Over the last few years, three “social justice” professors left the Graduate School of Education, including the husband-wife duo of Marcelo and Carola Suarez-Orozco. (She explores such only-in-academia topics as “the role of the ‘social mirror’ in identity formation” and “the gendered experiences of immigrant youth.”) In an example of the operation of free market capitalism that their scholarship would seem to condemn, the Suarez-Orozcos left Harvard for NYU.
This background contributed to the protests that erupted after the school denied tenure to Mark Warren. Warren describes himself as “a sociologist concerned with the revitalization of American democratic and community life,” who studies “efforts to strengthen institutions that anchor inner-city communities–churches, schools, and other community-based organizations–and to build broad-based alliances among these institutions and across race and social class.” His latest book is Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice,which purports to “show white Americans can develop a commitment to racial justice, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because they embrace the cause as their own.”
The GSE grants tenure to around 20 percent of its junior faculty, a rather high percentage for any Harvard entity. So Warren’s chances were never particularly good. And neither the Globe article nor any other reporting I’ve seen on the case alleges procedural or other forms of impropriety in the tenure decision.
Nonetheless, a group of graduate students penned an open letter implying that Warren deserved tenure simply because of the agenda associated with his scholarship. Meredith Mira, a fifth-year doctoral student, termed the decision “incredibly demoralizing,” and complained, “Without this knowledge, we aren’t adequately prepared to go out and lead education reform.” Warren himself implied that the subject of his scholarship alone should have justified tenure. He told the Globe, “The work I do on community organizing has an essential contribution to make to addressing the problems facing our public education system and I am disappointed to see that it does not have a place at Harvard.”
Dean Kathleen McCartney could have responded to such protests by noting the obvious–“social justice” is an empty term, whose precise meaning depends on the political beliefs of the faculty member. Warren’s definition of “racial justice,” for instance, clearly does not include those who (quite reasonably) define “racial justice” as ensuring that all American citizens are treated equally under the law and by government entities, regardless of the color of their skin or their ethnic background. And the “social justice” championed by graduate students such as Mira clearly would not include figures who define “social justice” as upholding Biblical fundamentalism by denying gay and lesbian couples the opportunity to adopt children.
In short, by embracing the promotion of “social justice” as a legitimate goal of public education, left-wing extremists like those at the Harvard Education School provide a cover for right-wing extremists like the Texas Board of Education to impose their own view of “social justice” on public school students.
But McCartney didn’t communicate that message. Instead, she bent over backwards to appease the protesters. In an open letter, she promised that the school’s curriculum would remain “directly relevant to issues of equity, diversity, and social justice.” McCartney additionally informed the Globe that social justice studies “is an area we need to strengthen.”
The dean’s handling of this affair unintentionally revealed the continued irrelevance of education schools, which remain committed to using jargon to impose the professors’ one-sided political views on the nation’s public educational system.