Last week, the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life sponsored an event called “Social Justice And The University:
Perspectives From The U.S. and Abroad.” The event focused on the role universities should play in the realm of social justice. Should universities propel their students to action? Or should universities stick to teaching facts and let the students decide? Which approach facilitates social justice better? Which will provide the safest and most unbiased environment? To determine the right answer for Brandeis, the event featured a diverse array of national and international figures. Among them: Diego Arria (Former Rep. of Venezuela to the UN, Former UN Security Council President), Hans Corell (Former Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs and Legal Counsel of the UN), Richard Goldstone (Former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa), Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah (Special Rep. of the UN Secretary General for W. Africa), Shiranee Tilakwardane (Supreme Court Justice, Sri Lanka), and Norbert Weissberg (Philanthropist and Business Leader). The roundtable also featured Steve Goldstein (Brandeis Provost) and Michael Ratner (Brandeis Alum and President of Center for Constitutional Rights). The panel was moderated by Daniel Terris (Director International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, VP Office of Global Affairs).
Richard Goldstone took the position that the proper role for universities is to get directly involved in social justice. Yet he postulated two requirements: only when it concerns issues that really affect the student body and only on issues in which they have most expertise. In doing so, not only would the university be encouraging the students to take the initiative themselves, but also be able to provide accurate information to help the students. To illustrate his point, Goldstone recalled his college years in South Africa during the 1960′s when he and fellow students protested against apartheid. His fellow students didn’t just protest apartheid in general–there were far too many facets. Instead, they targeted something specific, something they were passionate about and were knowledgeable of: universities’ discriminatory admission processes that were disadvantaging blacks. Therefore, universities should get involved as long as there is a specific issue that the students care about as well as one they have professional knowledge of.
Shiranee Tilakawardane strongly felt that as education increases, so does social justice. Therefore sheer knowledge gained from an university education is already a major stepping stone towards achieving greater social justice. Shiranee also wished that students think globally: since we live in a globalized world, we ought to analyze the consequences of decisions in a global context.
On the other hand, Michael Ratner highlighted that the increasing cost of higher education disincentivizes social justice. According to Michael, exorbitant student debt inhibits social justice because graduates are more focused on earning money to help themselves rather than working pro bono to help others. Michael also advised students that social justice starts with your first obligation: to your country. In other words, protest against domestic issues that directly affect you. That way, students are more likely to be knowledgeable about the issue and consequently have a greater impact.
Norbert Weissberg argued that universities should teach students to learn and think for themselves in order to create independent opinions. However, he stressed the importance of teaching not only empathy but also recognizing that there are two sides to every issue. He also pointed the need for “intellectual purity,” or the idea that students should get their facts from sources of truth and unbiased information. For example, students should scour the internet rather than get their facts from the corrupt media.
In contrast, Hans Corell felt that universities should actively engage students on social justice issues since its not about just teaching facts. While teaching the facts is common in the math and sciences, in the humanities, one must look at the social side and analyze it.
Diego Arria emphasized the important impact youth have on social justice: they are the most powerful force- energetic, fearless, and know how to use the internet and social media to get out their message across. Just look abroad at the Arab Spring or domestically at Ron Paul supporters, and one recognizes that it is with youth that change can happen.
In response to the arguments and advice advanced by the international panel, Brandeis provost Steve Goldstein said that from a curriculum standpoint, Brandeis is a liberal arts school that teaches empathy and creates an open environment. Thus, Brandeis succeeds in producing students who can deal with world changes by teaching not just the facts, but how to adapt. From an institutional standpoint, Goldstein felt that it is the university’s job to help students pursue their own dreams, not tell them which ones to pursue. To do so, a university must provide skills and a safe environment with an open forum. Goldstein objected to the idea that a university should advocate a certain position in the hopes that all opinions expressed will be treated equally. Goldstein also addressed Michael Ratner’s concern about high student debt and its negative effect on social justice: Goldstein proudly highlighted the fact that Brandeis is committed to helping students in need and excels at giving financial aid. Therefore, Brandeis students accrue less debt. Goldstein also boasted about Brandeis’ Transitional Year Program (TYP) that helps financially disadvantaged students.
Interestingly, during the Q & A session, a student in the audience criticized the panel because not a single student was represented. I personally agree and would have liked to seen some representatives of the student body, perhaps from social justice organizations on campus like Waltham Group. Another student correctly mentioned how there seems to be two extremes of the social justice spectrum: those who love it and those who hate it. The student pointed out that Brandeis’ biggest academic institutions are IBS (those who wish to make money) and Heller (those who wish to save the world). This observation, while much exaggerated and over-simplified, simply illustrates that social justice is just not on everyone’s mind and when it is, it tends to be all or nothing. Perhaps this means that social justice implies zealous advocacy. Yet I do not think that students need to be zealous advocates to partake in social justice. Setting such a high threshold only serves to discourage would be social justice activists. I would have like to seen this issue explored further in the panel, namely, how to increase the appeal of social justice on campus towards those who hold moderate views on social justice.