A Mission of Social Justice

Posted on: July 25th, 2012
When I interview candidates for faculty positions in the College I always ask mission-related questions, and the response is usually a variant of “oh yes, I’m committed to social justice.”  If mission is to be reduced to a single focus, I suppose social justice is a good place to begin.

But I always like to ask exactly what the candidate means by “social justice” and his or her commitment to it.  And then the waters get murkier.  Sometimes it’s “good causes,” sometimes it’s liberal politics, sometimes it’s the language of the university’s mission statement—“yes, I’m for whatever you’re for.”  I know the eagerness to secure a good faculty position and so make due allowance for it.  And I then sometimes turn the question on myself:  “okay, Fennell, what do you think social justice means?”
For me social justice is decisive action in pursuit of justice for those who have been deprived of it. That’s a definition that needs to be parsed.  As thus:

1. decisive action – Social justice is something you do, not just something you think about.  We are very good in the academy at thinking about social justice, and talking about it, and recommending it.  I think we are less successful at actually doing it.  If we can’t get our students to take specific actions in pursuit of social justice, all the mission statements in the world won’t help.  And it’s not just students, it’s faculty and staff too
2. pursuit of justice – Even Socrates had a hard time wrestling with the meaning of justice.  I think we’re lucky here at Loyola to have the “home for all faiths” descriptor.  For me as a Christian the meaning of justice is simply doing the corporal works of mercy:  feeding the hungry, for example, or visiting the sick or the imprisoned, or any of the other acts that go under the example of what Jesus taught.  As the Dalai Lama said during his recent visit to campus, all faiths have similar injunctions about caring for the poor and disadvantaged.  That’s justice, because that is what it is right to do.

3. groups deprived of [justice] – There are all kinds of groups and all kinds of injustices:  economic injustice, legal injustice, social injustice, racial or gender injustice.  Your imagination can extend the list.  So who do we have a call to help?  Quite simply, those who need it.

Let me return to the notion of social justice as something we do rather than just talk about.  We promote social justice in our literature and on our websites.  But we need to constantly ask ourselves what we are doing to get our students to practice what we and they espouse.  I am aware of some very wonderful things faculty members get their students to do, activities that make a very real difference in the lives of countless people.  It’s these faculty and their students who are the real heroes and heroines of Loyola.  They may or may not use mission language to describe what they do:  better yet, they embody the mission.
Of course for me—for all of us—the real call is to inward questioning.  It’s not just what Loyola has said, it’s not just what our faculty, staff and students have done:  the question I must answer is what have I done to pursue justice?   That question I must answer for myself.  And so, for yourself, must you.
Frank Fennell
Former Dean, College of Arts & Sciences

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