Justice and the University

Justice, the virtue by which we give to others what is owed them, has fallen on hard times in a self-centered world. The hallowed halls of our nation’s colleges and universities have proven to be no sanctuary from this invasion. Well-publicized reports of students cheating, vandalism, and defaulting on government loans are making headlines. Extensive surveys of freshmen tell us that they are increasingly interested in money and power. The growing inflationary squeeze on faculty has led to cheating on grants and research, created new conflicts of interest among Members of the profession, and led to short-changing students in the classroom.

But underneath the assault on the integrity of the individuals — administrators, faculty, and students who make up the academic community — is there another injustice to be overcome at the corporate, or institutional level? Is not there a corporate, as well as an individual, morality that must be addressed? Can a college or university be guilty of injustice that goes beyond the acts of individuals? This challenge should be of particular interest to any institution retaining a connection with Judeo-Christian traditions.

Colleges and universities are more than the sum of their individual participants. They have an independent corporate identity. They continue to exist on their own and have a distinct social responsibility to do justice. There are conditions that make it difficult for these institutions to pursue justice. College communities tend to be more collegially governed than businesses, and less politically governed than governments. This results in decision- making being more diffuse. Therefore, the responsibility for justice in a college or university is more widely distributed, and furthermore, cannot be delegated effectively. Everyone in the community must bear some of the burden of acting justly. But at the same time, it is difficult, if not impossible, to hold anyone accountable if justice is not done.

Colleges and universities have an additional problem beyond their unique system of governance that makes it difficult to do justice. As social institutions, they have come to be overpowered by forces beyond their control. They are in fact victims, as well as agents, of social change. The ultimate solution to unjust situations may not, therefore, be within the control of the college.

How does a college or university community search for justice in a complex world of external forces over which it has little or no control, an internal system of governance that diffuses responsibility, and a special mandate that calls it to do that which is impossible?

It is indeed unfortunate that “justice” is a noun — a word that describes a thing. It really ought to be a verb — a word that describes an action — because it is something that must be strived for. It is particularly important that our colleges and universities demonstrate justice in the actions of the institution, and that justice not be primarily a sentence in the institution’s mission statement. This is an age to do justice, not just recognize the need to study it.

An institution that has no purpose cannot be just. As we begin another academic year, we should reflect on our mission. Organizations, like individuals, cannot move without a sense of purpose. In the absence of a clearly stated purpose of doing justice, it is easy for the negative forces to take an upper hand and give way to greed, hatred and spite. An academic community without a clear sense of mission is vulnerable to problems of cheating within the system, winning at any price, and defensive individualism.

The goals of the institution not only determine the pro-per means to be used in achieving them, but also set an ethical climate on the campus. A strong academic mission, clearly articulated and widely shared, furnishes a framework for the working out of collaborative roles and specifying relationships between the various participants. If these roles and relationships are not well defined, it is impossible to determine what each is owed.

If the purpose of an organization is its foundation, then competence in managing it is essential to assuring its survival. If justice is necessary in human affairs in order to recognize the rights of others, competence — also a virtue — is required to get the job done. An educational institution that does not provide a “quality education” perpetuates a great injustice, regardless of its own self-satisfaction or external image. An institution of higher education owes its students an excellent education. It owes its faculty the creation of conditions to make the work of teaching and research possible. Both are matters of justice and both require skills of competency.

In business circles — and more recently in academic circles — competence has become almost synonymous with management. Educational leaders of today’s complex institutions have had to learn the art of management often by trial and error. As a result of the management approach, justice has become a reality in practice. Fairness, a word once lightly tossed from platforms, has taken solid root in the office and meeting rooms. It has, at last, become possible to give others what they are due.

But this is only to say that progress has been made, for much still needs to be done to assure justice both on the college campus, and throughout our society.

Colleges and universities must now begin to seek to assure justice throughout the society. In the decade of the 60’s, many colleges and universities sought to assure justice. But many were burnt in the effort to put out the fires of injustice by throwing money and degrees at the problems of the nation. Today, these institutions are reluctant to be burnt again. But injustice is done by a failure to act as well as by acting unfairly.

And this is the greatest challenge for our nation’s colleges and universities — to act to seek justice throughout the society.

Because only in heaven does justice become a triumphant noun. Here, on our college campuses and throughout our society, it is still a plodding verb. We, concerned with justice at the university, should be re- examining these matters as we start a new academic year.

  • Thomas Patrick Melady

    Thomas Patrick Melady (born 1927) served as an American ambassador under three presidents and as a sub-cabinet officer for a fourth, and remains active in foreign affairs and international relations. Since 2002, he is Senior Diplomat in residence at The Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC. When he wrote this article in 1984, he was the President of Sacred Heart University.

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