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We Shall Not Be Moved

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dwight Vick
August 7, 2023

Like many readers, I receive Public Administration Review quarterly. I usually place them by my computer to read when I have downtime. When I saw the March/April 2023 issue, it was one I realized I must open immediately because of its article on street-level bureaucrats trusting AI recommendations to confirm professional judgements. An excellent article and edition, it was the editorial, written by Dr. Camilla Stivers, et. al, entitled “Beyond Social Equity: Talking Social Justice in Public Administration,” that captured my attention. After reading it, the piece reminded me of a verse from an old Civil Rights song, We Shall not Be Moved, “Just like a tree standing by the water, we shall not be moved.” Stivers, et. al.’s editorial accomplished the antithesis, both academically and personally. 

As an academic, the authors asked critical questions I have asked myself and students. What happens when procedural justice dominates distributive and interactional justice, two terms that are often sacrificed at the alter of effectiveness and efficiency? What do we do, as professors and practitioners, when these three symbiotic terms are at odds? If we choose interactional over procedural justice, are we as public administrators meeting the needs of the citizen we serve or are we placating them thereby encouraging distrust in our governmental institutions? Recent events allow the academic in me to expand the questions and solutions posed on pages 235 and 236 of the issue. 

While we must be open to conversations about normative matters and administrative values, we should embrace qualitative and quantitative research approaches. We should develop an understanding of social processes to gain better insight into social equity research and vigorously engage in philosophical reflection as we persevere to advance social justice in practice and scholarship.

Are we at this juncture? I say no.

For every step forward we have made to expand democracy and our bureaucratic response, it seems we take two steps back. How do I teach social justice and its three definitions in our public administration classes, especially now when states like Florida and Texas recently passed educational laws that eliminate historical and cultural awareness? How can students be scaffolded on this subject if they have never been taught these historical lessons in high school and undergraduate classes? How can we be open to these conversations about normative matters and administrative values if we have realistic fears of being attacked by culture warriors? How can colleges and universities attract a diverse student body so we can have these discussions if diversity is downplayed as it is likely to be due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Students for Fair Admission, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College? Does the ruling prevent us, as a field of study, from conducting qualitative and quantitative research into diversity? Does the ruling allow better insight into diversity from a racial, cultural, political, economic or regional viewpoint or impede social justice research and application? Or does the ruling free us to expand the definition of social equity to include discussions that go beyond race, gender and sexual identity? Lastly, how can we examine this issue philosophically and look at the long game? What professor or practitioner will fall on their sword or risk being pushed onto it by the mere mention of any such phrase? Where do I, as the college professor, balance my stance on the sword between discussing these topics and not having my feet cut from underneath me? Furthermore, how do I instruct those students who are passionate about social justice and equity? How do I link our discussions about this topic that began with the 1968 Minnebrook Conference and say we have accomplished much? How do we teach current and future practitioners about our accomplishments when we are still debating philosophy while several significant obstacles exist. When do we stop talking and start doing despite the sword? I will rely upon my Administrative Law classes and Dr. Susan Gooden’s work on this issue as I have done for almost 10 years now.

At this point, the academic within me faded away while the father and grandfather within me came into focus. 

My wife and I adopted a DREAMER 10 years ago. We are now grandparents of a handsome, smart boy, Ayden. As one who identifies as a multicultural Caucasian man, I sadly agree with the editorial’s authors.  Our field has often turned to white men to discuss this topic. Our college and university faculty have diversified thereby expanding our collective perspective. But is this enough? Will it be in the future? Will my grandson grow up in an age where he will be thwarted by the dialogue that limits his potential? What can I do today to make things better for him where the three-pronged definition of social justice is commonly accepted?

The editorial impacted me as a teacher, a parent and a citizen in ways that most editorials have not. We certainly need to talk. We cannot be moved, like that old tree standing by the water, from our commitment to this ideal. We cannot afford to allow the seeds of that tree to not spread and sow themselves along the riverbank. 

We must be moved. 

Author: A graduate of Arizona State University, Dr. Dwight Vick is a 30-year member of ASPA and an instructor with Texas A&M International University and Thomas Edison State University.  He recently co-authored Tenure at a Crossroad, Again? With Dr. G.L.A. Harris of Arizona State University.

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One Response to We Shall Not Be Moved

  1. James Nordin, DPA Reply

    August 7, 2023 at 3:19 pm


    This piece is another example of why I love you and value you. As a mostly retired person serving in an occasional adjunct position, I have the luxury of being willing to fall on the sword or being pushed on it. Stand for equity; stand for diversity; stand for inclusion. Even when the “law” restricts it. Liberal education isn’t called liberal because it supports a particular ideology. Milton Freidman and John Maynard Keynes were both scholars in liberal education but had very different economic ideologies. Liberal education calls for openness and expansiveness, aka diversity and inclusion.

    You continue to be the thoughtful friend I have admired. Thank you.

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