The Fight for Social Justice
Written by Lindsy Van Gelder
Sculptures and Artwork by Hank Willis Thomas (TSOA ’98)
This has been a period of national reckoning—from confronting a history that has led to present-day violence against people of color, often at the hands of law enforcement, to witnessing the stark disparities along economic and racial lines during a ravaging pandemic. Our university has much to be proud of when it comes to the fight for social justice and racial equality. And yet, like most American institutions as old as ours, when we consider our 190-year-long history, there are certainly things we’d change if we could.
This university’s founder, Swiss immigrant Albert Gallatin, envisioned, as he wrote to a friend, “a general system of rational and practical education fitted for all.” And yet, the vexing issue of implicit and explicit discrimination loomed here for decades.
Our first Black professor, for example, wasn’t hired until 1934. Then there is the fact that our New York City buildings stand atop ancestral territory that belonged to the Lenape nation of indigenous people.
Ours is an establishment, like so many across this nation, with a complicated past, but an ever-evolving future. No, NYU is not—and never has been—perfect. But to paraphrase a worthy ideal, we strive to form a more perfect university.
Fortunately, we are uniquely qualified and exceptionally motivated to do so.
To that end, social justice and the fight against racial inequality in all its forms has been prioritized as a university-wide focus, and the mandate—to effect meaningful change both within NYU and beyond its borders—is ambitious.
Cross-Cutting Initiative on Equality
“We’ve never been an ivory tower,” says Ellen Schall, senior presidential fellow and Wagner Graduate School of Public Service dean emeritus. She ticks off the multiple ways that the university is grounded in the diverse community it calls home: The sizable representation of faculty on nonprofit boards, including the recent selection of the School of Law’s professor of clinical law Deborah Archer as the first Black president of the ACLU board. (Archer follows in the footsteps of late law professor and former ACLU board president Norman Dorsen.) The College of Dentistry’s five-borough mobile dental van, its school-based cavity prevention program, and its Oral Health Center for People with Disabilities. The School of Law’s clinics, such as its Immigrant Rights Clinic or its Education Advocacy Clinic or its LGBTQ Rights Externship. The Tandon School of Engineering’s longstanding Center for K12 STEM Education. “Every school at NYU has a pretty deep track record of being engaged with the city,” Schall says. But what was missing—and essential, the administration realized—was a way to connect faculty, staff, and students from all of the schools, enabling them to work together against the intractable problem of inequality.
In 2019, after several years in the planning, Schall and two colleagues, Deputy Provost C. Cybele Raver and Michael A. Lindsey, executive director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, launched the Cross-Cutting Initiative on Inequality (CCII) to combat economic and racial disparities through transformative scholarship, policy, and praxis.
CCII was established with three major goals in mind. The first focuses on creating scholarship to advance equity—becoming what Lindsey calls a “brain trust for practical new ideas.” As he explains, “Not only are we studying inequality in terms of its origins and why it exists, but we are also coming from the perspective of doing something about it.”
Strategies to Reduce Inequality, a working group of about 40 faculty leaders from all over NYU, aims to do just that. Lindsey, who is also a professor of poverty studies at the Silver School of Social Work (SSSW), heads up the group, which has 74 grant proposals and 48 projects in the works. Cross-pollinating expertise is at the core of their efforts. “A great example of that is the Blueprints for Progressive Change in Juvenile Justice,” Lindsey says. It’s a joint project of faculty from SSSW, the School of Law, Arts and Science, the Grossman School of Medicine, and the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, as well as city probation officials to address the disparities that children face in the legal system.
President Andrew Hamilton has made this kind of multidisciplinary teamwork a priority at NYU, and its value is clear in the complex realm of social justice. “Academia is traditionally oriented around what an individual has done,” Lindsey says. “And I get that. We are trained that way, and it’s not that easy to think about things collaboratively.” But at the same time, he insists, “these communities deserve our best thinking ... and if you’re really going to address entrenched issues like income inequality or health equity, it requires an interdisciplinary approach. It’s rewarding for everyone to break down those silos.” Aside from making an impact on the problems at hand, Lindsey predicts that collaborative skills will open new research grant doors for faculty at the federal level.
That research has real-world effects. “I think there are people who see academic work as all theoretical, but at NYU it is both theoretical and applied,” Schall says. “We’re eager for CCII to help faculty translate their work into policy impact. One of the ways we’re doing that is that we’re reaching out to the declared candidates for mayor of New York City and offering to set up briefings with faculty to help them develop policy around inequality.” This nonpartisan outreach, she reports, was met with enthusiasm by faculty members who are excited to connect their research to real-world problems.
