As a student years ago, Joseph Nevins always considered himself politically active. He had his range of causes -- East Timor stabilization, teaching assistant unionization, immigrant rights -- and can still remember the rallies, marches and meetings.
Now, as a fourth-year assistant professor at Vassar College, Nevins is again involved in a political action, this one a campaign to get faculty across the country to donate money each month to a large antiwar group until the Iraq War ends. He and a Vassar colleague, Katherine Hite, co-signed a letter sent out last month that asked faculty at the college to support United for Peace and Justice , the antiwar coalition that coordinates local and national events.
Nevins said the idea is to give faculty a concrete way to support the antiwar cause.
"Massive opposition to the war hasn't manifested itself into tremendous activism -- or at least into action that is commensurate with the level of opposition," said Nevins, an assistant professor of geography. "There's been a sense of powerlessness, and a lot of us, myself included, decided that we're not doing enough to put an end to this."
In the short term, faculty donations will largely support a United for Peace and Justice peace march and Congressional lobbying day planned for later this month in Washington. Hite called the coalition a "shoestring operation," and Hany Khalil, the group's organizing coordinator, said the group relies on repeat contributors to survive.
More than a dozen Vassar faculty in a range of academic fields agreed late last month to be the first letter signatories -- thus pledging to donate to the coalition each month. One of them is Robert B. Suter, a professor of biology and associate dean of the faculty at Vassar.
Suter, a Quaker, said he doesn’t discriminate when it comes to donating to pacifist causes. He said he supports the decision to limit the campaign to faculty, rather than targeting administrators and students.
“Being more inclusive gives you greater numbers, but at some point it stops being thoughtful and becomes spam," Suter said. "It is a more powerful message if the letter goes to people with similar [political] inclinations."
As the original letter to Vassar faculty states: "One resource most of us do have at our disposal is money -- at least relative to the U.S. population as a whole. And it is this resource that we're asking you to share with the antiwar movement, in a manner greater and more sustained than you have done up until this point."
Nevins said the original message, circulated within Vassar, has become a chain letter, bouncing from e-mail inbox to inbox in the larger ".edu" community. Dozens of people across the country have already signed the letter, though Nevins said there's often a mismatch between who has pledged and who has actually donated. He said he has no fund raising goals in mind and has no idea how many signatories will give more than once. Because the letter was sent around during winter vacation, Nevins said the campaign is still in the early stages.
Van Gosse, a member of the steering committee of Historians Against War , said his group has sent the letter to its database of roughly 2,000 people. Gosse, an assistant professor of history at Franklin & Marshall College who represents the historians' group within United for Peace and Justice, said the campaign organizers can expect an initial flurry of one-time givers, but not necessarily high returns.
Gosse said if there is any backlash, it is unlikely to come from Vassar. “It’s a highly selective Northeastern school -- the last I'd place to expect any political hassle.”
Nevins said he's already received a few angry e-mails from people outside the college who have received the letter and disagree with the mission. “That professors are politically active is no surprise," he said. "If some people take issue, that’s fine.”
Hite, an associate professor in Vassar's political science department, said she doesn't see any conflict of interest in her involvement. “I do this as an individual faculty member," she said. "I don’t think the political science department is concerned as long as I’m not speaking for them as a whole.”