- Ethics Home Page
- About the Center
- Focus Areas
- Contact Us
- Site Index
Action on Behalf of Justice: Student Activism and the Promotion of Justice at Santa Clara University
by Ellen Ritchie, Hackworth Fellow
The following report is a presentation of findings based on qualitative and quantitative research that I conducted on the Santa Clara University (SCU) campus during the spring quarter of 2004. With this research, I sought to document the individual and collective experiences of student activists1 at this University in light of SCU's Jesuit commitment to the "Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice." The central assumptions behind this paper are 1) that student activists are fundamentally misunderstood by the broader SCU community and 2) that the experiences of student activists at SCU reveal an institutional contradiction between the rhetoric and the reality of this University. Accordingly, my intentions in writing this paper are twofold. First, I aim to articulate clearly the ethical values held by student activists at SCU and to deconstruct the most common misconceptions regarding their motivations and actions. Secondly, I plan to discuss the contradiction that many student activists observe between University rhetoric and the reality of their experience. I will conclude by offering tangible recommendations as to how SCU can close the gap between rhetoric and reality and better support the work of student activists at SCU.
The idea for this paper originated in my own experience as a student activist at SCU. More specifically, the idea arose in response to the University Administration's perceived opposition to student involvement in movements for social justice on this campus. Considering the University's Jesuit commitment to the promotion of justice, I have come to believe that this opposition must be rooted in either misunderstanding or hypocrisy. Therefore, I intend to present clearly the values that motivate students to act on behalf of justice and to put forth their critiques of the SCU establishment. This clarification will reduce the possibility of misunderstanding and allow for an informed dialogue regarding the appropriate role for student activism at this Jesuit University.
As I have stated, many student activists at SCU feel that they and their work are often misinterpreted by their fellow students, as well as by University faculty and staff. Often times, student movements are mischaracterized or simply dismissed by University officials, and students are denied the opportunity to clarify their true intentions and goals. Therefore, common misconceptions must be addressed before any genuine discussion of student activism is possible. I have outlined responses to several of the most common misconceptions below. These responses are based on both interview and survey data.2
Student activists are the only students who believe that SCU's policies
are not in line with Jesuit values of justice.
Student activists are no more informed about issues of justice than
the average SCU student.
Student activism has had no impact on this campus.
1. The Multicultural Center (MCC) is one of the gems of the University and is promoted as a symbol of the school's commitment to diversity and cultural exchange. It is important to note that the MCC as we know it today is a result of over 10 years of student activism. Though the MCC offices are now located in the Shapell Lounge near the Benson Center, they were once hidden away in the basement of Graham residence hall, which suffered from flooding and leaky water pipes, and was "plagued with rats and cockroaches."4 Students, especially students of color, who worked for or with this organization, felt that this location was an impediment to their work and the development of their clubs. In response to this marginalization, they organized three consecutive "Unity" movements and eventually gained the more congenial Shapell lounge space.
2. A two year campaign to make SCU a fair trade coffee campus, coordinated primarily by Paulina Flint of the class of 2002, is a perfect example of institutional change brought about by student concern and action. The campaign included an educational component, constant lobbying, and negotiating with Bon Appetit, the university food service. We are now lucky enough to have a Fair Trade option at the Mission Bakery. Although this was far from the campus-wide, fair-trade-only policy students had hoped for, it offers students the option of living a life of solidarity that supports the human rights of agricultural workers around the world.
3. In the spring of 2002, a group of nearly 40 students challenged the University's acceptance of a donation from Lockheed Martin, the world's largest weapons manufacturer. These students felt that, "A high-profile relationship with the largest weapons manufacturer in the world . . . is a blatant contradiction of Jesuit values and degrades the meaning behind the various symbols of faith and justice on our campus."5 Although the Gift Acceptance Policy that eventually resulted from this controversy was merely a symbolic gesture and had no significant ethical content, these students successfully challenged the University to consider the implications of the Jesuit commitment to "draw no profit whatever from clearly unjust sources."6
4. Most recently, a student-worker alliance organized around the SCU Facilities Department contract negotiations, which took place from January through April 2004. Workers had expressed concern about their job security and the bargaining power of their union, SEIU Local 715, due to a university management policy of phasing in sub-contracted labor over time. Workers in the maintenance and custodial units were demanding that their contract include language which would guarantee an end to this practice. Students and workers came together to publicly challenge the University Management and Administration to implement a just labor policy. On April 30th, 2004, a contract was agreed upon that would not only secure current union positions, but would also add additional permanent workers as the University grows and expands.
