Social Justice: A National Imperative

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2015

New York University
Washington, D.C.

In its November 2015 National Symposium, the Faculty Resource Network brought the topic of Social Justice to the forefront, shaping a focused discussion on how “principles of equity, opportunity, and non-discrimination” are being advanced by today’s colleges and universities (Faculty Resource Network, 2015). During the two-day symposium my colleagues from Farmingdale State College joined with over seventy other faculty and administrators to provide examples of how our institutions are promoting social justice. The titles of the breakout and poster sessions conveyed the variety and seriousness of this endeavor:

  • Addressing the Realities of Sexual Harassment
  • Preparing Teacher Candidates to Become Advocates for Social Justice
  • Bringing Human Rights to US Classrooms
  • Connecting STEM Education and Civil Rights to the Universe
  • Advancing Social Justice Through the Camera Eye
  • Internships, Community Engagement, and Social Justice

My thesis is this: The overall health and viability of American democracy requires that all institutions of higher education move beyond the creativity of dedicated individuals, such as those whose efforts were showcased during the National Symposium. An emphasis on social justice is no longer optional or peripheral. Social justice can no longer be something that only a few passionate individuals toiling in our classrooms and community outreach centers strive to advance. Instead, social justice is now—more than ever—a cause that must be embraced by every institution of higher education in the United States. This cause is central to the viability of American society and democracy and, as such, must be embedded in all operations and activities of our colleges and universities. Let me make this case by drawing larger lessons from my own institution.

Farmingdale State College is typical of the majority of colleges and universities in the United States. Farmingdale is not an elite institution. Rather, it is a second-tier institution that receives and strives to educate young adults drawn from the mainstream of American society. As such, Farmingdale—like most US colleges and universities—has the daunting responsibility of preparing the masses of college-educated citizens who will lead our nation in the 21st century.

Farmingdale State College is a public institution, part of the State University of New York (SUNY) system. It is located on Long Island, New York, just twenty-five miles east of New York City. Founded in 1912 as an agricultural school, Farmingdale has evolved through the years, keeping pace with changes in the regional and national economy. Farmingdale is today a comprehensive polytechnic institution offering 29 baccalaureate degrees through its four schools: Arts and Sciences, Business, Engineering Technology, and Health Sciences.

The evolution of the student population at Farmingdale through the years is reflective of the demographic changes on Long Island—and, indeed, in the United States. Today 8,648 undergrads attend the College. 93% of the students are commuters who live locally and juggle school with jobs and often family responsibilities. 74% of the students are enrolled full-time, while 26% attend as part-time students. 49% of all Farmingdale students receive some form of governmental financial aid. Finally, 38% of the students self-identify as minority: 16% Hispanic, 10% Black, 7% Asian, 4% mixed race or non-resident alien.

The diversity of the Farmingdale student population is especially noteworthy. The numbers reflect an increase in the minority student population that reflects demographic changes on Long Island and, indeed, in the US. In 1990, 84% of the population on Long Island was White. By 2010, the White population on Long Island had fallen to 55%. This change is indicative of the overall trend in the US population. While Whites currently constitute two-thirds of the US population, demographers predict that, by 2050, the majority of US citizens will be non-White. Furthermore, the Farmingdale student population is enriched by a significant number of “New Americans”—immigrants or children of immigrants to the US. In 1970, only 3% of the US population was foreign-born. Today, 14% of the US population is foreign-born—and, on Long Island, the foreign-born population constitutes 16% of the residents. They hail from a wide array of countries, including the Dominican Republic, Israel, Haiti, Italy, China, India, Iran, and Afghanistan. Needless to say, Farmingdale is also enriched by religious diversity, reflective of the global origins of its students.

Put succinctly, Farmingdale—like most mainstream, non-elite colleges and universities in the United States—continues the tradition of educating the core of America’s future citizens; but, today, these students are largely first-generation college students, low income, and increasingly drawn from racial and ethnic groups that are currently underrepresented in the American structures of power and influence.

What, then, is our obligation to this student population? An examination of the mission statements and educational practices of our institutions reveals the current thinking. At Farmingdale three themes can be discerned:

  • First, as a public institution, the College is explicitly committed to serve the region and the state of New York by developing an educated workforce. Indeed, that is why most students are motivated to advance to higher education in the US today: their motives are narrowly vocational. They want to secure a job that will provide a healthy income and quality of life.
  • Second, as a polytechnic, Farmingdale promotes applied learning and problem solving that moves beyond the traditional classroom lecture to lab work, project-based learning, internships, and other “high impact” practices. Such practices are now being promoted by the SUNY system and national educational associations such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities; they champion various forms of active, hands-on learning that have been proven to be effective in helping students become expansive thinkers and creative problem solvers.
  • Third, Farmingdale’s mission statement proclaims that the institution endeavors to “empower graduates to be exemplary citizens.”

Given the composition of our student population, the Farmingdale mission statement about educating US citizens (and similar high-minded sentiments that are undoubtedly put forth as the mission of most US institutions) must be taken seriously. Administrative leaders and faculty practitioners must join in a concerted effort to make the pursuit of social justice more than peripheral or episodic. They must make educating for social justice a core, intentional endeavor that is embedded in each institution. This is a serious moral undertaking that is essential for building and preserving a vital democracy for the changing US population.

American democracy emerged from the 17th-century conceptualization of society as a “social contract.” That novel theory promotes the idea that all members of a community have a stake in each other and thus must band together and commit themselves to the well-being of the whole. So the Mayflower pilgrims—as they prepared to venture into the “new world” in 1620—signed a “compact” in which they acknowledged their shared interests and explicitly committed to “combine our selves together into a civil body politic, for our better ordering and preservation . . . and for the general good of the Colony.”

Fast-forward four centuries. America is no longer a tiny community composed of a homogeneous population bound by shared cultural heritage. Today’s American population of 320 million represents a wondrous diversity of peoples and cultures. That diversity is a key source of our genius—our creativity, entrepreneurship, and energy. But, if we are to thrive as a “civil body politic” committed to advancing the common good, then it is incumbent upon our leaders—and especially our educators—to build a strong bond of civility and respect that serves as the foundation for a strong united community. Simply put, as suggested by the founding motto of our new nation, “E Pluribus Unum,” or “out of many, one,” our pluralistic population is called upon to forge a new social contract in which both individualism and community values are celebrated and where each individual recognizes that we all have a stake in each other. In practical terms, as educators, we must teach our students to embrace principles upon which our democracy is founded: tolerance, respect, empathy, mutual understanding, and equal treatment.

The examples offered by my Farmingdale colleagues—and by the majority of Symposium speakers—demonstrate that the most effective means of advancing social justice is through hands-on and active project-based learning and teamwork. The charge for us today is to make active learning that is focused on social justice a core feature of our pedagogies across the curriculum. We can no longer rely on a few creative individuals to figure out on their own how to weave social justice principles into their learning exercises. Instead, to make social justice pervasive, our institutions must intentionally provide faculty development programs (and rewards) that enable, empower, and encourage all faculty to make social justice a learning outcome for all of our courses and majors.

The American university today is one of the most egalitarian and diverse communities in our society. The challenge for us as educators is to shift the lessons of social justice from the periphery to the core of our mission. It is only by careful, intentional planning and faculty development programs within the microcosm of each college community that we can come to nurture a spirit of tolerance, respect for difference, and commitment to the common good that will serve as the bedrock for a strong democracy and a vibrant, peaceful society.

Go to the table of contents for:
Spring 2016: Advancing Social Justice from Classroom to Community