John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Social Justice Redux


One of the realizations you have as a result of international travel is that you don’t realize at the time of the travel what is really going to stay with you in terms of impact. Case in point: my wife and I visited South Africa a year ago last month. While we were there we heard, literally, the repeated use of a phrase we rarely hear any more in our country: “social justice.” It really resonated.

Upon our return this past year, I have found myself repeatedly using that phrase to put in context the work that I am still focused on some 45 years after beginning my career as a higher educator. I started that career 3 years after the Civil Rights Act when higher education in South Carolina, where I was involuntarily stationed in the US Air Force, was just beginning to expand and provide opportunity for all its citizens.

To fast forward to the US Presidential election of 2012 with our attention having been captured by the Occupy Wall Street movement’s focus on the growth of inequality in the US, I have found myself returning again and again to this theme of social justice. Most of the people I meet now at professional conferences who are engaged in my work on “the first-year experience” or “Foundations of Excellence” have no idea that these initiatives are outgrowths of the social justice themes of US history. And frequently after I give a talk and reference the social justice foundation, it never fails that several people will come up to me and thank me for uttering these words most leaders never use any more.

I wish more of us would talk this way. Then we might be more likely to behave accordingly.


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