University Challenge

Scripps-Howard News Service 4.03.02
Balint Vazsonyi

For years, I have scoured the land for anyone who could define what constitutes social justice. With a dedicated team, we have visited half the state capitals, conducted academic roundtables and town meetings. I have offered $1,000 from personal funds. Given that the term is brandished about by so many, why the blank? The editor-in-chief of The Progressive - "social justice" on its masthead for fifty years - suggested vaguely what he personally might regard as such. The Executive Director of the Institute for Social Justice in Topeka, Kansas, could see no significance attaching to the term.

Enter West Virginia University.

The venerable institution drew attention to itself when news began to circulate that free speech had been restricted to two small areas on the main campus.

Inquiries to the president's office were answered with explanations about civility, the duty of the university to instill good manners, the undesirability of a student interrupting a guest speaker in mid-speech - all apparently well-intentioned reasons for not permitting freedom of expression, except in the designated spaces.

A pity defenders of civility were absent at the Founding of the Republic. They would have reined in Patrick Henry, Thomas Payne, Thomas Jefferson, and their whole uncivilized lot. The crudeness with which the objections to the acts of His Majesty King George III were enumerated got this country on the road to bad manners.

Yet I am personally indebted to officials at WVU, for supplying a copy of "The Strategic Plan for Achieving Social Justice At West Virginia University" - a manifesto by Jennifer Ann McIntosh, a native of Kingston, Jamaica, who is "Executive Officer for Social Justice and Director Affirmative Action/EO Programs."

The mother load.

A conference call was arranged with McIntosh. In preparation, I searched, albeit in vain, for the origin of "social justice" in the Declaration of Independence; the Northwest Ordinance; the Constitution of the United States; the Federalist Papers.

But I found it at last. It adorns the web site of the Socialist International.

Also in preparation, I studied the manifesto, and a mammoth White Paper on the topic by the university president David C. Hardesty, who begot the Office for Social Justice.

Did Rodney Dangerfield have input? "Respect" is demanded no fewer than eight times.

To be serious, the four pages of the manifesto, written in a mixture of officious, naive and threatening language, may be summed up in one sentence: We want you, and everybody else, to be civilized toward someone different, don't even think of discriminating against those we have chosen to protect, and watch out if you fail to comply.

"I am a compliance person," declared McIntosh repeatedly. She heard of social justice for the first time at WVU. She doesn't know either what it is and her associate, the helpful Charles Morris, added that "words had no content." Her training and experience? Administration, statistics, affirmative action. Returning from her first-ever trip overseas at 53, she was "in love, in love, in love" with everything in Britain.

Of Jennifer McIntosh's good intentions there can be little doubt. It is not her fault that offices for behavior and thought control have been established at our universities, and that, typically, persons with wholly inadequate training and experience are given power over tens of thousands. Can one have adequate training and experience for such a thing? Probably not, and that is why these offices and positions are alien bodies on the American landscape.

Despite protestations, there must be troublesome freedom-of-speech issues at WVU. Although they claim never to have heard of speech codes, their desire to control thoughts and beliefs may be found at www.nas.org/affiliates/westvirginia/wvu98codes.htm. The text includes outrageous definitions of sexism and homophobia, and instructions to desist from using words such as boyfriend or girlfriend. There is now a new proposal on the table signalling that efforts to deal with the problems are in progress.

WVU also offered to host a discussion on "social justice" by a truly diverse panel, in the presence of the university community - a most welcome development. In truth, one university finds itself targeted by criticism, when in fact most institutions of higher learning have been mired in an identity crisis for decades: to teach, or to mediate among increasingly belligerent groups?

McIntosh's manifesto lists 11 categories protected against discrimination. After the last, instead of a period, the word "and," followed by a comma and blank white spaces signal the appalling certainty of additional pressure groups whose emergence she takes for granted.

That's a lot of "pluribus" and no "unum."