Social justice in, through and beyond higher education

Submitted by Miranda Prynne on Thu, 24/03/2022 - 00:01
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Higher education institutions can work individually and together to advance social justice well beyond their campus walls, as Pardis Mahdavi explains
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A long-overdue societal awakening has prompted leaders in higher education to take a much-needed look at issues around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (Jedi). Universities worldwide are starting to release Jedi-related statements and plans on their websites to accompany published numbers on racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity among their student body.

Some institutions, including Arizona State University, have committed to a whole host of actions to support social justice while requiring Jedi statements for job searches and making diversity training mandatory for all search committees. Others, like my new home, the University of Montana, are upholding Jedi values by focusing on career preparation and internship access for all students, thereby creating more equitable pathways to success. These are all welcome changes that create necessary momentum for the next level: enacting social justice in global higher education and beyond.

The changes we are seeing in higher education today reflect a desire to uphold social justice within the academy. How can we harness this powerful energy to inspire higher education to take an even bigger role in not just upholding but actively engaging in and driving meaningful social change?

Here, I offer possible steps for interested members of the academy who want to level-up their engagements with social justice work nationally and globally. Many of these strategies are being deployed by universities on a one-off basis. A holistic approach that embodies all of these through collaboration is sure to bring even more success.

Higher education as a global collective for social justice

Start thinking about higher education as a larger collective with shared goals around upholding social justice – not just in higher education, but in other sectors as well. Work together as a sector to secure a shared seat at the table with policymakers to help set new policies about relevant issues such student loan forgiveness, access to higher education and employment post graduation. These policies can be implemented at the local and university level and can also help to shift national and international discourse. Make policy work a priority.

International cooperation as an imperative

Related to the above, consider international cooperation in higher education as an imperative. An example: the Islamic Republic of Iran is facing heavy sanctions that are now being loosened. The impact of sanctions on higher education is enormous but rarely discussed. With sanctions relaxing, universities across the globe can begin collaborating with their counterparts in places such as Iran to meet the growing needs for graduate studies that Iranian students articulate. Of more than 900,000 students applying for master’s or PhD-level training in Iran, less than 5 per cent could be accepted because Iran lacks the resources and infrastructure to provide for students. Moreover, in the past few years, 33 public universities have closed down 77 STEM majors to women. International collaboration can open up new partnerships with overseas institutions abroad creating new avenues to learning and research opportunities such as those for women in STEM.

Actively challenge oppression

Take an active role in dismantling systems of oppression that uphold inequality. The most obvious example of this would be pay gaps based on gender, race or other marginalised identity groups. An across-the-board look at wages and inequities in hiring practices is a helpful place to start. Requiring diversity statements and training for search committees is an important first action, but it is equally important to look at the entire process from interview onwards. For example, are interviewees given access to questions ahead of time? How is the job ad written? This applies to all hiring and promotion decisions.

Create multiple pathways of progression

Create pathways of success and elevation for all students, faculty and staff. For students, attention to the role of advising, and supporting advice infrastructures, is critical, as is mentorship on career readiness and offering internship opportunities. For faculty and staff, offering clear pathways to promotion and elevation is essential. To do this with intention, institutions can sponsor or offer professional development opportunities, provide coaching and ensure clear signalling of the ways to rise the ranks in different fields.

Dismantle scarcity models

Pay special attention to dismantling scarcity and adversity models. A scarcity model is one that tells individuals or groups within a university ecosystem that only one person or a limited set of people can succeed at a particular initiative. This is increasingly common when it comes to diversity work in higher education. Rather than seeing Jedi as something that should involve everyone, bringing in many voices and fostering collaboration between multiple groups, some have observed that it has become a competition with academy members vying for resources or to be the authoritative voice on diversity work. Finding ways to encourage teamwork – tethering resources to cross-college or multi-institutional engagement, for example – can help to alleviate the pressure that leads to silos and resentment.

Not just upholding but actively engaging with social justice is necessary work. Higher education has started building momentum by enacting institutional initiatives that move the needle. Collaboration, even in and through conflict, and attention to dismantling systems of oppression and creating opportunity can lead the way to deeper change rooted in social justice.

Pardis Mahdavi is the dean of social sciences and a professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Arizona State University. She is the incoming provost and executive vice-president of the University of Montana.

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Higher education institutions can work individually and together to advance social justice well beyond their campus walls, as Pardis Mahdavi explains