We applaud student activism, and we recognize its pivotal role in shaping campus dialogue and in driving reforms on a much larger scale. Divestment from and embargoes against South Africa, for example, unfolded on a massive scale across many universities and governments, playing a significant role in bringing an end to apartheid. Even when student dissent has failed to produce immediate and readily identifiable results, activism has proven an effective grassroots vehicle for students to voice their concerns, particularly to a University administration that is largely removed from the daily lives of most undergraduates. Proud dissent and passionate activism are deeply ingrained in Columbia’s culture.
Though campus protests have become less disruptive—rarely do we see building occupations or hundreds of student arrests—this academic year still witnessed its fair share of student activism. For instance, the silent freeze mob held to highlight the University’s mishandling of sexual assault on campus, along with several other demonstrations and school media reports, has served a role in galvanizing related policy reform. Interestingly, the current sexual misconduct policy is itself partly a product of a rules change following rallies in the fall of 1999, ignited by the administration’s misguided assertion that no rapes occurred on campus at all. We are inspired by our peers who have taken a lead in driving much-needed change on our campus.
Last week, there was a second divestment protest, this time targeting private penitentiary companies instead of fossil fuels. In this case, students barged into Low and announced their petition to President Bollinger’s deputy chief of staff, Carrie Walker. This closely resembled Student-Worker Solidarity’s practice of storming administrative offices last year to voice their dissatisfaction with worker contracts. Most recently, students interrupted the Athena Film Festival awards ceremony to protest recognition of Sherry Lansing, who is engaged in contract renegotiations with allegedly underpaid employees. Ironically, Lansing was not present for the protest about her.
An environment in which students can freely express dissent is vital, but students should think twice before engaging in needlessly disruptive protests that carry little relevance to the University community. Although dissent may be wired into Columbia’s DNA, we also have to remember that even though the 1968 protests succeeded in their goals—Columbia’s disaffiliation from the Institute for Defense Analyses, and the cancellation of a controversial gym—they brought an enormous amount of trouble. During the protests, students were brutalized by police, and there was a total halt to regular University operations. Afterward, the University’s reputation fell, alumni gave at a flat rate, and acceptance rates soared to nearly 50 percent to fill classrooms.
Rash activism can have real consequences on the campus and should not be used lightly. Perhaps the greatest victim of such protesting is the cause itself. Through frivolous actions, activists end up delegitimizing their protests, thereby alienating potential supporters and dissuading others from entering a serious dialogue.
When students decide to protest disruptively, they must do so in a way that respects their cause, brings a pragmatic approach for driving change, and carries some degree of broader student support. Fringe protests not only fail to produce real results, but also stymie dialogue by forcing a critique of actions, not reasons.
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