Message from the Dean: The Common Good and DEI

January 29, 2020

By Stephen Esquith, Dean of the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities

The MSU web site prominently reads: “Advancing the common good with uncommon will.”  The term “common good” has been part of MSU’s motto for many years. Similarly, since its inception in 2007-2008, RCAH has been committed to advancing “the arts and humanities for the common good.” What exactly do we mean by “the common good?” And, how is it related to the values of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) that are equally important to us as a college and university?

The most obvious meaning of the common good is those things that every individual can agree on are good for them, regardless of their different circumstances and goals in life. For example, every individual under normal circumstances wants a longer life, good health, and prosperity. These commonly desired things together make up the common good. The philosopher John Rawls called them “primary goods,” and said that they are what everyone wants (usually more of) no matter what else they want.

The common good can also refer to things like public highways, bridges, public schools, clean air, and safe water.  Economists call these things “public goods” because they require that some public authority like a government ensures that everyone contributes to their provision so that there are no “free riders.” Of course, not only is there a danger of free riders taking advantage of public goods without paying for them, there is also the very real danger that not everyone has equal access to these public goods even when they've paid their taxes. The quality of public goods in this sense is not the same from one community to the next, and individuals in some communities may pay a higher percentage of their income for public goods but receive a lower quality.

There is a third meaning of common good: those things that a people hold in common. They are things that literally do not exist unless they are held in common. The common good in this sense consists of goods like human dignity and mutual respect. They are more than just what everyone needs, say, to keep a roof over their head, to go to school and better themselves, or to get to work. These other common goods constitute a people's common identity. 

What does the common good mean for us in RCAH and how is it connected to DEI?

There are primary goods that all of us need as individuals, whatever else we need to participate well in RCAH.  For example, we need money to pay for classes and books, good health, and a place to live, regardless of race, gender, and other differences we may have with one another. That is what equal access and affordability are all about, and that is why we value inclusion.

We also need public goods; for example, classrooms, informal learning spaces like the Language and Media Center, the Theater, and a good curriculum. One thing equity means for us is that there are enough formal and informal learning spaces in RCAH so that the fair value of our access and affordability is realized. In other words, not only should RCAH be inclusive, but the affordable and accessible spaces that make it up should be equitably equipped and resourced so that good work can be done there by all, regardless of race, gender, religion, or physical ability.

As important as these primary and public goods are for achieving inclusion and equity, they are not all that we mean when we say we wish to “advance the common good.” For RCAH students, faculty, and staff the common good also is a synthesis of mutual respect and human dignity. It is how we speak to and treat each other so that all members of RCAH feel that they belong to our community and that their beliefs, histories, customs, languages, and identities are appropriately respected. These values of mutual respect and human dignity are reflected in the curriculum, in the work of our faculty and visiting artists, and in the missions of our community partners. They are not rules and regulations used to punish bad behavior. They are what we might call “constitutive principles,” that is, they are the spoken and unspoken norms we follow in our day-to-day work that define who we are as members of the RCAH community. They are like the rules of chess (for example, a bishop is a bishop because it follows the rule that says it is only a bishop because it moves on diagonal lines). Together, mutual respect and human dignity constitute who we are as persons in RCAH, persons who respect different traditions, languages, customs, and beliefs while observing the limits on freedom of thought and action that recognize the dignity of ourselves and of others.

Scholarships for students (primary goods of inclusion) and well-equipped studios (public goods of equity) are necessary for RCAH to function well, but they do not define who we are as a college. They are not our common identity. That depends upon a shared commitment to human dignity and mutual respect. Mutual respect and human dignity are the lifeblood of the college. They add to the values of equity and inclusion the important value of diversity. 

Let me explain this conceptual jump by locating RCAH within the larger MSU community and our commitment to DEI.

As MSU embarks on a strategic planning process of which diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are to be an integral part, I suggest that we consider RCAH’s constitutive conception of the common good and put DEI at the center. To put DEI at the center so that students and faculty of color, of different genders and sexual preferences, from different countries of origin, and with different physical abilities have a real, equal opportunity to realize their full potential here, we first must break DEI up into its constituent parts:  Diversity – Equity – Inclusion, and then find a way to put the parts back together as the centerpiece of what we hold in common. There are metrics and methods of accountability when we treat D, E, and I separately as primary and public goods. These are absolutely important to strive for and achieve; for example, the University should actively and effectively recruit more students of color and they should be graduating alongside other MSU students who enter with them. But to put D, E, and I together at the center of our planning process requires that we think of them as more than these divisible primary and public goods regulated by metrics and rules of accountability.

I believe that the arts and humanities enable us to do just this. Not only do we need a clear definition of each of these three values separately, we need a way of understanding how they modify and enhance each other in our lived experience. Separated, they may function as regulative principles with their own metrics to be invoked when someone goes astray. However, they will not constitute our common identity.

Each college at MSU must find its own common good that goes beyond primary goods and public goods, and that constitutes its common identity. As each college embarks on its own strategic planning process, they may wish to keep these three definitions of the common good in mind, and also how they relate to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

The arts and humanities provide us with the language, historical perspective, and imagination to do this. I believe that this is how RCAH has been able to place mutual respect and human dignity as a holistic interpretation of DEI at the center. As each college and the University begin to plan for the future, this way of thinking about the common good and DEI may be of some assistance to us all.