idea of the “World Issues Forum,” which offers the tantalizing possibility that Brandeis might become a kind of “global public square,” where big issues are debated and new knowledge created through the contest of ideas.   The Global Task Force, which I co-chaired did some work in fleshing out one possible version of this concept . . .and no doubt there will be further opportunities to develop this potential flagship for the University.

The Global Task Force also had some thoughts about promoting students’ global knowledge and skills.  We recommended that the University consider a portfolio-based assessment methodology to understand more precisely how well-equipped our students are to succeed in a globalized world.  President Lawrence signaled at the faculty meeting earlier this week that the task force reports will be made available to the Brandeis community in the near future.    These will provide additional food for thought as we join others around the country and around the world in thinking about the future of higher education in a rapidly-changing world.

Already some members of the Brandeis community have called for a new draft with more specifics and more distinctive features.  That’s a good idea, but I hope we don’t lose in the process some of the positive and important directions suggested in this first iteration.

‘DEIS Impact: A New Brandeis Tradition

Brandeis Events No Comments »

How can we advance the campus conversation about social justice?   At Brandeis, the phrase is ubiquitous, and its very ubiquity makes it problematic.

I have put this challenge to a group of students who are helping organize ‘DEIS Impact, the Brandeis University festival of social justice.  ‘DEIS Impact goes live for its second year February 1-13, 2013.  This month we have just selected a dynamic group of Brandeis undergraduates to be the “’DEIS Impacters,” the organizing team for the festival.

In my letter below, I encourage the students to think of themselves not only as event organizers, but as thought leaders on an important topic that begs for clarification and ongoing discussion.  The point is NOT to “define” social justice in some narrow and rigid way . .. but to open up conversation and initiate a  dynamic process that will lead to clearer thinking about the nature of social justice, and how it can and should be enacted on the Brandeis campus and beyond.

The 2013 ‘DEIS Impacters

Dear Members of the DEIS ‘Impact Committee,

I congratulate you and salute you for your commitment to social justice, and for engaging to work together to create and build Brandeis University’s greatest new tradition.  DEIS Impact began to make its mark last year . . and now you have the opportunity to help this festival of social justice flourish – not just to be a success in and of itself, but to make its mark across the Brandeis campus and beyond.

I am writing now to make a suggestion.  I want to encourage you to use this opportunity not only to organize a great series of events – but also to help our whole community think through in much clearer and profound terms what the Brandeis commitment to social justice really means and entails.

Over the years, a lot of members of our community have remarked (in so many words) that the Brandeis commitment to social justice is palpable but fuzzy.  They worry that the term has become such a catch-all that after a while it begins to lose its punch.  When that happens, it is easy for people to get cynical about something that just looks like a broad rhetorical commitment to feeling good about doing good.

The good news is . . . you are in a great position to do something about this.  As members of the group that is organizing DEIS Impact, you can help start a community conversation that brings greater clarity to the idea of social justice and its place at Brandeis.

My suggestion is that you start this process by working on a tried-and-true format: the FAQ page.  The good thing about the FAQ format is that it’s informal, and it suggests that thinking these issues is a work-in-progress, as opposed to concocting some grand “platform” or “statement.”    Here are some of the questions that you might pose, and might begin to construct answers to:

What’s the difference between social justice and just plain justice?

What are the defining features of the Brandeis commitment to social justice?

Should we all have a common definition of social justice, or can we agree to disagree about its meaning?

Which thinkers’ ideas about social justice are most important to us at Brandeis?

How does social justice at Brandeis draw specifically on the Jewish tradition? 

What should I do if I think that someone is using the rhetoric of social justice to advance a position that I think is counterproductive or even harmful?

Does the idea of social justice apply to the behavior of Brandeis University as an institution?  If so, what processes should be used to define and implement this standard?

Of course, there are lots more questions that you could ask.  And I am sure that you will have some healthy debates about the answers.

And debates are part of the point.  A challenge would be to see whether you can answer some questions with enough clarity and good thinking that you provide some coherence and meaning, while at the same time leaving open the door for further debate, discussion, clarification, and reflection.  I would hope that you would use your collective energy and wisdom to get beyond a simple brainstorming session, while at the same time advertising this as a work-in-progress.

