At the New School, not all activists felt welcome in the movement or appreciated its taking over study center. Still, administration gave protesters lots of room, and managed to regain spaces without police force.
Like college professors across the country, last week I witnessed the sprouting of tents on the campus quad. That can mean only one thing: It's time for that time-honored Juniata College tradition known as "tenting."
Every year Juniata students unwind before final exams with a holiday celebration known as Madrigal. The professors serve the students a formal dinner and then everyone sings Christmas carols. The highlight of the evening is singing "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but the honor of singing the linchpin five-golden-rings verse goes to the group of students that was first in line to buy their tickets. Which brings me back to tenting. To be first in line for the golden tickets, students pitch tents on the quad weeks before they go on sale. As it turns out, the most exciting part of Madrigal is the ritual of tenting that precedes it, which is replete with zany ceremonies and harmless tomfoolery.
Students across the country are also setting up tents on their campus quads, but their reasons are not nearly as quaint as they are here at Juniata. Instead, they are the latest foot soldiers in the Occupy Wall Street movement. Colleges and universities across the country could learn a lot from Juniata’s decades-long tenting tradition.
For starters, instead of fighting the tents, colleges should embrace them. And there is certainly no need for campus police to respond with pepper spray to disperse peaceful student protesters.
But why? Peaceful protesting is a rite of passage on college campuses. Whether or not you agree with any of the myriad complaints levied by the diverse and disorganized Occupy movement, letting students take a stand builds character. As an undergraduate in the early 1990s, I spent a night on the campus quad in a makeshift shanty as part of an effort to get the board of trustees to divest from investments in companies doing business in South Africa. These sorts of protests help student hone their social consciousness — an essential ingredient of good citizenship. Heavy-handed police response, on the other hand, can diminish students’ faith in authority and their trust in government.
Like police forces across the country that have been cracking down on Occupiers’ tent cities, UC-Davis officials cited safety concerns for the forced evictions. I’m not buying it. Juniata students have been constructing tent fortresses in preparation for Madrigal for years and there have been no major safety issues. Juniata College is proof that tenting can be done peacefully and safely, as is Duke University’s annual tent city – nicknamed “Krzyzewskiville” for the famed coach – consisting of basketball fans who want to get a jump on tickets.
Before the mass evictions at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, the Occupy protestors offered to meet with city officials to address any safety concerns. Their offers fell on deaf ears. If safety was their true concern, city officials should have at least tried to work with the protesters first to figure out if there was a way to address them. Likewise, UC-Davis officials should have worked with the protestors and campus police to ensure student safety. It seems like the biggest safety concern stemming from the UC-Davis incident came directly from the police.
The real aim at UC-Davis and at other colleges and city halls across the country seems to be the elimination of an eyesore or — worse yet — the suppression of free speech and free assembly. Colleges and universities should be the champions of the free expression of ideas and should welcome student tenting — whether the goal is to incite social change or to get the good seats for Madrigal.
Dennis Plane is associate professor of politics at Juniata College.
At noon Wednesday, thousands of college students from at least 75 colleges walked out of class as part of Occupy Colleges, which is the collegiate version of Occupy Wall Street. Students are angry and they want to show their support for the 99 percent of American citizens whom they feel are being ignored by our political leaders and fleeced by Wall Street. Given the Arab Spring and the unrest caused by the youth in these countries, is it surprising that America could be on the brink of a College Fall?
They are angry about the debt that many of them must obtain to go to college and that their employment opportunities look vastly different from the way they did in the fall of 2007. They are stunned by the lack of economic progress over the last three years. Certainly a freshman in the fall of 2008, when Lehman Brothers failed, thought that things would be fixed by the time he graduated from college.
They are angry that many will need to live with their parents for years after they graduate, and their parents are not so happy either. They are frustrated that they are going to be stuck paying down the national debt that has gone from approximately $5 trillion in 2000 to nearly $15 trillion today. They know that Social Security and Medicare will be vastly different for them than for their parents and grandparents. They are wondering why society is making them pick up the check when they were not even invited to have dinner at the restaurant. They feel as though their future has been mortgaged for the benefit of the Wall Street elite and the baby boomers.
In 2009, the average college debt for a graduating senior with debt was $24,000. Outstanding student loan debt exceeded credit card debt for the first time in 2010. Interestingly, all consumer credit outstanding -- mortgage, home equity, auto loans and credit cards -- has declined by about 4 percent to 20 percent since the fourth quarter of 2008, with one exception: student loan debt is up 25 percent over that period. A 2008 study indicated that seniors graduated with an average of more than $4,100 in credit card debt and that nearly 20 percent had credit card debt in excess of $7,000.
College costs, just like healthcare, have had a shocking multidecade rise in cost that is more than double the inflation rate. College students are graduating into the worst job market since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate for young college graduates reached an all-time high in 2009 and has not been reduced much since then. Many are being forced to take jobs for which they are overqualified, so we see a business student working as a waitress or a law school graduate tending bar.
We should not underestimate the power of these “Occupy” grassroots movements. Our youth could channel their anger into a potent political force. Like Hosni Mubarak, the elites run the risk of underestimating the power of a large number of unemployed and underemployed educated young citizens armed with social media weapons to inflict significant damage. This Occupy movement could be 2012's answer to the Tea Party revolution of 2010. As I recall, the media and the political experts also underestimated the power of the Tea Party during its early days.
Of course they are angry — wouldn’t you be angry if you were graduating in the fall of 2012 with more than $30,000 in debt and fearing that you may not be able to find a job? These student protests are a call for help from our leaders. Will our leaders hear them, understand them and help them?