The second goal of CCII, as outlined in its mission statement, is to “strengthen NYU as the premiere intellectual training ground for the next generation of leaders.” Much of this effort means supporting students who choose careers in public service, Schall says. “NYU has a strong focus on helping students think about the purpose of their lives and how their academic work furthers that purpose,” and CCII wants to fortify that goal.
One form of assistance is internships—and not the unpaid kind which, by its nature, is limited to people who can afford that structure. The current goal is to raise support for approximately 50 fellowships of $5,000 each over a three-year period, as well as funding for mentoring, leadership development, and career planning for NYU’s most dedicated and innovative young leaders committed to public service and social impact. With sponsorship from Wagner SEAD—a coalition of Wagner faculty, staff, and students—CCII already has funded student internships with nonpartisan voting rights and voter access organizations to get out the vote.
Another strategy is to disperse awards and fellowships. CCII created a new category in the three-year-old Outstanding Dissertation Awards for students whose work specifically addresses inequality. (The 2020 winner was the Graduate School of Arts and Science’s Eman Abdelhadi for “Losing Women: How Gender Shapes Community Embeddedness Among Second-Generation Immigrant American Muslims.”) Another prize, the Jacob K. Javits Visiting Professorship, was expanded to honor not just faculty but to support two $20,000 scholarships. “For a student, receiving $20,000 is transformative,” Raver says. “Through this and other fellowship programs, my goal is for the next generation of undergraduate and graduate NYU student awardees to be recognized for their scholarly excellence and celebrated for their commitment to social impact.”
Alumni are crucial to this mission, not only as donors but as role models and employers of interns. One place where alumni who have forged careers in social justice figuratively passed the baton was at the Designing Your Path as a Changemaker: Pursuing Equity, Inclusion, and Social Impact through Work conference, according to Raver. “Students are wondering how it is they’re going to make real their commitment to change, and what does that look like? We were able [in 2020] to bring in alumni leaders who themselves are looking for talented junior colleagues to hire.”
In the next few years, faculty teaching courses with a focus on inequality will be able to tag their courses as guidance for students who want to pursue the issue across schools. In addition to classes at the social science–oriented schools, the list includes less expected offerings like Business and Society at the Stern School of Business and Solving Public Problems at the Tandon School of Engineering.
Raver and Lindsey co-taught the course Race and Inequality: Advancing Equity through Policy and Practice as part of the cross-university Big Ideas course series in 2020. They brought in experts from SSSW, Law, Wagner, the School of Global Public Health, and the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development—in part to show students the many academic paths to effecting social change. Raver says that she learned as much from the students as they did from her: “Some of them had run Twitter campaigns for their local political candidates, and one had fought for reducing the distance required for being able to use the school bus in his district, because low-income students live further away and have to walk. That level of commitment was so impressive among 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds. We want to take that energy and provide those students with the kind of rigor and depth of understanding, fluency, vocabulary, and inspiration so they can carry that commitment forward and grow as leaders and really make change in the world.” Raver and Lindsey are signed up to teach the course again this year.
CCII’s third goal, as Raver puts it, is “to establish NYU’s reputation as the nation’s leading university in carving new pathways forward for interconnected, high-impact approaches to greater racial and economic equity and, in so doing, to spark a national conversation on what academic institutions can contribute to the public good.”
Raver wants people to apply to NYU in part because of its commitment to social justice. “The goal is to demonstrate to a larger public the ways in which a university’s insights and development of talent and leadership can be leveraged dramatically to improve the well-being of our communities,” she says. “It’s one more way that we want this institution to shine relative to other institutions. We want to stand out against our institutional peers, not just in the city and in the region but in the nation.”
That also requires shifting the perception of what a university’s primary role should be. “For many students from underserved communities, colleges appear to be sifting and sorting for who is likely to succeed in the future,” says Raver. “Instead, we should have as our goal the opportunity to open doors and provide students with skills. It’s not simply about conferring credentials based on prestige, but about the fundamental opportunity students give universities by bringing their talents to universities and saying, ‘help me define my future and move forward into that future.’ We value the life experiences and diverse perspectives that students bring to NYU and we really look forward to supporting their vision of where they want to go.”
Center for Faculty Advancement
Looking at inequality with new eyes also means asking how it affects who gets to be part of the NYU community (or academia itself) in the first place. Vice Provost for Faculty Engagement and Development Charlton McIlwain grew up in a family of athletes, with cousins who played for the NBA and NFL and wrestled professionally. As a result, McIlwain, who oversees the Center for Faculty Advancement (CFA), tends to think that academia can learn from the world of sports, where “you’ve got scouts getting kids when they’re 8 or 9 and developing them long before they have the potential to be on your team.” To that end, CFA administers a tuition-free program called College & Career Lab, which helps prepare local middle and high school students for higher education—and maybe an academic career down the line.
