Faculty seminar examines truth, justice, and discrimination
This summer 23 St. Olaf College faculty and staff members participated in a four-day seminar aimed at unpacking how truth and justice come to bear on issues of racial, gender, and religious discrimination.
Hosted by the St. Olaf Institute for Freedom and Community, the seminar brought together faculty and staff from a wide range of departments and offices. Established at St. Olaf in 2014, the Institute for Freedom and Community encourages free inquiry and meaningful debate of important political and social issues.
Edmund Santurri, professor of religion and philosophy and Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community, led the discussion. To help guide each day’s discussion, he assigned a reading syllabus comprised of over 20 books and articles, including works by economic theorist Glenn Loury and historian of gender science and journalist Alice Dreger, who will speak at St. Olaf on September 27 and October 10, respectively, as part of the Institute for Freedom and Community’s fall speaker series.
Seminar participants had an opportunity to reflect on the relationship between truth and justice in teaching and research in a higher education institution. George Yancey, professor of sociology at Baylor University, joined the seminar one day as a guest to facilitate a conversation about religious discrimination within higher education.
Associate Professor of Religion James HansonMy biggest takeaway, perhaps, was that to pursue truth with integrity and openness can lead naturally to justice. Though the relationship between the two is complex, they need not be in irreconcilable tension.
Throughout the four days, attendees grappled with complex questions and conversations.
“Is higher education essentially about free and open inquiry in pursuit of truth or is it about the promotion of social justice? Are truth and justice always compatible ideals?” asks Santurri. “Some have argued that these ideals can conflict and that central to the mission of higher education is the pursuit of truth even at the expense of justice. Others have proposed that there is no real conflict between truth and justice, that truth requires justice and vice versa. Still others say that ‘truth’ is a social construction that invites deconstruction for the sake of justice.”
Associate Professor of Religion James Hanson was excited to dive into this topic. “I was interested in the seminar because the topic is relevant and important to our lives within a learning community — how do we pursue truth and justice in a way that acknowledges different points of view and experiences? My biggest takeaway, perhaps, was that to pursue truth with integrity and openness can lead naturally to justice,” explains Hanson. “Though the relationship between the two is complex, they need not be in irreconcilable tension.”
The sessions were not always comfortable for participants. Although the reading material worked to show multiple positions on a range of issues — for instance, works by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Keeanga Yamatta Taylor, Coleman Hughes, and Glenn Loury were included in the syllabus to show arguments for and against reparations — some left that day feeling dissatisfied with the reading. For example, Associate Professor and Department Chair of Social Work and Family Studies Susan Smalling felt that those arguing against reparations lacked both empathy and a structural focus and overgeneralized when referring to urban communities of color.
The objective of the seminar was to provide a collaborative space for faculty and staff to have civil discourse and nuanced discussions around the topic, and by all accounts, the seminar achieved its goal. According to the survey sent to participants afterwards, all respondents agreed that the readings and discussions exposed them to viewpoints that were new and not typically encountered at St. Olaf, and they agreed that all members of the seminar engaged in respectful and productive dialogue, even among those who disagreed.
Associate Professor and Department Chair of Social Work and Family Studies Susan SmallingWith our busy faculty lives, rarely do we get an opportunity to do common readings on topics of mutual interest and then get the space to process them with each other.
Smalling said she left the seminar inspired. “I find the opportunity to engage in lengthy, rigorous discussion and debate with fellow faculty on the key issues facing higher education to be a rare and invaluable opportunity. With our busy faculty lives, rarely do we get an opportunity to do common readings on topics of mutual interest and then get the space to process them with each other,” she says.
The St. Olaf community is welcome to join in the next phase of this conversation by attending the Institute for Freedom and Community’s fall public program of guest speakers, which works to explore the theme “Discrimination and the Search for Justice and Truth.”