Butler University’s New Social Justice and Diversity Requirement

Butler University’s New Social Justice and Diversity Requirement August 24, 2020

I must say that I am very glad to have ended my time as Faculty Director of the Core Curriculum this past summer. I found it rewarding and was happy to devote myself to trying to make the core and its processes function as smoothly as possible for the benefit of our students and colleagues. There were challenges during my three years in the role, but still more loom on the horizon or have already befallen us, and I am ready for a break from the administrative responsibilities of that role, even though I will not merely return to my regular teaching load but will teach an extra course beyond that this academic year, and will do so under challenging circumstances.

If there is one accomplishment during my time in the role, it is the approval of a new addition to our core curriculum at Butler University focused on social justice and diversity, in keeping with our institution’s core values and heritage, drawing on them in response to our current era and the urgent need that these matters be included and made part of students’ educational experiences. The addition was already a proposal being worked on by a task force when I stepped into the role, but it had been deadlocked for a long time, caught between those who didn’t want it to be a “one and done” single-course requirement, and those who insisted that nothing more could be added to the already-packed curricula of requirements for the majors in their programs of study. Eliminating something from existing core requirements to make room for it also seemed problematic. And so the proposal remained stuck. When I first stepped into the role, even before formally beginning, I set it as one of my aims to figure out how to help the process along. On a drive of several hours to a conference, I decided to do nothing other than listen to music and ponder the topic. As I did, a song that has a particular resonance for me came on the radio and it meshed with and in all likelihood inspired a solution. The reason we couldn’t find a single place in the existing core to add a focus on social justice and diversity was that it is itself multifaceted and not just one thing. And so we should put it everywhere, i.e. make it the theme of our core curriculum as a whole rather than merely requiring an individual course. In the end, no one was especially interested in rebranding the core as a whole with new labels, but because we committed to infusing it throughout the core and even more broadly throughout the curriculum, those who opposed the single-course requirement were able to say that one focused course plus broader exposure and exploration would suffice.

The song that was playing was “Best of Both Worlds” by Van Halen. Its significance for me is that it is mentioned in Mary Doria Russell’s wonderful science fiction novel The Sparrow which I am constantly recommending. I am happy that, just as a it played as the backdrop for interplanetary first contact in that novel, it also provided the soundtrack and inspiration for my finding a way to (as I put it to a colleague, resulting in appropriate groans) “cut the core-dian knot.”

You can find out more about the Social Justice and Diversity requirement on the Butler University website. In short, students will be required to take one Social Justice and Diversity (henceforth SJD) course in order to graduate. SJD courses must meet all three of the following student learning outcomes:

  1. Recognize multiple and intersecting dimensions of identity and inequity through the study of critical scholarship on the historical, cultural, political, and/or social experiences of marginalized communities.
  2. Identify and explain the causes and impact of privilege, power, and oppression and cultivate tools for overcoming conflict and promoting equality.
  3. Recognize and critique local, national, or global conditions that enable, perpetuate and/or challenge social injustice and inequity.

Other schools have pursued this type of requirement as well. I’m happy to say that Butler continues to be a pioneer and early adopter in such innovations.


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