A Social Justice Approach to Building Community in Higher Education Today

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Corlisse Thomas, EdD
Corlisse Thomas, EdD
Ajay Nair, PhD
Ajay Nair, PhD

As government practices erode egalitarian ideals and fascist movements assault our democracy, higher education administrators must assert bold, principled leadership that approaches community building through a social justice lens. We must welcome the increasing and inevitable diversity and connectedness of our society and move our institutions to a new community-of-practice paradigm that enables our shared passions and commitments to flourish.

Higher education faces no shortage of issues that require a shared commitment. From support for undocumented, underrepresented, and marginalized students to related issues of access, student health, and increasing costs, we must remain vigilant in our pursuit of social justice.

For those in student affairs who have spent significant time in multicultural affairs, our experience with building community across difference and intersectionality is invaluable in today’s leadership. In fact, to successfully lead in the 21st century via a social justice approach, all higher education leaders may require such experience.

Effective community building is an essential element for this type of leadership. Most college and university mission statements express a desire for community — specifically, for cultivating what are essentially communities of practice. Unlike traditional notions of community, a community of practice is regenerative and can create structures to help institutions fully realize their potential when traditional or inadequate structures exist. One benefit of creating such an entity is the ability to lift the unfair burden of social justice work from the shoulders solely of marginalized groups by promulgating institutional structures.

Building relationships with one another and working toward a common goal is often an institutional ideal. The question becomes, however, what does community mean in everyday life — and are we nurturing it?

Some may question whether this desire for community is in opposition to other fundamental principles on college campuses — specifically, the right to disagree, debate, and thus create understanding. However, social justice teaches us that the existence of community simply acknowledges our common humanity and, by its very nature, demands the respect that we must show one another as we collaborate through dialogue and debate in a scholarly space.

Social justice training also provides insights into our work in every context — financial, facilities, career services, leadership, and more. Only by recognizing that every aspect of our leadership affects social justice on our campuses can we enact systemic change in our tradition-laden institutions and ensure a sustainable future for our increasingly diverse student populations and the larger society.

So how do we provide such leadership in today’s higher education environment, which is characterized by continuous uncertainty and composed of a plethora of professional perspectives? We can look to fundamental concepts of social justice, such as ensuring access, practicing equity and fairness, and exercising asset-based thinking. These areas have long served as the basis for diversity work.

Ensuring Access
Our decisions regarding access have a profound and lasting effect on the competency of future generations of the nation’s workforce and leadership. Who will enjoy opportunities to roam our campuses, sleep in our residence halls, and enroll in our courses? This remains a fundamental challenge in academia. Colleges and universities exist to educate citizens, and we make decisions daily about which students are able to take advantage of these opportunities.

We must ask ourselves whether we are tapping society’s entire talent pool and ensuring access, opportunity, and support for all young people to learn, work, serve, and lead the next generation.


Practicing Equity and Fairness
In the wake of the civil rights movement’s call for equality and the Black Lives Matter movement’s more recent rejection of the status quo on campuses, we as higher education leaders are obliged to question whether we consistently practice equity and fairness in every aspect of college and university life.

Our capacity to examine our environments, decisions, policies, perspectives, budgets, space allocations, campus climates, and other areas with an eye to how we affect all members of the campus community will help us make the best decisions as leaders.

Notably, the guiding principle here is not equality, but equity. For example, equal access may not be helpful to students who have been rendered less prepared for such access due to historical circumstances. By contrast, an equity model ensures that all students are equipped to utilize that access.

Equity removes the broad stroke of sameness that might be applied more superficially by equality and substitutes the more fine-tuned need for justice in the decision-making process.

Exercising Asset-Based Thinking
Thought processes related to diversity in higher education, particularly issues regarding students from marginalized communities, often follow a cultural deficit model. This approach assumes that these students are different because their cultures are deficient in significant ways.

However, immersion in diversity work potentially leads to a more positive approach to decision-making — one grounded in asset-based thinking, which values the lived experiences of all students.

A social justice lens enables us to view institutional and student success as emerging from a multitude of perspectives, diverse ways of being and thinking — all of which are recognized as viable assets worthy of consideration. This guiding principle for decision making dramatically expands the conversation, interrupting patterns based on a single way of thinking that have previously been applied with mixed results.

Communities of Practice
As higher education leaders, we understand that our institutions are communities of practice in the most basic sense. Let us recommit to working together to address current and future issues using foundational principles of communities of practice, such as accountability, civic engagement, cultural humility, and integrity. We must recognize that our diverse campus communities consist of many smaller groups that thrive because of our commitment to such principles.

For those of us charged with serving and nurturing today’s students to help them become the leaders and change agents of tomorrow, let us embrace the bold leadership and social justice that communities of practice demand.●

Ajay Nair, PhD, is currently the senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. Corlisse Thomas, EdD, is the vice chancellor for student affairs at Rutgers University-Newark.