When I conjure images of social consciousness on university campuses, I see students, often in conflict with the institutions of higher learning to which they belong: James Meredith denied entrance at the University of Mississippi in 1962, Paris students marching in the tumultuous May of 1968, anti-war protesters at Kent State silenced by National Guard bullets in 1970, the anti-apartheid divestment campaigns of university students in the 1980s, the living wage and anti-sweatshop sit-ins of the 1990s.
The institutions that once issued reprimands and expulsions for these activities now embrace their activist and radical heritage as the passage of years renders such social consciousness safe. San Jose State University President Robert D. Clark’s support for students John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s silent protest at the awards podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City is an exception to the rule. At San Jose State today, a statue of the protest sits on campus. The usual pattern for universities is to disavow and then to commemorate. The University of Mississippi erected a statue of James Meredith decades after Meredith was barred from entering the university.
But what if the institution of higher education itself – rather than the students who shame it to act – becomes a powerful voice for social change?
This month marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the murder of eight members of the university community at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in El Salvador – a coordinated killing of the university leadership by the military. As the Rev. Michael McCarthy, a professor of religious studies and classics at Santa Clara University explains in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the leaders of the Jesuit UCA visioned the university as a force for social good, a platform for speaking truth to power. The UCA nurtured independence publications, launched human rights investigations and created forums for national debate on public policy. The leadership of the UCA paid dearly for their commitment to free and fair debate and the eradication of poverty in El Salvador.
The United States of the 2010s is not El Salvador of the 1980s, and the consequences for positioning the university as a force for social good are far less dire. But the potential reach of the university is no less significant. The university of the twenty-first century has an opportunity to open its doors, not only inviting students and community members, but also stepping outside to meet people where they are.
We routinely hear from professors that teaching in Books@Work programs in workplaces and other community settings inspires them – changing the way that they think about texts, teaching and the world in which they live. At the same time, these professors have tremendous expertise that they are able to share with a larger public. As representatives of their institutions, these professors are pioneers for colleges and universities’ engagement with the community. And often, they bring their universities along with them, setting a standard and protocol for using the human resources of the university to benefit all.
At Books@Work, we are lucky to work with institutions and faculty members who see a responsibility to position themselves as a force for social good. These institutions are leading the way for others, trading the historical outright disavowal for activism around social justice that some institutions held, for an opportunity to be a strong and powerful force for social good.
Image: El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), View of Toledo, 1598-99, [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons