A Campus, Where Restoration Has The Final Word

November 11, 2016

In spite of the diverse opinions we hold, one of the sacred values in higher education is that we should have a rich context of information and truth for all members of the campus community. This value is one of the take-away propositions that our campus and the larger Oregon community gleaned during last week’s visit to the UO by the Honorable Chief Justice Georgina T. Wood of Ghana, the first woman to hold that high judicial positon in her West African nation. Many of us were fortunate to hear about her transformative work as a change agent for alternative dispute resolution and restorative justice in Ghana and beyond.

What a timely visit, at the time when our UO community is wrestling with how, or whether, our UO law professor, who donned blackface at a Halloween party should be held accountable for the turmoil—intended or not—as news of the incident unleashed on campus—a campus already on edge as a result of the toxic national presidential campaigns.

Rooted in the practice of indigenous societies in the Americas and Africa, restorative justice stands in stark contrast to the traditional approaches to conflict resolution on most college campuses as well as adversarial litigation of our legal system. Where traditional approaches call for confidential investigations, restorative justice beckons for open or mediated discourse among the concerned parties. Where traditional approaches are motivated by a sense of judgment and retribution, restorative justice calls for reconciliation and restitution. And, where traditional approaches look back at the magnitude of a particular offense, restorative justice looks forward to repairing the damage done and to the creation of processes that support meaningful change.

That is, while traditional approaches focus on punishment, restorative justice seeks a broader understanding of the harm, an understanding that allows the offending parties to take responsibility for their actions. In such a process, new relationships are built, fractured relationships are restored, and bona fide healing can take place for and in the community.

 In such a scenario, victims and offenders in our UO community agree together for what is required to be done to restore trust and to achieve relevant justice for moving forward. Yet, a crucial question that emerges is how does providing restorative justice help Black students and others, who are daily beleaguered by continuing discrimination? After all, Blacks, Latina/os, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders, who run afoul of university rules and regulations have rarely been accorded mercy or brought back into the fold of restorative justice of our community. In most cases, the full weight of traditional punitive authority has been heavily brought upon them. I believe it is imperative for us to move beyond the brokenness of the past. What is at stake is a redemptive vision of our University of Oregon community. We can think of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as we imagine and believe in new and innovative ways of achieving justice.

Restorative justice offers just such an alternative vision by empowering people, who have suffered. It provides the victims with an opportunity to engage directly with offenders to explain why they hurt and how they feel. Furthermore, restorative justice also provides mechanisms for dispute resolution that are similar to the processes that exist in underrepresented communities, including victim-offender mediation as well as mediated community conferences and circles, whereby the victims, offenders, and others, who are closely associated with the issues at stake, come together for mediated dialogue about how to move forward. Most importantly, restorative justice is able to highlight the location of dysfunction and discrimination in order to facilitate structural change in processes and policies. In this way, remedies do not only focus on the actions of individuals but, also, on the institutional practices that facilitate discriminatory climates and intolerance of all kinds.

Furthermore, restorative justice serves the university’s greater mission of educating and preparing student for their careers and lives after earning their degrees. It encourages faculty and staff to model the truth telling in ways that build community and facilitate healing.Through these dialogues and direct engagement, the restorative justice process helps the university to build character and empathy skills, especially for those we offend, wound and violate, in ways that facilitate societal transformation and peace. Our university becomes a model in how to sustainably deal with conflict, not only on an individual level, but by fixing the structural problems of discrimination that undermine deep rooted climate issues.  Most importantly, our graduates leave better prepared for the real challenges and issues they will confront in their personal lives, their careers, and interactions in the world.

Palpably Divided Campus

At a time, when our campus is sadly and palpably divided about how to move forward, we should engage the victims as well as the offender(s) in the process of transformation. Toward that end, the first order of business is ensuring that those, who have been harmed, no matter the intention, are cared for and restored in ways that address their needs. For, this is not an issue that rests solely on intent or First Amendment expression: it involves real human beings, whose identities, safety, and wellbeing have been unjustifiably undermined. In this sense, a sincere and heartfelt apology that acknowledges the wrong(s) and what should have been done differently are non-negotiable. A sincere apology to those, who have experienced pain provides the space for victims to move beyond vulnerability and into a more just future. The apology should also invite conversation about what actions the offender should take to redress the serious damage that has been done so that true restitution can occcur. At the same time, the victims need to listen as well as consider mercy and forgiveness as they decide together about how to find restitution for those, who have been harmed. In the words of Portia in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, “The quality of mercy is not strained. [Instead] It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven. Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes [mercy]. 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes the thronéd monarch better than his crown.”

While our offending faculty cannot fix the centuries-old oppression minorities have felt on the UO campus, our treatment of the victims and of the offenders alike will set the stage for engaging with the institutional structures that foster hostile climates in which black face and other forms of discrimination and disrespect thrive. More than either an exit strategy or a scapegoat, our campus, right now, needs a strategy for dialogue, inclusion, accountability, equity and the co-creation of an environment that is transparently loving, authentic, courageous and, in the final analysis, empathic for all. Putting in place the mechanisms for relationship,community building and meaningful justice will, in the final analysis, lay the proper foundation for the academic excellence that we seek.

Yvette M. Alex-Assensoh
Professor of Political Science and Vice President for Equity and Inclusion