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Panel considers role of colleges in social justice

Staff Writer

Published: Monday, March 12, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 08:03


Jon Edelstein

Richard Goldstone stated that college students should be more involved in social justice-related issues.

“Social Justice and the University: Perspectives from the U.S. and Abroad,” a panel discussion that centered on the question of how active American universities should be in advocating social justice, was held yesterday in the Mandel Center for the Humanities Reading Room. The seven panelists represented an array of international thought, coming from diplomatic, legal, business, activist and academic backgrounds.

The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life sponsored the event, and six of the panelists serve on its advisory board.

Daniel Terris, the director of the center, moderated the event and set the agenda by asking, “Where can Brandeis go in relation to its social justice mission?”

Former South African Justice Richard Goldstone answered this question by defining what he viewed as appropriate parameters for universities.

“There is nobody in this room who would not agree that universities should get involved with issues of social justice—that is part of the nature of the university,” he said. He stated that there are two levels of social justice: those that affect one’s own country or university and issues on an international scale.

Goldstone advocated that students focus on issues that affect them and where they have expertise because “their voices will mean more.” He cited the effectiveness of South African students in the 1960s who, instead of protesting apartheid as a whole, focused on preventing apartheid in the university system.

Norbert Weissberg, an international investor, stated that “the university’s place, first and foremost, is to teach students how to think for themselves” in an era of sound-bites, as well as to be empathetic and to understand opposing viewpoints.

Weissberg faulted universities for not taking positions on controversial issues of social justice. Finding that universities rarely “demonstrate publicly [their] state[s] of mind,” he asked why universities “are virtually silent” when their scholarship allows them to form an informed, interesting opinion.“They are cheating the world of their knowledge. … We have a right to rely on the universities to inform the public and to take public stands on these issues,” he said.

Weissberg blamed universities’ reticence on a fear of alienating donors.

Provost Steve Goldstein ’78 rejected Weissberg’s argument as unfeasible and lacking in nuance. “Our goal is to help each student and each scholar pursue their dreams for impacting the world—not tell them what their dream should be, but give them the skills to pursue that,” he stated. “An institution should not advocate; it should be a source of facts, it should be a source of knowledge, it should be an open place for discussion. And so I do not think we’re silent.”

Goldstein pointed out that individual students and professors are advocates, but the institution as a whole is not.

Goldstein explained that “we do not teach facts at a university when we are teaching liberal arts, because facts become dated very quickly, and what our students need to know is how to think through a problem where the question has not been asked yet.”

Terris supported Goldstein’s argument, stating that “a lot of what has gone wrong in the world … is done by people who are sure that they are absolutely right and know what is best.”

He concluded that the University needed humility in deciding the parameters of its involvement in world issues.

Other issues discussed by the panel included the struggle to admit students from the bottom income quartile. Multiple panelists cited the European system, where many students attend college tuition-free, as worthy of adoption by America, including Michael Ratner ’66, a human-rights lawyer, who stated that recent law school graduates with $150,000 in debt were forced to work at corporate law firms instead of non-profits in order to repay their debt.

Shiranee Tilakawardene, a Justice on the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, set forth a more abstract, poetic vision of the purpose of the student’s time in university. “University life is really a brief sojourn in your long life’s journey,” she said. In addition to formulating one’s own dream, “it should be about also impacting the dreams of others, who do not have an environment to dream.”

Tilakawardene stated that the risk of ignoring the dreams of others is grave: “Where there is inequality, there is always oppression, violence, war and there will be no peace.”

In November 2009, Goldstone debated former Israeli ambassdor to the U.N. Dore Gold in front of over 700 attendees at Brandeis about the conclusion of the U.N. commission that Goldstone chaired. When asked at yesterday’s event about the current situation in Gaza, he declined to comment.  

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