Is Your University “a Force for Social Good”?

The University of Santa Clara’s Rev. Michael C. McCarthy, professor of religious studies and classics, remembered the martyrs from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  This month will “mark the 25th anniversary of the killings of eight people on its campus, including six Jesuit priests: the president, vice president, and leading faculty members.” These people were martyred because of their support for rights for all people; they were killed because they employed their privileged and powerful faculty positions to call attention to extreme poverty, state abuses, and oppression.

I had the opportunity to visit UCA a few years ago and was awestruck by the zealous commitment to the rights of others embraced by the institution, its faculty, and its leadership. I now have a poster on my wall from one of UCA’s events. It contains an Ellacuría quote. Ignacio Ellacuría, a Jesuit Priest, philosopher, theologian, and rights activist, was among the individuals assassinated at UCA 25 years ago:

“Only with utopian hopes can we have the courage to join the poor and oppressed of the world in trying to turn back history.”

McCarthy enumerates the sins for which the El Salvadoran military took the martyr’s lives:

We learn from Ellacuria biographers like Robert Lassalle-Klein and David Ignatius Gandalfo in the book A Grammar of Justice that in the case of UCA, the entire university committed itself to being a social force in all areas of its work: teaching, researching, institute work, publications. Each would be done “with the awareness of and as a response to the fact that the majority of humankind is dehumanized by conditions of poverty, marginalization, and oppression.” The university took steps to reorient itself to the needs of the Salvadoran people: turning a weekly publication, Proceso, into  a vital source of independent documentation and analysis of current events in the country; creating a Chair for the National Reality, for debating virtually every major proposal on the future of El Salvador; creating the Human Rights Institute to focus international attention on Salvadoran refugees; opening the University’s Institute for Public Opinion, which provided polling and a voice for average Salvadorans.

Ellacuria took it even further—likely sealing his fate—by proposing in 1981 to the UCA governing board that “the social outreach of the UCA should now ground itself in the perspective of a political solution and … a process of mediation” to end the civil war.

Here in the United States, we struggle to embrace social rights in their robust form (health care, social welfare) or even their more basic versions (quality basic education for all). As Amnesty International and others have documented, we frequently ignore basic civil and political rights such as freedom of assembly, speech, and equal access to the vote. Rev. McCarthy points out in his piece in The Chronicle, “the terrain of higher education in the United States is quite different. Our political context is also far more variegated than a country long dominated by an oligarchy and in the midst of a civil war.” And yet, doesn’t the absence of rights across many of our communities – the overt state repression in our streets – cry out for the same kinds of consciousness-raising; the same strategic use of privileged academic voices?

As I have argued elsewhere, if we are embracing civic education, community engagement, or education for democracy as part of a tradition that has established and advanced democracy around the world, then academics have a continuing historic responsibility to encourage core democratic values. These values include other-affiliation (I am connected to others in my rights-community), moral equality (I see the same dignity in every person; each person is deserving of equal respect), and – most democratic theorists would agree – a degree of economic equality and access to education. My paper linked above lays out this argument; Julie Shackford-Bradley’s Partnering Human Rights and Engaged Scholarship in Local Communities provides a contemporary example of engaging this challenge at UC-Berkeley.

The university may be a force for social good. Whether it is one depends on our choices.


If you have an example or reflection regarding the university and rights expansion, please consider submitting a guest blog post. And if you’re interested in seeing more about responsible service across cultures, cooperative community development, and global community-building, sign up to receive emails on the right side of this page, follow us on Twitter, or like us on Facebook. Thanks for reading.

Hartman, Eric (