Faculty First Look, another program operating under the CFA umbrella, recognizes scholars from underrepresented groups long before they’re applying for faculty jobs. Every year since 2017, the program has identified and invited several dozen promising doctoral students from all over the country to NYU for spring and fall workshops on how to succeed in academia. Started at Steinhardt, First Look has expanded to include Arts and Science, Stern, and Tandon.
A key component of the program is community building. Students are exhilarated to be in a room with 30 other academics who, as one student put it, “look like me and share the same experiences,” McIlwain says. The hope is that these connections will last throughout their academic careers, wherever they may be, and form the kind of networks that have traditionally helped academics flourish.
First Look has been around long enough that a few alumni have applied and been accepted to NYU post-doctoral programs, but the majority will presumably end up at other institutions—and that’s fine with McIlwain. The goal is “building the capacity and potential for faculty to succeed in higher education,” he explains. “We see ourselves as an institution having to give back and help develop institutions beyond NYU.”
CFA also mentors individuals who are already teaching at NYU. One of the most vulnerable periods for faculty, says McIlwain, is between the time one is awarded tenure and when one rises through the ranks to full professor. “A lot has to do with the development and management of scholarly reputation,” he explains. “Things like being known internationally as an expert.” The underrepresented groups often mistakenly assume that, as he puts it, “if we keep our heads down and do our best work, that will happen automatically.”
Ironically, one hurdle is that scholars of color are often recruited to serve on department diversity committees, which may be worthy enterprises and which may seem compulsory if one is asked by the department chair to take it on—but which take time away from the research and publications essential for advancement. “I tell most faculty to learn to say no,” McIlwain says. “No is the default until you can assess what’s most advantageous to your career.”
Office of Global Inclusion
Shortly after Lisa Coleman (GSAS ’08) left Harvard University to assume the role of inaugural senior vice president for global inclusion and strategic innovation, she established and deliberately named her office in 2018 the Office of Global Inclusion, Diversity, and Strategic Innovation (OGI). She explains, “When one frames diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) as a problem, then it becomes the problem. If one frames DEI as an entrepreneurial opportunity, then the emphasis is on assets, exploration, innovation, design thinking, and growth.” Coleman says “coming back to NYU has been an opportunity to build on the combination of academic excellence, research, DEI intersectionality, and innovation, and to leverage the prowess of NYU’s globally diverse academic communities.”
One innovation Coleman has helped to institute is an OGI YouTube channel with a full selection of lectures and panels. Another is NYUWomxn100, a yearlong initiative which began March 2020 and has included films, conferences, lectures, and more, focusing on women the Nineteenth Amendment originally excluded. During the pandemic, OGI has accelerated programming and all its other resources, including its research and learning tools, guidance, mentorship, pedagogical and technical assistance, and much more.
OGI’s Global Inclusive Leadership and Management Institute (GILMI) is a learning and development initiative that engages faculty and administrators. GILMI and OGI’s Inclusive Teaching Seminars provide departments opportunities to dive deeply into DEI research and best practices. “What we were finding is that faculty, regardless of their experience in the classroom, wanted better strategies for leading difficult conversations, weaving in material that addresses globally diverse emerging student needs, concerns, etc.,” Coleman says. OGI is also working with stakeholders across NYU to produce global DEI online learning opportunities for all community members.
When the isolation and stress of COVID-19 fell disproportionately on marginalized groups, OGI increased hours for the Center for Multicultural Education and Programs (CMEP) mental health counselor and, with partners, created new programs focused on health and wellness for faculty, students, and administrators. OGI continues to partner with the Work Life Office to develop programs focused on women disproportionately affected during the pandemic. Coleman, herself an alumna, is particularly pleased to engage the alumni community through opportunities such as alumni weekends, the 30th anniversary of the CMEP, the first NYU Alumni BeTogether Conference, and the 25th anniversary of the NYU LGBTQ+ Center.
For Coleman, “NYU, with its NYC campus and being in and of the cities of the world (Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, London, Paris, etc.), is uniquely situated to advance and accelerate global DEI leadership and best practices through and across multi-sector partnerships. A lot of institutions have study-abroad programs, but what is distinct about NYU are our portal campuses, sites, and research centers—these allow for deep engagement and learning with globally diverse cultures, governments, and peoples all over the world.”
“NYU, with its NYC campus and being in and of the cities of the world (Abu Dhabi, Shanghai, London, Paris, etc.), is uniquely situated to advance and accelerate global diversity, equity, and inclusion leadership and best practices.”