This wouldn’t just be a rhetorical exercise.  I think it would (and should) influence how you structure and think about DEIS Impact itself.  It would help you clarify goals for this year and beyond, and might help create new events or activities to help you reach those goals.

Ok, that’s my suggestion and my challenge to you.  I would be happy to talk with you individually or collectively about this further.  I think that the process of open conversation will advance your work and the greater cause considerably.




Dan Terris

International Courts: How “effective”?

International Justice No Comments »

As the world of international courts and tribunals has expanded over the past two decades, a fierce debate has erupted over whether or not they are “effective.”

The Peace Palace in The Hague, home of the International Court of Justice

Proponents of the courts have tended to argue in favor by pointing to individual successes.  The Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals have indicted and convicted major political and military figures.  The European Court of Human Rights has issued judgments that have compelled countries across the continent to modify their laws to respect the rights of minorities.  The World Trade Organization Appellate Body delivers judgments within 90 days and is widely credited with defusing tensions over trade issues.

Critics often seize on the vast gap between accomplishments and aspirations.  The persistence of large-scale violence in many parts of the world suggests that the international criminal courts have not fully succeeded in deterring leaders from committing crimes against humanity.   Many countries find ways to postpone or even evade compliance with the judgments of international courts.  And some courts – even the venerable International Court of Justice in The Hague – are hamstrung because relatively few nations have agreed in advance to be bound by their decisions.

In rhetorical terms, it’s rather easy to argue either way.  If you are a believer in the value of international institutions, you tend to judge these courts by their relative youth.  Look how much they have accomplished in a relatively short time.  Of course they have a long way to go.  As one judge who participates in our Brandeis Institute for International Judges once put it to me, “International justice is not instant coffee.”

If, on the other hand, you are a global skeptic, you tend to judge the courts by the relatively small return on investment.   Think what more good we could have done with the billions of dollars spend convicting a couple of hundred people from the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.  And how does it help the rule of law to establish courts that countries can flout with impunity?  (Of course, there are also those who argue that international courts have become too powerful, aggrandizing themselves at the expense of a more constructive approach to international relations grounded in diplomacy and politics.)

So it is heartening that in recent years, a number of scholars have begun to look systematically at the question whether international courts are indeed effective.  And naturally they have had to begin by trying to define just what effectiveness means.

One starting point for the discussion of effectiveness has been the issue of compliance.   Both supporters and critics of the courts have looked to how completely countries have complied with the decisions of international judicial bodies.

But it is increasingly clear that compliance, by itself, is not a sufficient measurement.  After all, a court might achieve a 100% compliance rate by issuing such timid judgments that it is all too easy for countries to follow their dictates.  Alternatively, a court with a low compliance rate might be seen as playing a vital role in a gradual process of solidifying the rule of law in a region where democratic institutions are still evolving.

In this context, it is heartening to see that legal scholars from around the world have been giving more systematic attention to the question of effectiveness, moving beyond compliance to a broader range of criteria that better fit the political and public expectations of what international courts can and should achieve.

After all, we don’t create courts simply to test whether they will be heeded.  We create them for broader goals:  to provide an alternative to violence in settling disputes; to protect basic human rights; to provide stability in matters of commerce; to provide a bulwark against the undue accumulation of power.  And we do not create courts in a vacuum.  We create them in the context of many other imperfect institutions.  The interactions between courts and other institutions, in other words, are just as important as the activities of the judicial bodies on their own.

The question of “effectiveness” is one of the main research areas for a major new initiative called iCourts.  Based at the University of Copenhagen and funded with a major grant from the Danish government, iCourts was established to become a center of excellence for basic research on international courts and tribunals.

At the iCourts inaugural conference in September, the “effectiveness” agenda was on full display.   Work by scholars such as Yuval Shany, Lawrence Helfer, Karen Alter, Mikael Madsen and others have begun to unpack the dimensions of effectiveness, and bring dispassionate analysis to the field.  The analysis helpfully relies on interdisciplinary methods, bridging the work of legal scholars and political scientists.

I am by philosophy and by professional commitment a believer in the importance of international courts.   For this reason I welcome the development of rigorous attention to both their achievements and their limitations.  It will be better to have the argument on effectiveness with a shared vocabulary, and with solid information that reflects the full range of expectations and possibilities for an international rule of law.


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