It is not necessarily surprising that most students are unaware of these
and other gains made by student activists throughout the years. Often
times when issues are taken up by the University and institutionalized
in one form or another, credit is given to those who carry out the official
business of creating and implementing policy. Occasionally, the University
Administration even goes so far as to take all credit for a policy decision
that had its roots in student activism. Evidence of this type of co-optation
can be found in a recent letter sent to faculty and staff by SCU President
Paul Locatelli, S.J. In this letter Locatelli makes a reference to the
living wage movement of 2000 -2001 at SCU and claims that, "The union
[SEIU Local 715] and some students claimed credit for SCU's decision to
pay a living wage . . . In reality, at that time the University administration
had already determined that it would be in the interest of social justice
and our best interest . . . to pay that level of wages and allocated funds
for such wages in the budget."7 According
to Alumni with whom I spoke, students had begun pushing for the living
wage on campus long before any official decision was made.8
Many student activists employ the concept of solidarity as a guiding principle in their work. They recognize the responsibility that comes with an acknowledgment of suffering and injustice, and use their privilege to bring attention to the causes of others. Senior Blair Thedinger presented solidarity as "identification with the suffering of a group you don't belong to and the willingness to challenge that oppression in cooperation with members of that group."12 Furthermore, several students argued that solidarity involves both experiential learning and academic research, with Senior David Zwaska arguing that, "an informed solidarity is most valuable."13 Recognizing this fact, students engaged in activism tend to reject "fuzzy thinking"14 and overly-sentimental analysis, and instead commit themselves to active, informed solidarity.
As is clear from these definitions and interpretations, student activists understand the concepts of social justice, solidarity and compassion much in the same way as do the Jesuits. Since this is the case, one can understand why students are often confused when they first experience resistance to their work at SCU. If both the University and the student activists are using the same terms, and interpreting those terms in a very similar way, what explains the tension between these two groups? In the course of my interviews with student activists one explanation was offered time and time again, in various ways, by various individuals. Student activists believe that there is a gap between University rhetoric and the reality of policies and internal politics at SCU.
Rhetoric vs. Reality
Santa Clara student activist Jelena Radovic reflected on her experience of transformation from a volunteer to an advocate for justice by asking, "How can I volunteer at a homeless shelter and not wonder why people are homeless it's all connected."17 Stated more generally, her question is this: how can we be taught about and exposed to inequality and oppression, and not feel inclined to act publicly and politically to change the systems which are the root causes of these injustices? Furthermore, how can we go beyond the SCU bubble to learn about injustice and not return home without applying this new knowledge to our immediate surroundings? Much frustration among activists is rooted in SCU's apparent rejection of this connection, which has been so fundamental to their growth as intellectuals and advocates. Though some students noted the University's financial support for off-campus activism (i.e. for traveling to School of the Americas demonstration and the United Students Against Sweatshops conference), they also argued that the University has made it clear that activist critiques are not welcome on campus. In order to present their critiques more clearly, I will discuss them in terms of four general themes: False Advertising, The Church and Politics, Minority Politics and the Bottom Line.
I will begin with the most common criticism offered by student activists, which deals with the contradictions between SCU's public image and the reality of its policies. Many students, including myself, were drawn to this University because of its image as an institution that works for justice. The University claims to promote an "educational environment that integrates rigorous inquiry and scholarship, creative imagination, reflective engagement with society, and a commitment to fashioning a more humane and just world."18 However, many student activists think that the University does not always practice what it preaches.
Students shared feelings of frustration with the hesitancy of SCU to publicly take a stand on current issues of social and ethical importance. SCU has proven to be an institution that focuses its social and institutional critiques on injustices of the past (which are now sanctioned as injustices in the realm of public opinion), but often fails to take a public stance on current issues. For instance, several students commented on the University's willingness to speak publicly today about the tragic war in El Salvador in the 1980s, but noted its failure to take a public stance on the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The claims of false advertising go beyond the realms of policy and public
relations to the heart of the University, namely into the classroom. Though
SCU claims to "educate the whole person in solidarity with the real
world,"19 many activists expressed
frustration with the subject matter presented in their classes and with
the angle from which it is taught. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General
of the Society of Jesus has stated clearly that, "no point of view
is value free. By preference, by option, our Jesuit point of view is that
of the poor."20 Students argue that
this standard has not been fully embraced at this University and that
issues of social justice are "watered down" in the classroom.
