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New SPA Minor in Race, Justice, and Politics Examines Biases in Public Institutions

The new degree program, introduced in Fall 2022, is the first of its kind in the nation.

As some universities, under pressure from state legislators, are restricting course offerings covering race, diversity, and inclusion, American University has doubled down. In Fall 2022, SPA launched a new interdisciplinary minor in race, justice, and politics, addressing the intersection of these three core ideas. 

SPA Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education Saul Newman first proposed the minor in 2020, after the Black Lives Matter protests. SPA was particularly well-equipped to introduce a minor addressing these issues, thanks to existing faculty expertise. 

“We have all these courses in SPA that are focused on issues of race, both in political science and in justice, law, and criminology, and I thought that it was time, for both our students’ academic and professional training, that we create a minor in race, justice, and politics,” said Newman.

“We’re fortunate because our School of Public Affairs has Justice, Law and Criminology, Government and Public Administration and Policy,” then-Dean Vicky Wilkins (now Acting Provost of AU) told The Eagle in 2022. “We’re well-suited to cover that area and provide real expertise and knowledge on the subject for our students.”


After initial conversations with Wilkins and relevant faculty, Newman and Wilkins asked Associate Professor Kareem Jordan, who teaches in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology and serves as the SPA director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, to take the lead on the proposal. 

“The structures of academia as a whole––and AU was no different––were built on biases based on people's gender, race, and social class,” said Jordan. “No matter who's in [a given] position––whether you're talking about women or folks of color––it's still within this system. I consider it my job to push against those grains. And it should be hard, because the system's been like this for a long time.”

“Kareem was great,” said Newman. “He put together the proposal and was able to shop it around to the faculty who would be responsible for teaching the key courses in the program.”

Fortunately, Jordan’s proposal did not increase the number of courses on offer, at least not up front. Rather, it packaged existing courses in a novel way that both students and faculty found particularly appealing. The team realized the value of building on faculty expertise to organize offerings into an academic minor, offered by SPA as a whole, as opposed to just one department. They brought together undergraduate coordinators and academic advisors from each department to gather feedback and determine how the minor might work for students’ programs of study. They also researched minors in other programs, both at AU and at other institutions, and found no other with this particular combination of race, justice, and politics. With the bones of the proposal in place, Newman solicited feedback from other AU deans to identify possible issues.

“We definitely did the work upfront,” said Jordan. “And I guess that paved the way to a smooth process of approval.”


When the minor launched in Fall 2022, students began approaching Jordan, sharing their excitement. 

“I'm just amazed at the buzz,” said Jordan. “There is nothing like (this emphasis) at any other institution within the U.S. Students absolutely love taking the courses, what they are learning, and the chance to talk about these things more. I think the impact is huge, which puts them in a better position when it comes to jobs later.”

SPA’s minor in race, justice and politics minor consists of three required courses—two in government and one in justice, law, and criminology—and four electives from an interdisciplinary list of 14 across SPA and the College of Arts and Sciences. While the minor is open to all students, upperclassmen may not be able to complete all the course requirements without delaying graduation. However, said Newman, students may have already taken classes that count towards the minor. SPA offers several one-credit courses in political and social activism as a part of its Changemakers Series; Professor Kevin Boyle’s course on justice reform, which relates heavily to issues of race and justice, has consistently been the most popular. 

SPA is doing much to support the research agendas of its scholars in this domain. Interim Dean Alison just funded five relevant research projects, with awards totaling $30,000, for faculty Valentina Duque, Derek Hyra and David Schwegman, Lallen Johnson, Janice Iwama, and Lynn Addington.

Jordan and Newman emphasized the minor’s specific focus on policy, the role of race in government and criminal justice processes, and quantitative analysis. 

“For sad historical reasons, race is a construct,” said Newman. “How does it influence issues of justice and political science? Critical race and gender studies focus on the idea of race and its construction, how that impacts people, and how that idea can be changed through anti-racism. This program [asks] how race influences how we organize politically and deal with issues of justice in our country.”

The minor’s interdisciplinary nature also adds value, with an evolving, flexible set of elective courses within and without SPA, subject to approval. As examples, Newman pointed to the Changemakers courses on justice reform, an upcoming offering on reintegrating post-incarcerated individuals into the community, and a race-sensitive AU study abroad course on state and society as seen through monuments. In addition, the AU College of Arts and Science frequently adds courses on critical race and gender studies. Finally, students majoring in communications, legal institutions, economics, and government (CLEG), SPA’s second-largest major, are particularly well-positioned to take advantage.

“CLEG majors only have to add a few courses,” said Newman. “If they're interested in issues of race, this is a natural fit for them.”

Six seniors have signed up for the minor in race, politics, and justice, despite only having two years left in SPA when the minor was created. The real test will come when students who entered the program at its inception become seniors. 


With the new minor, significant investments into research, and a concentration of top-producing faculty on race, justice, and politics, American University is positioning itself at the leading edge of this novel academic domain. Jordan serves on the AU President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion; to prepare to welcome AU’s new VP for Diversity and Inclusion, the group held a fall retreat at the Airlie Hotel. 

“We are looking at what's next for the inclusive excellence plan within AU,” he explained. “How can students and staff better have their voices heard? Are they looking for classroom elements that they are not getting? Are there things we are doing well that we should continue doing? Are there academic programs––minors, majors, faculty––that we can be working on now?”
When asked if the minor could be expanded to a major, Jordan and Newman adopted a wait-and-see approach.

“If we want to meet the needs of the current moment, the minor is an amazing place to start,” said Jordan. “But this shouldn't be where we stop. I think we should see what the numbers and interest look like, and what our students need, and then think about building on this and saying, ‘what's next?’”

“Since I've become associate dean, we've created two new majors, two new certificates, and a new minor,” said Newman. “We want to get students to get involved in these programs rather than creating another. . .  I want to put our energy into making the minor succeed.”

The pair also discussed a possible undergraduate certificate in workplace DEI with applications to politics and justice. 

“We're at a time now where employers want people's views on issues of diversity and race,” said Jordan, “in the context of a specific job, the justice system, and government. They expect colleges to have prepared students to be able to discuss these things.”

“It's really easy to pick up the minor, and knowledge about these issues is really important for moral and professional reasons,” said Newman. “I'm hoping, as a result, that we'll create a more sensitized student body who will go out into the workplace and lead the conversation about race, politics, and justice.”

Wilkins said she hopes the new minor can serve as a model for other schools looking to prioritize these issues.

“I think it’s an important part that we play, not only to our students and each other in these conversations, but to other institutions,” she explained. “Here’s how we’ve done it, [and] here's how we can help you with this and actually take a leadership role in it.”

Jordan sees the challenge itself, to push the examination of race in the world of public policy, as his mission, as both faculty and director of DEI.

“Part of my job is to make folks very uncomfortable,” he said. “If folks are comfortable, then I'm not pushing hard enough. But I also recognize that the work is never done.”

“Race affects how the world works, how laws are made, and how government shifts. SPA recognizes the role of race. We don't say that race is the most important factor, but it is not a zero-sum game where it plays no role. Regardless of who the governors are in Florida or Texas, there is value in this work. And SPA is going to do our part to try to meet that need.”