Revenue clashes with education

The social justice minor shouldn’t be pressured to generate revenue.

by Lolla Mohammed Nur


Amid University-wide budget cuts and tuition increases, it is no surprise that entire departments and programs may be on the chopping block.

However, it was disappointing to hear in March that the social justice minor might be removed due to a lack of financial viability.

Since then, there have been protests from faculty and a letter-writing campaign organized by students, which helped reverse the initial proposal to move the minor. ThatâÄôs a relief.

But if a newer proposal currently under discussion is approved by the ProvostâÄôs office the School of Social Work will have to remove all prerequisite courses in the minor if it doesnâÄôt start generating revenue by next semester.

Lisa Albrecht, associate professor and director and founder of the social justice program, said the only way to generate revenue would be through research grants or increasing class size.

The minor, founded in 2005, has three core courses that equip students to organize against issues like social inequality, privilege and racism.

The courses combine theory, community engagement and activism in sequenced classes, each class numbering at about 20 students.

Because the social justice minor is, by its nature, not research-driven, increasing class sizes is the only feasible option.

Already, some senior seminars have 30 students, but Albrecht and students IâÄôve spoken with argue that increasing sizes even more would drastically change the close student-instructor dynamic and the way sensitive subjects are taught and understood.

âÄúPeople within social work support [the minor]. But other programs that are newer or have less students are being targeted, like gender studies and ethnic studies. ItâÄôs a national trend,âÄù Albrecht said. âÄúThe University says itâÄôs committed to these issues. When is it going to stand up and say some courses just canâÄôt have 100 students in a lecture?âÄù

With an increase in class size starting next semester, Albrecht says, âÄúItâÄôs going to be more difficult to unpack and have discussions about these issues at a deeper level.âÄù

Three current or former students in the program said it was unique because of the one-on-one time with the professor, something they didnâÄôt have in other classes.

Sarah Kettering graduated with a degree in global studies last year. She said learning about peace and justice âÄústruck a chord.âÄù

Once she took her first social justice course, she knew she would continue because of the commitment of her professor.

She continues to volunteer at Southside Family Charter School because of the minorâÄôs emphasis on community engagement.

âÄúI could go and tutor in a classroom once a week and leave the room,âÄù she said. âÄúBut the minor allowed me and pushed me and challenged me to think of [volunteering] in a different way.âÄù

Khong Xiong graduated in 2008 with a degree in psychology. HeâÄôs been volunteering since he was 14, and now heâÄôs working for a law firm, serving clients of underrepresented backgrounds.

HeâÄôs also on the White Privilege Conference Planning Committee, which organizes more than 200 workshops looking at diversity and social justice issues. Xiong said the minor is valuable the way it is currently designed because the small class sizes help students engage in issues.

âÄúEverything has a relationship to social justice âĦ WeâÄôre not really engaged in that [kind of] talk because people either arenâÄôt aware of it or they donâÄôt see it because they are privileged,âÄù he said.

I also interviewed Sarah Super, a senior majoring in sociology and American studies. SheâÄôs also the fellowship coordinator for the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Human Rights Center.

She and Kettering were two of 15 students who organized a letter-writing campaign in defense of the minor in April. They collected 90 pages of letters from faculty and activists from across the nation.

âÄúDonâÄôt they realize the value of this minor? The major of social work is an important part of study and social workers are necessary,âÄù she said. âÄúBut there wouldnâÄôt be a need for social workers if we focused on social justice because social justice addresses these issues beforehand.âÄù

The initial proposal to move the minor and the current one to increase class sizes are part of the College of Education and Human DevelopmentâÄôs Vision 2020, which requires the college to review its programs given increased budget cuts and demographic changes.

Various CEHD administrators declined to be interviewed. But Steve Baker, the CEHD communications director, said a final decision will not be made until the end of the semester.

ItâÄôs imperative for the University to understand the value of having a fully funded social justice minor on campus. ShouldnâÄôt it be a priority to support vulnerable programs, especially in times of crisis?

Forcing the social justice minor to become profit-driven not only strips its value. It is going to set a permanent precedent for other nonrevenue-generating colleges and majors. I fear this may just be the beginning of increased pressure on various other small departments.

Emphasizing research and profit over student learning is not the right way to go in an institution where small classroom sizes are already becoming more of an anomaly.

If the minor can begin sustaining itself, reducing class sizes may be an option again, but the sense of community created by the program may never be the same.

Lolla Mohammed Nur is a columnist. Please send comments to [email protected]