Many students believe that, in its efforts to appear apolitical, Santa Clara denies the reality that, as a religious and social institution, it is involved in the construction of values and ideologies, an inherently political project. Moreover, these students believe that the element of SCU's Jesuit mission that calls for the "Promotion of Justice" ought to increase the University's involvement in politics. In today's world, where "two thirds of human kind are on the road"21 of oppression, working for social justice and on behalf of the poor means working against political, economic and social institutions that support injustice. SCU's hesitancy to embrace its role as an influential religious and social institution should not be considered a shrewd political move, but rather another example that the University is "simply not willing to pay the price of a more just and more humane society."22 Several students complained about this facade of neutrality. Their frustration reflects the reality that in today's world, taking no stance is taking a stance in support of the unjust status quo.
More specific to the student activist experience is the double standard they have observed in relation to social justice and the physical space of the Mission Church at the heart of the SCU campus. Many at SCU have claimed that the Mission Church is not the proper place for political activism, and when students have dared to touch this protected sanctuary with their movements, they have been dismissed as disrespectful and reprimanded. In two particular circumstances, police action was threatened in order to remove students from the area in front of the Church.23 On the first occasion, students protesting the Lockheed Martin donation chose to fast outside the Mission Church for four days as a symbolic act of repentance. Campus safety threatened to call the police on the first morning of the fast, but in the end the students were simply reprimanded by the Office of Student Life for breaking the campus free speech policy which was in place at the time. The second occasion was in the spring of 2004 when students and workers gathered for a candlelight vigil outside of the Mission Church on Holy Thursday to encourage the University community to consider the connections between the suffering of Christ and the struggle for workers' rights at SCU.
While student activists are prohibited from demonstrating inside or directly in front of the Mission Church, people enter the church each week and hear scripture and homilies involving political issues, such as the treatment of marginalized peoples or the injustice of violence and war. In this way, the Mission Church has become a biased space on campus that silences the real life struggles of the community and illuminates instead only hypothetical or distant struggles for justice, peace and humanity. SCU claims to be a place where students can learn to integrate their faith and their belief in justice, but unfortunately only certain interpretations of justice are allowed in or near the Mission Church. This leads some activists to wonder who decides what types of politics are welcome in this space.
Student activists at SCU want to see a Church and a clergy that are actively engaged in the struggle for justice right here at Santa Clara University. They feel that there are radical stances to be taken in behalf of justice and human dignity, and that the Church should be a hub of involvement in the struggle. They argue that the white crosses in front of the Mission Church, which bear the names of Salvadoran Jesuit Martyrs, testify to the necessity of this struggle. These crosses represent for many student activists of faith the idea that faith requires the public denunciation of injustice. In this way, the Mission Church is the most appropriate sight of resistance on campus.
We have all heard Margaret Mead's famous statement urging us to "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world,' and reminding us that, "Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." The spirit of this quotation, which brings inspiration to many in the struggle for justice, is often disregarded by those who promote an ideology of democracy as majority rule. This ideology impacts student activists at SCU who, as I mentioned above, make up only 10.7% of the undergraduate population and, therefore, always represent a minority on campus.
This perspective on majoritarian democracy was presented by Kirk Hanson, Executive Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at SCU, in his article, "Defining the Institution's Values: Four Questions to Guide Discussions of Gift Acceptance." This article, which focused on the debate over the Lockheed Martin gift acceptance in 2002, refers to the "appropriate response" of the campus community to student concerns stating that, "The most common strategy is probably silence and at times this is appropriate, such as when the protest is from a vocal minority."24 Though this statement was made by one individual regarding a specific situation, the substance of Hanson's argument regarding a "vocal minority" is used by many at SCU to dismiss student activism.
