Social Justice Initiatives at Georgetown University: Practical Applications of Moral, Professional, and Educational Responsibility (Doyle Symposium Proposal)

By: Anela Malik

April 29, 2015

Georgetown University has an ethical, professional, and educational responsibility to engage difference and to use its positionality and access to cutting-edge research to engage its students in social justice. Although a variety of social justice issues problematize the American social landscape, race and class are increasingly salient given recent events such as the Ferguson protests and the Occupy Wall Street movement. In addition, race and class are intertwined with America’s education system and remain correlated with college enrollment and graduation rates, employment statistics for graduates, and socioeconomic mobility. As a result, Georgetown University initiatives to embrace social justice and engage difference should directly address systematic inequality and difference as a result of race and class. This proposal explores cost- effective, concrete and achievable projects focused on racial and class-based injustice in the education system, using scientific research methods designed to challenge implicit biases, improve the educational environment, and enhance equity and outcomes for Georgetown students. Though they focus on race and class, the following recommendations can be adapted to encompass other priorities of the university by incorporating literature on other social justice loci such as gender and immigration. 

Georgetown’s Ethical, Professional, and Education Responsibility

The United States, the world’s economic, political, and military leader, has a problem: an internal cancer. As noted by Georgetown President John J. DeGioia, the United States continues to struggle with a “persistent legacy of segregation, discrimination, inequality:of injustice.” The principles of social justice upon which American democracy was built have not been achieved. Resistance to this persistent inequality–the widening class divide and social gaps in education, employment, and income–have manifested in disruptive and sometimes violent ways. The Occupy Wall Street movement and recent unrest in Ferguson are indicators of this broader pattern of resistance and its dramatic effects on American society. These events remind us that there is still work to be done to improve equity and justice in our country.

Georgetown’s largely economically advantaged and racially homogeneous student body allows for easy ignorance of injustices that do not affect the majority of students. However, Georgetown will fail in its professed mission to prepare “the next generation of global citizens to lead” if students graduate without the necessary tools to engage with social justice issues such as race, class, justice, and equality. Georgetown students, many of whom wish to work in fields such as government, law, and education, must be comfortable tackling sensitive topics, engaging in thoughtful introspection, considering the intersectionality of groups and systems, and working with people from diverse backgrounds.

In addition to molding well-rounded, professionally prepared graduates, thoughtful, research-based curriculum and activities that enhance and engage with principles of social justice–particularly race and class–will: a) satisfy moral and ethical obligations associated with Georgetown’s Jesuit and Catholic identity and espoused mission; b) tangibly improve Georgetown’s academic environment and student performance; and, c) work to break the cycle of injustice that permeates American institutions and create a better future for its graduates. Thus, Georgetown has a professional, educational, and ethical responsibility to prepare students to engage with social justice. 

Recommendations for President DeGioia and the Georgetown Administration
1) In order to improve the educational environment, equity, and outcomes, and equip students to engage in social justice, Georgetown must make several changes to its core undergraduate curriculum. Specifically, the university should add a diversity requirement: a semester-long, mandatory course students take in their first year, selected from an approved list of relevant classes, as discussed later. Although Georgetown currently offers a myriad of courses critically examining social justice issues, a mandate will prevent self-selection, where students with a vested interest take the course but programming does not reach the majority of the student body. In this way “engaging difference” will be a campus-wide endeavor. 

--All approved diversity courses should have three primary aims: a) to facilitate free, frank, and thoughtful discussion on often ignored or uncomfortable topics; b) to engage students with academic literature concerning social justice and current events; and, c) to utilize recognized techniques associated with desired educational and social justice outcomes such as cross-group communication exercises, facilitated discussions of race and class, and counter-stereotyping activities and de-biasing exercises.

--All approved diversity courses should incorporate key social justice concepts such as: intersectionality, equity, equality, implicit bias, privilege, socialization, social construction, systemic oppression, and microagressions.

--Potential approved courses include: "A Critical Examination of Race in America"; "Gatekeepers: Social and Structural Barriers to Entry"; :Intersectionality and Alternative Approaches to Social Justice"; "Equality and the Criminal Justice System"; and "Institutional and Structural Violence."

2) To close gaps in educational performance and outcomes, Georgetown must incorporate mandatory “Navigating the University Environment” panels at orientation drawing on the Difference-Education Intervention (DEI) model, shown to close educational achievement gaps through a simple and cost-effective intervention.

--A mandatory session during orientation would reach all new students, ensuring that effective messaging is widespread and not provided to a select few.

--To expand the efficacy of this intervention beyond class, student-run panels should include upperclassmen from all backgrounds including: a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, minorities, first-generation college students, etc.

--Utilizing the DEI model, student intervention leaders should engage with freshmen, emphasize how their backgrounds can be both a challenge and a source of strength in the university environment, and provide tactics for success and coping with the transition to college.

3) To engage with social justice principles–beyond the easy-to-reach class of incoming freshmen–Georgetown should begin a university-wide public awareness campaign. This social justice campaign should aim to challenge stereotypes, spark conversation, and raise awareness of ongoing injustice. It should:

--Utilize campus leaders such as Doyle Student Fellows to craft a social justice campaign that is factually accurate, relevant to students, and personal.

--Solicit personal stories from GU students about their experiences with injustice and relate them through posters, social media, or campus events.

--Focus on relevant topics such as microaggressions, implicit bias, psychosocial effects of perceived “difference,” etc. 

Though these recommendations are by no means exhaustive, they are an important first step towards an inclusive, culturally competent, and civically engaged student body. However, to be truly effective and responsive to the needs of students, these initiatives must be accompanied by appropriate evaluation methods such as online student satisfaction surveys designed to measure racial and class-based rejection sensitivities and the monitoring of the educational outcomes and gaps at Georgetown among different groups. Only through research-based, factually accurate programming can Georgetown begin to engage difference and address the persistent legacy of injustice of which it is an inheritor. 

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Social Justice Initiatives at Georgetown University: Practical Applications of Moral, Professional, and Educational Responsibility (Doyle Symposium Proposal)