Chapter 2: A University’s Commitment to Social Justice

by Joe Bertolino, Ed.D.

Posted on September 22, 2022

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For more than 125 years, Southern Connecticut State University’s mission has been defined by access, affordability, and social mobility. As with most regional publics, our student population is drawn from a variety of racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and economic backgrounds and is increasingly diverse.

Many of Southern’s 10,000 students have had to overcome life’s obstacles to attain their degree: working jobs while studying, supporting children or elderly relatives; taking those initial, uncertain steps into higher education as the first in their families to attend college. 

So when we help empower students to achieve their goal, we understand that this personal achievement means a great deal, because these young men and women truly had to strive and sacrifice to get there. 

But the needs of these students cannot be addressed, and their goals cannot be achieved, without an institutional commitment to building relationships, strengthening communities, and ensuring that social justice is a core value of our university. 

I am the product of a Jesuit education—an alum of the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. I was taught in the Ignatian Tradition (the tradition of St. Ignatius of Loyola) about the importance of Cura Personalis—“care for the entire person.” 

“Cura Personalis” suggests individualized attention to the needs of the other, distinct respect for his or her unique circumstances and concerns, and an appropriate appreciation for his or her particular gifts and insights. (Society of Jesus)

This value now is applied more broadly to include the relationship between educators and students and professional relationships among all those who work in the academic environment. (Society of Jesus

Nel Noddings, a philosopher of education from Stanford (who I had the pleasure of studying with while she was a visiting professor at Columbia) reminds us that “the purpose of education is not only to intellectually stimulate and challenge students to think critically, but also teach people self-respect, how to get along with others and how to celebrate life’s celebratory moments—that it is not entirely an intellectual task nor is it aimed at entirely intellectual outcomes.” (Noddings, N. Philosophy of Education, Stanford University. 1998) 

Or put another way: “Education,” as Ronald Kangas of Wayne State University once remarked, “is more than books. It is taking the time to cultivate friends and understand others.” (Kangas, R. No Time to Die, National Forensics League Speech, Wayne State University. 1978) 

In my inauguration speech at Southern Connecticut State University in April of 2017, I challenged all of those in attendance to ask “good questions” that would allow us to build better relationships on campus, namely: 

  • How can I provide value to you? 
  • What do you need to be successful? 
  • How can I support you and others? 
  • What can I do to improve the situation? 
  • How can I better understand you? 
  • What can I do right now to make a difference? 
  • How are we modeling an ethic of care that builds relationships and ultimately makes us a better university and a better community? 
  • Are we exercising Cura Personalis—care for the entire person? 

If we are, we have gone a long way to building a better community, because care for the whole person is the guiding force behind social justice. 

As presidents, we encourage a shared governance and believe in the principle that every voice has value. That every member of our community should be treated with dignity, respect, kindness, compassion, and civility. 

That commitment has been tested at our institutions across the country during the last two years, with emotions frayed by the COVID-19 pandemic and high-profile incidences of racial injustice nationwide. 

At a time when cultural, racial, and economic boundaries have hardened, it is critical that we engage in courageous conversations: taking time to listen and to hear, while allowing individuals to tell their stories and share why they feel the way they do and what they have experienced. And it is also important that we take concrete steps to right wrongs and correct systemic problems when they occur. 

At a time when cultural, racial, and economic boundaries have hardened, it is critical that we engage in courageous conversations.  

Certainly, if one of the prime purposes of a liberal education is to engage students in critical thinking—so that they can forge a career or become leaders in society—then being exposed to conflicting points of view is a necessity. For history has taught us time and again that the stifling of debate and dissent leads to autocracy. 

Indeed, the hallmark of an anti-racist, social justice university like Southern is not that we are perfect, but rather that we are transparent in revealing our imperfections—and then talking about them and taking action to correct them. 

Three years ago, for example, my home institution experienced an unfortunate incident on campus in which a faculty member used a racial slur—the N-word—during a class session. He did so apparently without vicious intent—he was singing a few lines from a rap song that had been chosen by his students—but voicing the word itself caused discomfort and anger among numerous students who were present. 

A video of the incident began circulating on social media, so immediately after I was alerted about the issue, the university released a public statement. That evening, the administration held a Town Hall in which some 150 students of color and other members of the campus community engaged in an animated discussion about whether the N-word is ever appropriate to use in public, even in a pedagogical setting. 

As a result of that meeting, the administration agreed to work closely with the students, faculty, and staff to create further opportunities for discussion and explore other strategies to create a more inclusive, sensitive, and welcoming community (such as education and training programs and recruitment initiatives). A peaceful protest march was held later in the week in which many members of the campus community participated to show solidarity with our students of color. 

The adjunct faculty member was suspended. And while the issue was a painful one and drew its share of media attention, it resulted in an impressive show of strength and maturity by our students and community. 