Student activists challenge this line of reasoning as an illogical Appeal to Popularity. One student stated that it was "arrogant" of the University to disregard the well-researched critiques of a small group of interested students as mere "minority opinions." Activists argue that their campaigns are rooted in the stated values of SCU, not simply in their personal opinions, and believe that policies should not be approved based on mere majority opinion. Unlike public universities whose missions emphasize only academic training and research, SCU espouses a philosophy of ethics and justice and, therefore, sets a higher standard for itself. Student activists suggest that this standard requires the consideration of the best arguments for justice on a given issue, even if those arguments come from a small group on campus. One student argued that, "There is no point in the University having ideals if it won't work for them,"25 while another stated that, "There is no validity in teaching a philosophy without putting it into practice."26
Along with this rejection of the majority mentality, students also reported a sense of frustration with the "silent majority" at SCU. Many student activists spoke of the general apathy they experience on this campus. They suggest that there are always the same people at educational events and organizing meetings, and that most students are not interested in learning about or working for justice. Furthermore, activists also argue that the apathy of many SCU students cannot simply be interpreted as support for unjust policies. To support this argument, many students noted the lack of sophisticated counter-movements by all the students who allegedly support the school's policies. Though nearly every student campaign begins with an attempt to educate the community about the issue at hand, justice has proven throughout history that it cannot wait for the apathetic, if not directly opposed majority to take notice. Therefore, the SCU administration should not simply reject minority opinions in favor of the status quo, but rather should genuinely engage the concerns of student activists who are choosing to actively shape the community.
The Bottom Line
The final area of critique has to do with the contradictions between Santa Clara the Jesuit University and Santa Clara the non-profit institution that acts as a business. This has been an influential contradiction in many student activists' experiences at SCU. Though activists are not so naive as to think that SCU can merely cease to be concerned about financial matters, they do call into question the University's priorities. SCU senior Allison Cole, arguing that SCU is a "profit-driven business that prioritizes fiscal decisions," holds that, "there is a problem if the school cannot run according to its own values." Her statement reflects the sentiment of many students I spoke with who feel that financial stability is a real concern, but it is not an excuse to compromise our values. Many activists are concerned that SCU's financial policies often deviate from the Jesuit values of economic solidarity, simple living, and the preferential option for the poor. Furthermore, some activists are impelled to ask, as the martyred Jesuit Father Ignacio Ellacuria once did, for whom is this education? Many fear that SCU has strayed from its mission of educating for justice and merely seeks to attract wealthy student who will one day be wealthy donors, regardless of their social consciousness. In his article "A Vocation for Catholic Higher Education?" theologian Stephen Pope speaks to this issue stating that, "Catholic Universities cannot simply be places where well-to-do students receive a good education in order to assume their place in the next generation of corporate and professional elites." Catholic Universities, and Jesuit Universities especially, should work to challenge this cycle of social and economic stratification rather than to support it. Pope also argues that, "The credibility of the Catholic University lies neither in its endowment, nor its graduation rate, but in whether its graduates are genuinely concerned about taking the crucified people down from their crosses."27
The 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus called upon every Jesuit institution to promote justice in one or more of the following ways: direct service and accompaniment of the poor, developing awareness of the demands of justice and the social responsibility to achieve it, and participating in social mobilization for the creation of a more just social order.28 The final section of this report is a compilation of recommendations offered by student activists as to how SCU can and should integrate the third element of social mobilization more fully into the culture of the SCU community.
SCU should take a public, pro-activist stance and encourage students and faculty to get involved in local and global movements for justice. Many student activists feel that advocacy and activism are stigmatized on campus and considered by many to be separate from the Jesuit mission of the University. Recognizing that this is not the case, it is important for SCU to present social and political activism, both within formal government institutions and with affected communities, as a critical element in the struggle for justice. Furthermore, the University should acknowledge its social position and influence, and engage in public intellectualism regarding current social, political, and economic justice issues.
SCU should create a structured system of open dialogue on campus. Many students reported that their concerns on various issues have been repeatedly dismissed by the Administration and that they have been denied access to decision makers in the University. This response of silence forces activists into an adversarial position and leads to escalation in their campaign tactics. Furthermore, there are often grave misunderstandings between student activists and the University establishment, which could be avoided if there were a proper channel established to publicly present and discuss student concerns.
Recognizing that the faculty and student body are influenced by statements and decisions handed down from above, the University Administration should avoid stigmatizing language or treatment of student movements, especially those that focus on on-campus issues. Students have reported that, in the past, the Administration has made public statements to faculty and students rejecting student activist claims without ever speaking with the activists directly. Neither open-dialogue nor educational campaigns are possible if the Administration publicly disregards and discredits the concerns of its students.
