What can you buy with $23 million? How about some social justice. Kalamazoo College in Michigan announced last week that the Arcus Foundation would be giving it a $23 million gift to endow the work of its Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, whose mission is to "support the pursuit of human rights and social justice by developing emerging leaders in the field of human rights and social justice, creating a pivotal role for liberal arts education in engendering a more just world." At the risk of sounding like a foundation bureaucrat, I'm a little curious about how you measure success with such a grant. How will the college achieve its plan to become "the place to be for young people who aspire to develop the strategies and lead the work that will make the world more just and humane"?
The country is probably filled with 18 year olds who say that this is their aim, but what does this mean in reality? Does this $23 million show that Kalamazoo is more committed to making the world a just and humane place than any other college or university out there?
There will be a lot of support in this endowment for visiting scholars, faculty chairs, campus lectures, and even summer internships. The 2012 lecture series will be delivered by Eve Ensler (of Vagina Monologues fame). The internships will be filled at Queers for Economic Justice and the Rural Organizing Project, among other nonprofits. One of the student "scholars" at the center highlighted on its website, has "learned the importance of asking questions." She has volunteered on social justice projects in El Salvador and she has participated in a "dismantling racism workshop" and a "rethinking revolution seminar."
But this is ultimately just a way for a small, little known college to mimic richer, more famous schools and follow them on trends that have had questionable results for decades. If I were being snide, I might add that Kalamazoo might be one of the last colleges in the country to get Eve Ensler to campus.
Why am I picking on this particular grant and this particular school? After all, Arcus has the money. Supporting this center is clearly in line with the foundation's mission, which includes advancing "LGBT equality" and, unrelatedly, "protecting great apes." For one thing, of course, I think the notion of social justice has just become the umbrella term for every liberal redistributionist policy and demand for government social engineering that the left has dreamed up in the past 40 years.
But more than that, this grant just seems so unimaginative, so 1992. Foundations like Ford and MacArthur already poured hundreds of millions down this hole and oddly enough, they might be the first to say that they have nothing to show for it. Sure they would say the individual programs have been great. But ask them this: Are we closer to a just society than we 40 years ago? I might say yes (though for reasons that have nothing to do with social justice work), but no self-respecting activist academic would admit as much. They would insist that we live in a racist society with growing economic inequality and the American dream is increasingly just that -- a dream.
So my question is this: When a foundation like Arcus wants to give away this much money, what are the "benchmarks" they look at? Do they see some model for success in yet another seminar on "rethinking revolution" or "dismantling racism"? Is there some sense that sending more people to work at Queers for Economic Justice is bringing us closer to a "more just world"? I'm just curious.