Campus communities must engage in difficult, often painful, uncomfortable, and courageous conversations.  

Much of the social justice conversation has centered on discussions of systemic racism, implicit bias, anti-racism, and anti-hate work. Campus communities must engage in difficult, often painful, uncomfortable, and courageous conversations. Additionally, true social justice work requires institutions to dig deeper. 

A commitment to social justice must extend beyond the “traditional” parameters to include support for students in need. Emerging from the pandemic, the financial pressures placed on our students have never been greater. For example, nearly 80 percent of Southern students rely on jobs to provide for life’s essentials, yet many are still coming up short. 

In response Southern, like many other institutions, established a new Food Pantry and Social Services Center (funded in large part by generous donors). Stocked with food and other essentials donated by members of the community, the center is symbolic of our continued efforts to ensure our students succeed in the classroom and in their personal lives. 

Simply put, when students can’t eat, when they have no place to sleep, when they have little family encouragement for bettering their lives through education, we must do more than offer classes and assignments. We must holistically help them navigate the complexities and challenges that they face. 

By doing so, our students win, we succeed in changing lives, and our community has gained innumerable. 

Because social justice is also about strengthening communities, institutions must be intentional in their outreach to the communities in which they reside. The premise of social justice requires colleges and universities to be both “in and of” their communities. Some examples from my home institution include the following: 

  • Recently, the National Science Foundation awarded Southern $1.4 million over five years to help bolster science and math education in the state’s high-needs school districts by recruiting and training a diverse, high-quality pool of STEM teachers. 
  • In a unique public partnership between Southern College of Education, New Haven Schools, and the City of New Haven, the Barack H. Obama Magnet University Magnet School was opened on campus. This K thru 4 elementary school serves as both a training ground for future educators and supports the educational needs of children in the surrounding community. 
  • Public health is also an area of focus. The Community Alliance for Research & Engagement (CARE), based at Southern and partnered with Yale, spearheaded the implementation of a significant grant from the CDC to improve COVID-19 vaccine confidence and vaccine access in communities of color in New Haven. 
  • A multimillion-dollar collaboration with Yale New Haven Health System will soon provide staff resources, clinical placements, and financial support to the School of Nursing, enabling Southern to double the number of students who graduate with a nursing degree by 2026. Not only will this partnership enhance our response to critical workforce needs, but most notably it also supports two new initiatives to enhance diversity in the nursing ranks. 

The demographics of our nation’s campuses are changing rapidly. Southern is no exception, with its enrollment of LatinX/Hispanic/Latino students having increased more than 20 percent, and its black student population seven percent, in just five years. Overall, students of color make up more than 40 percent of the student body. Given these trends, Southern will be a Hispanic- and Minority-serving institution within the next decade, and our campuses will become more diverse. 

If our institutions are to ensure student success, they must embrace the tenets of social justice, preparing students for the changing landscape. This will require campuses to engage in intentional, value-driven social justice/anti-racist work—better understanding the students we serve, meeting and responding to students “where they are at,” and educating our communities on the true meaning of “community and belonging.” Some home institution examples of this work include: 

  • Implementing robust programming, training, and learning opportunities campus wide for all constituencies affiliated with the university. 
  • Launching a Men of Color initiative to better understand the barriers faced by this population across the university experience. 
  • Enhancing support and visibility for students who identify as first-generation (which comprises almost 50 percent of our incoming classes). 
  • Instituting a state-funded program for high school sophomores from the Greater New Haven area to increase their likelihood of attending college. 
  • Introducing an initiative to elevate empathy through story sharing as a way to create more compassionate and caring communities on campus. 

As presidents, we must also acknowledge that systemic racism and oppression and bias exist in our campus communities and work tirelessly to identify and eradicate them. At Southern, we recently created a Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in recognition of the need for strategic leadership to help us achieve these goals. 

Early initiatives of the new division have included the creation of a DEI Strategic Plan and Advisory Council, along with a recruitment, retention, and support strategy for faculty and staff of color. A bias-response team has been created, and social justice conversations have been facilitated with key leadership groups from all constituencies on campus. 

It is clear that without defined and robust measures to track diversity and inclusion efforts and outcomes, there will be a tendency to revert to habitual and ingrained thinking and behavioral patterns that will limit the impact of a campus’s efforts. 

And with the wide diversity of race, ethnicity, economic status, and belief systems reflected in our student bodies, it is only by taking on the mantle of social justice that we will build campus environments where equity, inclusion, and diversity become a part of everyday campus life. 

If we elevate the issue of social justice to the forefront on our campuses, and have our students talk about it as a matter of course in their everyday lives, they will leave our institutions not only well-prepared to go out into the community as hardworking individuals, but more importantly, as good citizens. 

And as a result, our hope will be that these graduates will strive to create a community in which everyone is valued and all are treated with dignity, respect, kindness, compassion, and civility.