Inspiration for UT Knoxville’s new Center for the Study of Social Justice (CSSJ) was sparked when Stephanie Bohon, then a graduate student at Penn State, saw a cartoon depicting a cynical character wondering, “Will My Research Make the World a Better Place?” That question got Bohon thinking about her future as an academic. Bohon would pursue research that would contribute knowledge and attract funding and publishing interest, but she also wanted her life’s work to make a difference in human lives.
Bohon focused her dissertation research on immigration, was awarded the Ph.D. degree, and started her career as an assistant professor at Ohio University. The next year she accepted a position at the University of Georgia and moved to Athens just as Latino immigration began to increase in the South. Bohon was suddenly presented with great opportunities to study immigration and publish her research. Her career thrived and she was granted tenure at UGA. Her research findings attracted interest from local, state and federal policymakers as well as community social service agencies. She experienced firsthand the power of getting research into the hands of those who could use it to benefit human lives.
Then Tennessee called. The sociology department was searching for a colleague to contribute to their social justice research focus. Bohon came to campus for an interview and was impressed by the number of faculty she met who shared her same passions for social justice and interdisciplinary research. Subsequently, she accepted the offer and moved to Knoxville where she soon discovered there was no formal gathering place to bring social scientists and other scholars together for interdisciplinary collaboration. Yet so many research issues of interest to her required an interdisciplinary approach. To fill the void, Bohon decided to organize regular informal conversations among colleagues across campus.
These gatherings with colleagues underscored the interest and support for an interdisciplinary center for collaborative research and eventually propelled Bohon to take action. She proposed the idea for a center to her department head, Scott Frey, who encouraged her. Bohon convinced Frey to sign on as co-director. Soon the application for the center was approved, and “seed” funding of $45,000 was granted to establish the center.
UT Launches Center for the Study of Social Justice
With the goal of shedding light on society’s most pressing social issues, the Center for the Study of Social Justice officially launched on November 10, 2009, and UT hosted Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation on Economic Trends, as the keynote speaker.
Dean Bruce Bursten said he is very pleased that CSSJ has been established and is centered in the College of Arts and Sciences. “The center promises to be an intellectual and translational force in taking basic research in social justice and using it to make a difference in society,” Bursten said. “The multidisciplinary nature of the center will mirror the college’s goal of fostering critical thinking across disciplines to advance human knowledge and to make a difference in the human condition.”
Pictured left to right: Bruce Bursten, Stephanie Bohon, Jeremy Rifkin, Scott Frey, and Brad Fenwick enjoying the reception at the launch of the Center for the Study of Social Justice on November 10, 2009.
Housed in the Department of Sociology, the CSSJ fosters research and teaching related to social justice beyond the boundaries of individual departments and colleges. Currently, 60 faculty fellows representing 20 different departments and seven colleges are affiliated with the CSSJ. These faculty and their graduate student researchers are working in areas of inquiry intended to inform scholars and policy makers about what is fair, equitable, and beneficial for people. Researchers are now able to share their expertise, collaborate on projects, disseminate their work to a broader audience, and attract more research funding.
“Research informs us that in the tough economic times we’re experiencing, all social problems that exist will only worsen,” Bohon explained. “We can play a large role in collecting and analyzing data, and in providing science-based methods of evaluating resources and the effectiveness of specific approaches or proposed solutions.
“Through the center, the university can contribute to the body of knowledge that measures these impacts. Research is no longer from one discipline, and social justice issues require an increasingly complex and interdisciplinary approach to effectively weigh in on solutions to the persistent social problems that keep having detrimental effects on individuals and members of social groups,” said Bohon.
While the center’s research and public policy work will engage primarily faculty and graduate students, undergraduate students and all members of the campus community will benefit from the center’s presence.
“We have the opportunity to engage our campus in many conversations through lectures, workshops, films and a variety of other ways to explore emerging issues that are of great concern to many people,” said Bohon.
The center’s success is expected to produce path-breaking insights and to foster new forms of collaboration relating to the advancement of social justice research and theory, and, of course—to make a difference in human lives.