This year has seen a lot of activity around the theme of social justice in academia. Commitments to social justice are popping up in universities’ mission statements and on course syllabi across the humanities. The problem I see with any university proclamation is that the terms involved are often ill-defined. What does a college mean when it says that it supports social justice? FIRE board member Daphne Patai advocated in a blog post earlier this month that students define social justice in their own ways, because any nebulous phrase lends itself to re-signification.
Liberals and conservatives alike should realize that policies relying upon vague terminology lead to abuses of power. Colleges remain powerful institutions with almost complete control over their students and faculty, and the invocation of progressive catchphrases does not mean that colleges act in just ways.
Take the case of Professor Thomas Klocek at DePaul University. Klocek’s story is well-known by now. At a September 15 activity fair, Klocek got into an argument with some members of two student groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and United Muslims Moving Ahead. Klocek, a religious studies scholar trained at the University of Chicago, expressed informed opinions on the Middle East and the argument grew mutually offensive. DePaul administrators responded by suspending Klocek without a hearing, prohibiting him from contacting the press, and threatening to monitor his classes when he was reinstated.
The dean of the school in which Klocek taught released a rather telling statement that reads in part:
"I sincerely regret the assault on [the students’] dignity, their beliefs, their individual selves, and I continue to be saddened by the fact that they have experienced such pain at the hands of a person who taught at my school, which has defined commitment to social justice as one of its core values."
Here we see social justice being used as justification for suppressing academic freedom, and as an excuse to bypass any semblance of fairness. The dean mentioned in the same statement her vision that "A university is a sacrosanct place." Regardless of our opinion on social justice, we should all be disturbed by the unfettered persecution of a professor, coupled with the sentiment that a university is beyond reproach.
Ironically, rather than resulting in the redistribution of power, as the term suggests, the appearance of the phrase "social justice" in policies has given administrators yet another tool to wield against those who find themselves subject to the administration’s caprice. Thomas Klocek is currently suing DePaul for its mistreatment of him, and FIRE hopes that 2006 brings him the justice that eluded him in 2005.