What to Do About Centers for Social Justice

Peter Wood

Last week an NAS member, a professor at the University of Southern Indiana we'll call Professor Smith, brought to our attention a new “Center for Social Justice” at the university. He asked for advice on how to mitigate the adverse effects of such a center. I replied: Dear Professor Smith, Thank you for your inquiry last week about the recently created “Center for Social Justice” at  the University of Southern Indiana.  I agree that it sounds like another instance of political advocacy masquerading as academic inquiry. Centers such as this are in vogue.  After getting your email Ashley Thorne and I started doing some checking and included some comments on these centers in an article we posted to the NAS website last week, “Stories We’re Watching.”  In that article we noted some of the other colleges and universities that have similar centers. Your deeper question is what can you do about this?  Certainly there is no silver bullet.  But these centers are very dependent on a handful of conditions that can be challenged.  The conditions they depend on include:

  1. Camouflage for off campus.  They typically like to grandstand to their supporters about their radical credentials, but they typically go to great trouble to present themselves to alumni and people outside the university as just another academic enterprise engaged in wholesome scholarly work and teaching.  They try to phrase their advocacy in terms that make it blend into the campus surroundings—perhaps a little edgier than Shakespeare or engineering, but basically the same sort of “educational stuff.”  This is deeply and thoroughly dishonest.  Advocacy and education are not the same thing, which leads to the next point.
  2. Blurring the definition of academic work.  If you make out that volunteering for a politician’s campaign or helping out at the local ACORN office is an “educational” experience worthy of academic credit, you can make almost anything “academic.”  The trick here is the elasticity of the word “educational.”  Surely it is “educational” in some sense of the word to organize street protests or for that matter to throw a brick through a storefront window.  But is that the sense of “educational” that should prevail in a university?  Among the community of the learned?  Among students seeking to gain understanding of their society, science, culture, and heritage?  Is it educational in the sense of helping students distinguish truth from falsehood or good reasoning from fallacy?
  3. Opportunism.  These centers like to hitchhike on popular causes.  If students are upset about something, they try to fan the flames and then come forward as the natural leaders.  Much of this is quite cynical.  The key participants don’t care about the issue per se.  They care about the opportunity to make their work more salient on campus.  When they do this, there are always students who catch on that they have been used.
  4. Appropriating successful campaigns from other universities.  Denouncing bottled water, or asserting that Coca Cola harms third world nations, or setting up “bias reporting” sites—there is always a trend, and the Centers for Social Justice are extremely alert to these straws in the wind.  Their members attend conferences and stay in close communications with their counterparts.  This gives them easy access to pre-made propaganda and spares them the trouble of actually having to think about things.
  5. Institutional influence seeking. Center officials are often among the busiest and most connected people on campus.  They volunteer for committees and nominate their own to every possible opening.  Chances are pretty good that the Center at USI is the result of this kind of log-rolling, but it is now in a position to do even more of it.  Watch out for the Center asking for “representation” on campus committees, and watch out as well for claims that it speaks for certain “constituencies” that have been “excluded.”  Those are all claims worth challenging.  Typically they are sheer assertion.  The “communities” in question have never heard of them and may themselves be imaginary.
  6. Resource hoarding. These centers usually demand hefty budgets and nervous administrators grant them more than their fair share. The truth is that their fair share may be zero, since they do nothing to advance the academic mission and may do quite a bit to hinder it.

You can challenge any of these things.  A successful challenge must always be based on the facts.  So the first thing I suggest is that you and anyone else you can find who is interested just begin to assemble a well-organized file of what the Center for Social Justice publishes, says, and does.  This doesn’t require any skullduggery—and in fact shouldn’t.  the publicly available stuff will be more than adequate.  That’s because the Center itself will assume until it learns otherwise that it can do and say whatever it wants.  Think of ACORN before Breitbart.

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