Moreover, a few students reported that they had been personally targeted by University officials for their participation in particular on-campus movements. In order for SCU to become a truly progressive institution open to internal evaluation, it is necessary that this confrontational approach to student activism is abandoned.
SCU should develop a Social Justice and Activism Major that trains students for careers in strategic advocacy, social movements and public campaigns. This major would necessarily be interdisciplinary and could involve courses from departments and programs including but not limited to Political Science, Sociology, Modern Languages, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Economics, Ethnic Studies and Gender Studies. This option will allow those students with a particular interest in activism to develop the awareness and skills necessary to impact the social and economic policies that contribute to injustice.
SCU should strive to challenge the minds as well as the hearts of its students. Many students suggested that this could be done by integrating more political and social education into the experiential learning programs on campus. Though personal and spiritual reflections after community engagement are critical to the fulfillment of the "Service of Faith", structural analysis is necessary for the "Promotion of Justice." Students must learn to see themselves as both members of a human or spiritual community and members of an unjust civic society. Within service or experiential learning programs, preparation and reflection should encourage personal and public action in behalf of justice.
SCU should genuinely integrate the preferential option for the poor into all departments. Recognizing that all pedagogical choices are rooted in ideology and bias, the University should not hesitate to recruit and promote Faculty that integrate intellectual pursuit of justice into not only their own writing, but their classrooms as well. The fact that student activists were able to single out faculty members that employ the preferential option shows that many, if not most, professors fail to consistently do so.
SCU should work to support and connect students with programs, like Casa de la Solidaridad, which place special emphasis on issues of social justice. Several of the activist students that I interviewed mentioned experiences traveling or studying abroad in the Global South as a key factor in their commitment to justice. Understanding that most students tend to study abroad in Europe and other parts of the Global North, SCU should promote more alternative programs that will take students out of their comfort zone, place them at the feet of the crucified people of the world, force them to consider their own role in global injustice and inspire them to act for a more just and humane world.
On July 31, 1973, Father Pedro Arrupe, former Superior General of the
Society of Jesus, delivered his now famous speech, "Men for Others:
Training Agents of Change for the Promotion of Justice," to the International
Congress of Jesuit Alumni of Europe. He began this speech by humbly admitting
to Jesuit alumni gathered that day in Valencia that, "If the terms
of 'justice' and 'education for justice' carry all the depth of meaning
which the church gives them today, we have not educated you for justice."30
With these words, Arrupe set in motion a wave of change that continues
to influence Jesuit universities today. He established a precedent that,
"in the future the education imparted in Jesuit schools will be equal
to the demands of justice in the world."31
Therefore, student activists are urging the University to reevaluate
its commitment to the Promotion of Justice and address the gap between
University rhetoric and University reality. They are daring to say that
they have not been educated for justice according to the demands of justice
in the world, a world ravaged by war, extreme inequality and unnecessary
human suffering. Student activists are challenging this University to
recognize that action on behalf of justice has a new meaning in this world
and that accompaniment of the poor and direct service are not enough to
take the crucified people of the world down from their crosses.35
For the University to respond to the demands of justice, the education
of SCU students must be increasingly oriented towards action on
behalf of justice.
1. Student activists are defined for the purposes of this paper as Santa Clara University students and alumni who are currently involved in activist campaigns on campus and those who have been involved in the past. A point of clarification is necessary regarding the use of this term. When discussing qualitative data gathered in interviews and focus groups, the majority of activists involved fall left of center on the conventional political spectrum, although they vary greatly in terms of social, political and religious beliefs. The quantitative survey data, however, relies solely on self-identification to categorize activists and non-activists, without regard to political ideology.
24. Hanson, Kirk. "Defining the Institution's Values: Four Questions to guide discussion of gift acceptance." Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. <http://www.scu.edu/ethics/publications/submitted/hanson/gift_acceptance.html>
- The Dalai Lama on Business, Ethics, and Compassion
Video from the Dalai Lama's visit to SCU
- Lying to Be Nice
A case study for students
- Conscience and its Consequences
Roy Bourgeois tells his story
- Social Media: Challenges for Government
Ethical issues for public officials in the digital world