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Sandel moderates panel on univ diversity

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: News

Photo by Alex Patch/The Hoot

Faculty discussed the roles of diversity and globalization at Brandeis in a symposium moderated by Harvard Professor Michael Sandel ’75 on Thursday in honor of university President Fred Lawrence’s inauguration this week.

Sandel, a member of the Brandeis Board of Trustees, teaches the popular undergraduate course “Justice” at Harvard and asked Professor Ulka Anjaria (ENG), Professor Bernadette Brooten (NEJS) and Professor Fernando Rosenberg (HISP) to define diversity in the context of a liberal arts university. In the second panel at the Faculty Club, Professor David Cunningham (SOC), Professor Theodore Johnson (HS) and Professor Kate Moran (PHIL) explained what social justice and moral values mean to Brandeis.

Brooten said that the university needs to expand its language programs and make sure students have more opportunities to fully learn about other cultures.

“People do not say the same thing in one language as they do in another,” Brooten said. “If you want to meet people on their own terms, you have to cross the language barrier. Diversity is not about being comfortable.”

At Brandeis, this should include language tables, guest speakers who talk in native languages and a new emphasis on encouraging students to spend a full year, rather than just a semester studying abroad, Brooten said.

Although many students are often concerned with fulfilling requirements for multiple majors and minors, for those interested in becoming fluent in a language and gaining in depth knowledge about a culture, a full year of study abroad is helpful, she said.

“We need to be serious and upfront about how long it takes to learn a culture and a language,” Brooten said.

Rosenberg said that the Brandeis community must find new ways to challenge definitions and meanings of diversity.

“Celebrating diversity is often a way of hiding inequality,” he said. “Welcoming more diversity on campus can lead us on the path of a more welcoming and rewarding future.”

In addition to admitting students from diverse backgrounds, Rosenberg said that academic courses can also become more diverse.

“Diversity doesn’t stop there. It should be integrated into the curriculum,” he said.

Anjaria referenced a 2009 film “Three Idiots” and asked the audience to contemplate not only definitions of traditional success but also what people want society to become. The liberal arts university now faces external pressure from critics who wonder whether a liberal arts education can lead to jobs and economic success as well as from internal economic and financial pressure at the university.

In “Three Idiots,” Anjaria said “because they [students] couldn’t conform to that education structure, the Dean constantly referred to them as idiots.” She asked the audience to question whether success is good for society.

“Even though India is booming at the moment, who do we want to become as a culture?” Anjaria said. “I think what we’re seeing is that the we ourselves is changing?”

Brooten, who grew up in poverty, said that financial aid is crucial to encouraging economic diversity on campus.

“I would not have been able to get an education without those need-based grants.”

The professors said that India, Latin America and the Middle East are all regions of the world that they hope the university will focus on to recruit more students.

In the second panel, Moran discussed the values of humanity and justice that Brandeis should seek to uphold.

In society today, many people arrive at conclusions of thought simply by accident, Moran said.

“Being right only accidentally can be a dangerous thing indeed,” Moran said referencing the first of Kant’s three virtues.

Kant’s second virtue she said, is about “thinking consistently,” which “at its foundation is deeply rooted to notions of fairness and justice.”

Moran said Kant’s third virtue, although impossible to fulfill, is one to strive for in a changing world.

“Kant likes to remind us that we have to perfect our ability to think from the standpoint of others.”

Although Moran admitted that the ability to empathize with everyone is difficult, she said people can consider the environments and conditions that others live in.

Johnson explored the theme of justice, explaining that “social justice is both a process and a result.”

“Social just as a result is giving each person their due,” he said.

A willingness to initiate dialogue with opposing views is also a crucial aspect in the process of social justice, Johnson said. It means “not necessarily agreeing with them but deeply appreciating them in an emotional and intelligent manner.”

Cunningham said that today’s world represents a merging of technology and relations in society.

“How can we take authoritative knowledge and engage with broader publics?” Cunningham said.

Sandel asked the panelists to evaluate the values a university should teach its students. He mentioned the dilemma that Adam Smith poses between concern over a person losing a finger versus concern over the destruction of an entire nation, such as China, after an earthquake.

He asked the audience whether Brandeis should strive for “a moral education in universal human concern.”

When students shared stories of their personal tragedies in his classroom, Johnson said others empathized with their pain.

“When those stories are shared in the classroom, it is not like losing a finger,” he said.

Evaluating the distinction between social justice and justice, Sandel who recently wrote a book titled “Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?” said social justice implies looking after people often left out and excluded in society.

“I guess that is what social justice means, which is why those on the [political] right hate it,” Sandel said.

Lawrence, who attended the symposium with his family, said that the symposia on Monday and Tuesday are especially meaningful to him as an academic. He applauded the discussion on themes of justice and values and the purpose of a university.

In his inaugural address on Thursday, he said the symposia speak to the strength of a liberal arts education.

“The wonderful symposia that my colleagues presented in my honor earlier this week so magnificently made the case: our mandate involves not only the transmission of a cultural heritage, but the evocation of intellectual curiosity and that most special thing of all, the creative impulse,” Lawrence said.