November 2, 2007

Focus of Campus Activism Shifts

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The face of student activism today is far different from what it was in decades past. For students, the focus of activist causes has moved from the civil rights and anti-war movements to include environmental issues that grace the pages of newspapers almost every week.
According to Elan Greenberg ’08 president of the Student Assembly, student activism is a powerful force that has the potential to direct the University, and moreover, the nation.
“If 10,000 students took two hours to protest the astronomical rise in Cornell tuition, imagine the effects this could have on University decision making,” Greenberg said.
“What begins at college campuses is likely to spread nationwide. Students have the potential to steer the country in a direction of their choosing,” he said.
Kent Hubbell ’67, dean of students, agreed. “The Cornell environment mirrors society,” he said.
He stated that within the University, we“find a reflection of what’s going on in the world.”
The height of student activism at Cornell was seen in 1969, when a mere 100 students took over the Straight, in what was “the best-known, most-discussed event in the history of Cornell,” according to Paul Sawyer, English, and Brian Eden, collections manager of the Cornell Law Library, in their paper entitled, “Looking Back at Politics: Fifty Years of Activism at Cornell.”
However, the takeover of the Straight, a result of decades of racial inequality on campus, is now a symbol of the past. A similar event, according to Everet Yi ’08, president of the campus publication Bully Pulpit, could never happen again at Cornell.
“Today, we have a ‘me’ centric view of the world, while in the past we had an ‘us’ mentality,” Yi asserted. “This change in mentality has led to a decrease in activism across the country.”
Brian Barber ’10, director of marketing for the student-run public service program Into the Streets, acknowledged that he has yet to see an example of student activism that has had a significant impact on the campus as a whole.
“I think that there have been small changes here and there but nothing that has affected the entire campus. I think as a whole, the students here are largely apathetic,” Barber said. “For an activist cause to affect the campus, it would have to target an issue that affected the way everyone here lives their day to day lives, and I simply don’t think such an issue exists.”
Hubbell disagreed, stating that forms of activism are still prominent forces on campus. He further emphasized that activism today is often handled more diplomatically, in comparison to what was seen in earlier decades.
“I sense we are coming into a period where students are becoming more active,” he said, citing incidents such as the Redbud Woods protest in 2005 and the efforts of the climate action group, KyotoNow!.
Hubbell particularly acknowledged the work of the Graduate Student Initiative, which has made many successful attempts in recent years to substantially change graduate student life.
According to Hubbell, the Initiative’s success “didn’t require protests in the street. It was [instead] the thoughtful work of students, emblematic of things students can do to make a difference. They are really in partnership with the University.”
An additional factor that distinguishes activism today, according to Sawyer and Eden, is that current work emphasizes a stronger focus on local issues, specifically referencing the Redbud Woods protest.
The Redbud Woods controversy began when Cornell announced plans to destroy the University-owned natural grounds and turn the land into a parking lot as part of the West Campus Residential Initiative. Opposition between the University and the joined efforts of students and local residents led to various sit-ins and protests and culminated with what is, to many Cornellians, the memorable image of students awaiting workers with chainsaws, refusing to climb down from the treetops above.
Sawyer and Eden acknowledged that even though the “Redbuddies” lost, “in the best tradition of protest, they dramatized and exposed underlying issues.”
They further stated, “Political struggles of the past have focused on large issues like war and oppression; when the local was an emblem or portion of a much greater whole.”
Activism at Cornell does seem to be gearing toward a more local focus. Various sustainability efforts, for example, strive to achieve University-specific goals, such as developing a more sustainable endowment or decreasing the University’s agricultural footprint.
Such environmental activism, according to Sawyer and Eden, “tends to be focused on the local and specific, with implications for the global.”
Yi, however, asserted that such a local focus detracts attention that deserves to be paid to more national issues.
“I am a bleeding heart liberal that supports the environment and sustainability,” Yi said. “However, the environmental movement at Cornell has become an insular community, which has had detrimental effects on student activism at Cornell. I have not seen the environmental groups at Cornell who partake in other activities such as fighting against racism, the Iraq War and the Patriot Act.”
Despite the cause, Hubbell emphasized the importance of activism as a vibrant force on campus.
“I support student activism,” he said, “especially when it’s undertaken in a way that is responsible, peaceful and tries to take the high ground. Young people need to look toward constructive outcomes,” he said.
Click here for part two of this feature.