To make a more just world, start with your campus

One of the hallmarks of US university administrators, including presidents, is their near-uniform support—showy, public support—for justice. Immigration justice, policing justice, climate justice, housing justice, food justice, trans justice, pronoun justice, and the list goes on. They call for all sorts of social justice battles except those they could fight and win: college affordability, endowment inequity, and workforce living wages.

Undergraduate and graduate education in the US is unaffordable. A recent US News & World Report analysis shows that tuition and fees at private US universities have jumped 134 percent in 20 years. Out-of-state tuition and fees at public universities have risen 141 percent, while in-state tuition—which one would expect to be the most protected—has risen 175 percent. This does not even include the increases in housing, food, and other school-related expenses.

For many Americans, the advantages of a college education, so long an engine of upward mobility, are now out of reach. Or within reach in the short term but only at the expense of future financial well-being. College and university administrators who see themselves as social-justice champions need to get their campuses in order with a cost structure in alignment with what people can afford. This would be a great contribution to social justice and is one within reach of campus leaders actually interested in advancing—not just pontificating about—social justice.

The wealth inequality amongst US colleges and universities makes the most stratified country look egalitarian. Endowments at the wealthiest ten universities range from $14 billion to $53 billion. Together, these ten have over $284 billion in endowments. It would be straightforward for these wealthy universities to share some of the resources that such wealth makes possible with the other 99 percent. They could, for example, offer visiting faculty to less-wealthy universities. Any number of creative solutions would suggest themselves to leaders interested in advancing—not just pontificating about—social justice.

Most universities outsource their dirtiest jobs—cleaning, security, maintenance, and so on—to avoid paying fair wages. Not only do those workers not earn a living wage but they also don’t get the pensions and benefits that they would have as university employees. University presidents love to express their support for the dignity of work. Well, how about good jobs for their own workers? Any number of creative solutions would suggest themselves to leaders actually interested in advancing—not just pontificating about—social justice.

And what are the students themselves learning from all this? To loudly profess one’s values, then hurry off on one’s merry way to a well-paying job, a lovely house in a nice zip code, and a good school for one’s own children, focusing on one’s family to the exclusion of volunteering in their communities—social justice solutions available to young people interested in advancing—not just pontificating about—social justice.

Imagine the ripple effect of students graduating from universities whose leadership opted to do the hard work of making justice on their own campus. Students have long since been trained to cast a critical eye on the administration. What if, instead, what they saw was indeed an example to live by?

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY). Prior, he was an Associate Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he also served as Research Director for the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. Todd was a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center (2020-2022) and a Faculty Fellow of Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College (2018–2020). He has published in leading academic journals and has authored or co-authored general audience pieces in outlets including The Atlantic, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Post, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, Phi Delta Kappan, Science and The Wall Street Journal. Todd’s most recent book is “Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy” (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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