Higher ed makes space to ask who is valued

October 30, 2018

An annual conference on law and policy at universities brings student identity to forefront

By Ross Brenneman

#MeToo Movement founder Tarana Burke speaks at the Law and Policy for Colleges and Universities conference. “What surprised me was that we were able to have a national conversation and practice some level of accountability,” Burke told the audience. (Photo/Josh Krause)

In the early days of what would eventually become the #MeToo movement, Tarana Burke didn’t realize the scope of what she was creating.

In Selma, Ala., in the early oughts, Burke co-founded an organization focused on Black and Brown girls, working in the school system as a support structure. But a new understanding of the violence that faced women on a regular basis spurred the creation of what would eventually become a global phenomenon.

Speaking at the University of Southern California this past week as a keynote for the Law and Policy at Colleges and Universities Conference, Burke’s speech epitomized a conference that pushed attendees to dig deep into how educational systems show they value the people within those systems.

Now in its second year, the annual LPCU Conference is organized by USC Rossier’s Center for Education, Identity and Social Justice, and aimed at educators, students and administrators. The central tenet of the conference, as outlined by center co-director Shafiqa Ahmadi, was a simple question inviting a cacophony of answers: “Who matters, and who decides who matters?”

Asking the right questions

The influence of the #MeToo movement has exposed the degree to which sexual violence against women, in particular, matters to society, or doesn’t.

Burke said that the movement got off the ground by doing something that no system had yet bothered to do, “by saying ‘you’re not alone. You’re not crazy. Healing is possible.'”

“These young people didn’t have language, they didn’t have information, they couldn’t talk about things that happened to them because they couldn’t even define them, they couldn’t explain them,” Burke said.

“This is a pandemic,” Burke added. “Even if you think about just the number of people who said ‘#MeToo’—every single hashtag is a human being, every post is a story. These are people who labored to do this.”

Burke’s keynote represented the kind of opportunity that university leaders say are vital to higher education. As USC Provost Michael Quick noted the morning of the conference, “Universities have to be the places that model on issues of social justice.”

“The hope that we are trying to instill here is not just work,” said Darnell G. Cole, who co-directs the center with Ahmadi, and to whom he is married and with whom he has three children. “We all have a stake in this.”

Other speakers at the conference pressed issues related to speech and expression, and the need for vigilance against abuse of historically marginalized students.

While many nationally prominent commentators have dismissed such kinds of talk as “political correctness,” conference speakers pushed back hard against that notion, including Manuel Pastor, a professor of sociology and American studies and ethnicity at USC Dornsife.

“It’s not ‘politically correct’ to treat people with decency,” he said. “It’s just decent.”

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