I was a student protester. That was back in the day. Late 1970’s and early ‘80s. The big time campus protests for civil rights and against U.S. engagement in Vietnam were over. But national policy concerns such as treatment of farm workers and sexual harassment of women in the workplace loomed simultaneous with institutional offshoots such as divestment from apartheid South Africa and sexual harassment of women on campus. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
My junior year the President of the Student Association and Speaker of the Student Senate, whom I did not know personally, asked me to run for student government office. I demurred at first. I had been in student government in Catholic high school and eventually got out because the nuns didn’t let me do much with it. But I also like challenges and so when I took on the nomination, I really went for it. Door to door in the residence halls and hand outstretched in the student union for about two weeks.
The guys who ran the student newspaper stuffed the ballot box in favor of their candidate. They could not abide the notion of this member of Women’s Caucus as student body president. The student newspaper had been a target of our protests. The Campus Times used its acronym in female derogatory terms frequently and many of us had grown tired of the “joke.” Staff dedicated to student life examined all of the ballot boxes (someone had seen one of them do it, and had reported the incident). The stuffed ones were identical and in a clump. Removed from the count, I won.
That year as student body president was perhaps one of the most formative in my life. I learned that one could further much change from the inside of an institution. Student input – or the lack thereof -- for promotion and tenure was a prominent issue. We started the first student evaluation process. More lasting was a teaching award that I created on behalf of student government using student assembly funds. It is still being given today and makes the news on campus and in the alumni reports. As contemporary headlines would suggest, we did not end all sexual harassment in the United States, but I can’t help but think it was a good thing for many people, men and women, to be at an institution that originally only accepted men until Susan B. Anthony herself championed the admission of women and where, some decades later, a woman sat as student body president.
My personal experience was so profound that upon graduation I decided to dedicate my professional career to higher education. “How did you get that job?” I asked the university president at graduation. “Go to law school,” he said. And so while I was on my way to a graduate program in history, I took his advice. When I graduated law school some fourteen years later, I wrote him a letter of gratitude. In my treasured items, with my children’s baby teeth, lies his congratulatory note.
I am a bit baffled by the strong reactions that many people, including commenters on the IHE site, have against student protesters. In making that observation I am not suggesting that I find every reported action or statement of student protesters perfect or appropriate. Under no circumstances do I condone violence. Now in my matron years, in some of the cases I have read about, I think that to capitulate to some of the demands would be ridiculous. Lots of the hype strikes me as very adolescent … Ah, but that is the point! Late adolescence-early adulthood is their developmental stage in life! I also could not image a worse lesson yet than to shut them down with the kind of brute force criticism I read in some commenters’ posts.
The protesters have just as much a right to free speech, or its private institutional equivalent, as anybody else. They are putting themselves out there without having the benefit of years of professional education, lobbyist training, or what one hopes to gain in life -- sheer maturity and balance that can only come with experience. They may suffer some consequences. If so, they are learning something about the real kind of civil disobedience and not the kind that as DMCA Officer at Cornell I would get when students attempted to legitimate their copyright infringement by claiming it. From that experience and many others I can assure you that they do not have a monopoly on a notion of entitlement. I give them a lot of credit for raising issues that need to be addressed both on and off campus, for having the courage to stand up, and for using a collegiate education as a testing ground for their ideas and politics. To those who have been so critical against the protesters, you, too, have a right to enjoy the same opportunity. The same rules apply. Isn’t that, after all, the point of democratic republic?
For a good Catholic girl who thought she would live her life out by running her father’s restaurant, having had the chance to go to college turned out to be one of the most important influences in my life. Being a student protester further shaped it. I wish for all student protesters – on the right and the left, if those categories are still even salient -- a similar opportunity to learn in a relatively safe space. I urge you all to participate. I encourage administrators to foster the engagement. No one should expect perfect, but everyone should expect to learn a lot that you will never find in a book. We all have so much more in common than that which appears to separate us. Embrace the process! If just some of you benefit a little as I did from this kind of experience, you may have before you the gift of a lifetime.
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