The Politically Active College Campus
This week I have read, with fascination, accounts of the recents events at the University of Missouri. As someone who wrote a novel on antiwar activism I found that the outcome, including resignations of the university system’s two most senior officials, to be so different than the outcomes of events of nearly a half century ago.
But the ways in which the leadership ona college campus handles political activism can tell a prospective student and their family a lot about a school.
Political activism takes place in different forms on a college campus.
How it happens depends on:
- Conflict Resolution. Ideally, a college administration wants to resolve conflicts, racial or otherwise, as quickly and as privately as possible. That clearly did not happen at the University of Missouri. An accessible, approachable college president will try to resolve the conflict to give each side as many “wins” as possible. The University of Missouri community has to hope that the interim president, as well as a successor, will be such a person. Such presidents, admittedly, are rare at a state university in a state where political divisions between the two major parties, or divisions between government and higher education leaders are very strong.
- Campus and Off-Campus Causes. I have been on college campuses where students prefer to be engaged in causes on the college campus on behalf of students as well as others who prefer to be engaged in causes outside of the campus community, whether it be the surrounding neighborhoods or a city far away. Howard University, as one example, engages students in community action in Washington D.C., its home city, but has also engaged students in service in Haiti as well as in several U.S. cities including Chicago, Newark and New Orleans, among others. More and more schools have added similar service programs, including Alternative Spring Breaks.
- Divisions among students. College-bound students who are interested in politics, as a career or volunteer, can choose between schools where the majority of the student body leans towards their viewpoint. This way they can receive training on how to better articulate their views and develop a stronger identity. The downside is that you do not usually encounter people who view things differently. Understanding the other side is an important to a political education as understanding your own side.
- Accommodation. There are colleges, Towson University, being one example, where free speech spaces exist on campus, or students could stage any demonstration they wanted as long as they notified the appropriate person, who could make accommodations through the campus police and other safety officers. Their interest is to protect participants and non-participants alike. People who read about life on a college campus could view campus protests in one way or another. Too many protests create an image of a community that is out of control. But protests are well organized and safe from physical conflict create a model of democracy as it is supposed to be.
- Campus governance. College campuses, like states, have more than one governing body. Like states, they have executive leadership, including senior officials and trustees. They also have a legislative branch. Often students, faculty and non-senior university employees will serve together. They also have several local governments including the student body, each class within the student body, fraternities and sororities and multicultural organizations and residence halls, among others. Some schools govern only at the top. The other governments on the college campus have very little influence or power. Others are quite democratic. Their executive branch works to make sure that other voices are consulted before making many decisions, sometimes to the point of encouraging a vote. Quaker schools, Haverford and Swarthmore being examples, are very democratic college communities. So are Barnard and Bryn Mawr, among women’s colleges.
- Media Coverage. One thing that bothered me at the University of Missouri was that a communications professor tried to keep news media from covering the events on campus. Students who are prepared to lead a cause have every right to speak to the media on the college campus. No one should censor their viewpoint. At the same time, people who do not know the story have the right to know it. Keeping the media you “don’t like” off the campus can only hurt a cause. Also, the student newspaper is neither the voice of the school nor the students.
The experience of attending school on a politically active college campus is one that students should not miss, even for those who do not plan to become involved in politics in later life. Americans live in a democratic country where they not only have the right to vote without repercussions; they also have the right to read about and consider multiple viewpoints. Americans have fought to add upon and defend those rights, in many cases with their lives. Every college student should learn what those rights truly mean, even if s/he decides not to exercise them.