Should Universities Be In The Social Justice Business?

Brandeis University is now officially committed to social justice. The university’s “Diversity Statement” says that the university considers social justice central to its mission. Is this controversial? Absolutely, says George Mason law professor David Bernstein, blogging at the Volokh Conspiracy. Universities shouldn’t be in the social justice business, according to Bernstein, a Brandeis alum who thinks the formal commitment is an attempt to attract donations from left-liberal alumni and other like-minded sources.

Citing a brochure used in a class to stress the important of social justice, Bernstein says, “At best this is just p.r. talk and has no effect on academic freedom in the university, and is merely embarrassing. At worst, Brandeis in fact institutionally favors certain ideological views over others, has no claim to be a university devoted to the pursuit of truth regardless of ideological implications.”

But isn’t justice an obvious goal for people of good will across the political spectrum? In theory, yes. In practice, “social justice,” sometimes used synonymously with “social action,” is a campus buzzword that refers rather clearly to the agenda of the left. Bernstein quotes a Brandeis administrator hoping that the university will turn out operators of “socially responsible” businesses and politicians who “head progressive national governments.”

“Social justice” bureaucrats make an effort to keep the language neutral, but commitment to the left shines through. The term often refers to plans for government-sponsored redistribution of income. Other social goals include more anti-discrimination laws, environmentalism, resistance to “oppression” and support for gay marriage and adoption. Columbia Teachers College, perhaps the most vehemently ideological of the “social justice” schools, says education is a “political act” and educators “must recognize ways in which taken-for-granted notions regarding the legitimacy of the social order are flawed.”

The policy makes clear that any would-be teachers who believe in merit and individual responsibility would be better off not showing up at Teachers College: “social inequalities are often produced and perpetuated through systematic discrimination and justified by societal ideology of merit, social mobility and individual responsibility.”

So Bernstein is probably wrong to see the Brandeis commitment to social justice as an attempt to attract financing from the left. More likely it is simply another example of the spread of a partisan codeword and the ideological pressure behind it.


  • John Leo

    John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

6 thoughts on “Should Universities Be In The Social Justice Business?

  1. As a recent graduate of Brandeis and someone with very strong libertarian inclinations who generally dislikes the term “social justice,” I’m not *too* concerned about Brandeis’ use of the term. Let me explain.
    Like most schools, Brandeis has a strong liberal bent, though far more conservative/libertarian/politically apathetic students than most people realize. The undergrad is ~50-60% Jewish and there are many people who strongly identify with the republicans (at least in terms of foreign policy) moreso than with democrats.
    There is a very strong history of activism. The school was at the center of many of the 60’s protests and was home to some leftist academics such as Herbert Marcuse; a group of black students also took over one of the halls and re-named the school “Malcolm X. University in ’68 or ’69.
    Thankfully the school is nowhere near as radical as it was the point where I think, now, it is well within mainstream university culture, which although liberal, is not really radical.
    Social justice tends to be a difficult term to define; Hayek would say that it doesn’t really exist, though at Brandeis I think that it comes through to mean a commitment to helping the less fortunate and those in need. Remember Brandeis is institutionally Jewish (though non-sectarian) and Jewish culture has traditionally places a strong valuable on service similar to that often advocated by student groups at Brandeis.
    I am not 100% comfortable with the school’s commitment to “social justice” though I think that Brandeis does it in a pretty non-harmful way. Basically, it could be one hell of a lot worse and I don’t think it affects day to day education that much. However the bulk of my classes were in non-politicized areas such as Economics and Math, so take that with a grain of salt. And I have nothing but exceptional things to say about the professors I have taken multiple classes with in most other departments (Yack in politics, Fischer in history). Perhaps if I suffered through more sociology or literature classes I would have a different view.

  2. What exactly is ‘social justice’ anyway? Justice is inherently social by nature. It is redundant. It is like saying “I do not like ice, but I like cold ice”.

  3. As a person of libertarian bent, I figure there is justice for the individual, or there is no justice at all.
    Given this viewpoint, what the heck is “social justice” even supposed to mean? In a depressingly large number of cases, it seems to mean that people are willing to compromise individual freedom and justice for the sake of identity politics.
    It’s depressing when the best you can hope for in a mission statement is that they don’t really mean it. I used to think universities were made up of lots of smart people, but I overcame that delusion some time ago.

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