For years, a large tree stump outside of Willard Straight Hall served as a political soapbox for students to deliver rousing speeches on the most pressing issues facing the country. Now, in its place, a faded plaque rests on a small boulder, hidden amid a patch of shrubbery.
Out of sight, the 25-year-old memorial goes unnoticed daily by hundreds of passersby — a relic of the past, forgotten much like the public face of student activism for which it once provided a literal and figurative platform, several Cornell professors said.
“It’s hard to explain to your generation, but there was a time when, every day, there would be some kind of public theater of politics in front of the Straight at lunchtime,” said Prof. Isaac Kramnick, government. “The stump [was] a sort of free speech corner. You didn’t need a permit; you didn’t need to go to the Dean of Students’ office to get permission … It was sacred.”
As the 2012 presidential election rapidly approaches, Kramnick is not alone in noting a lack of visible political activity on Cornell’s campus — an indication of a decline in public political engagement, students and professors said. While many, particularly current student politicos, said campus activism has merely been displaced to a digital sphere, others lamented the disappearance of the tactile, physical interaction that was epitomized by the stump in front of the Straight.
In a series of interviews with The Sun, some traced the steady decline of visible student activism back to the 1970s, when students destroyed the iconic stump a few months after the end of the Vietnam War.
Faculty hired at the beginning of the 1970s, just before the stump’s demise, recalled arriving at Cornell on the tail end of what Prof. Theodore Lowi, government, called one of the “most tumultuous times” in the University’s history. When nationwide opposition to the Vietnam War ratcheted up in the late 1960s, Cornell students followed their peers at colleges across the country in staging massive anti-war and anti-draft demonstrations.
“With the things that were happening in that period, Cornell got hot,” Lowi said. “I was amazed to see how fiery [student] mobilization was in the last few years of the 60s.”
When Congress voted in 1973 to repeal the draft, the discontinuation of the contentious policy “pulled the steam out of most University students,” Lowi said — but the reaction “went too far the other way.”
Years later, when the U.S. launched two overseas wars in 2001 and 2003, in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively, Cornell’s student body hardly stirred, according to Kramnick.
“We have been at war now since 2003 in Iraq, and right after 9/11 there was Afghanistan, and there’s been a deafening silence on campus, since the beginning,” Kramnick said. “There was the occasional anti-war protest in ’03, ’04, but they were principally faculty, very few students.”
Kramnick said he continues to be shocked by the “decline of the public nature of political activism” among students at Cornell — particularly with less than two months remaining until election day.
“You have no public theater of politics around the war, which is [unusual] for students. You have no public theater … about the presidential election,” he said. “I don’t understand why womens’ groups on campus aren’t mobilizing, why students of color aren’t mobilizing.”
But according to Prof. Mary Beth Norton, history, presidential elections have rarely elicited much visible enthusiasm from students.
“In my experience here at Cornell, national elections such as the current one have not especially excited students on campus,” Norton, who began teaching at the University in 1972, said in an email. She added, however, that students may be participating in political activity behind the scenes, through volunteer work or off-campus involvement.
Other students and professors said that, despite an apparent lack of campus-wide activity, student activism has not shifted out of the public sphere. Instead, they say, it has moved out of the physical one — from tree stump soapboxes to Twitter accounts.
“I think a lot of people are on a virtual soapbox,” said Alex Pruce ’13, first vice chair of the Cornell Republicans. He cited social media as a factor in the declining visibility of political excitement over the last few years.
Cornell Democrats President Jessica Palmer ’13 echoed Pruce’s sentiments.
“The world has evolved since the last presidential election [in 2008]. We have Twitter, we have Facebook, we have all this technology [such] that a lot of political action happens now in the cyberworld,” Palmer said.
Kramnick mused on whether the establishment of a virtual network has siphoned student dialogue away from the public forum and shifted it to an online platform.
“One wonders whether … a casualty of [technology] has been the public nature of politics, in which we come together as a community … to argue and scream at each other, in a fairly civil way, about politics,” he said. “The virtual community … seems to negate the need for the actual coming together in political debate and political discussion.”
Lowi suggested that the academic rigor of the University may also account for what he called a sense of “malaise” on campus. Activism may be low among the current Cornell population, he said, because students are simply too busy to partake in it.
“The student body is pretty flat for politics, and I understand why: because we work your asses off,” Lowi said.