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Social Justice and the University: Perspectives from the U.S. and Abroad


March 13, 2012

Some say universities are simply in the "knowledge business." Others contend a liberal arts education should propel students to action, particularly in the realm of social justice. What is the right answer for Brandeis University?

In March, members of the Center's International Advisory Board discussed this question at an open forum introduced by Provost Steve A. N. Goldstein. Panelists included leaders in business, education, government and law from South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sweden, the U.S. and Venezuela.

A lively conversation with a packed room of students, faculty and staff touched on issues such as equity and access to higher education, the level of student commitment to international affairs, and freedom of expression on campus.

Michael Ratner ’66, President Emeritus, Center for Constitutional Rights, recalled that when he was an undergraduate at Brandeis and a graduate student “…there were no classes around anything to do with social justice.” This has changed, noted Ratner, who feels strongly that social justice concerns are part of the university, “particularly…when it comes to what our own country is doing in the world.”

Richard Goldstone, a former Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, shared his view, based on his experience in South Africa, that students’ voices mean more “in relation to issues where they can speak with some expertise – about their own university, about students in their country, and about issues which affect them as students…. I’m not suggesting they shouldn’t be involved in broader issues,” he said, “but that should be the main focus.”