Student movements for activism sometimes fail to take the necessary
course of action.
By Daniel Amzallag
October 26, 2010
The energy of Columbia students, it sometimes seems, is limitless.
Student life pulsates on our campus with a countless number of
activitiesincluding theater, community service, cultural groups, and
perhaps most (in)famously, political activism. Students here are
deeply engaged with the political dilemmas and developments of the
present day, and, above all, they care about the world around them.
The energy and intentions of student "activists" in large part
facilitate the discourse that makes our campus so vibrant. But a
problem lies in the execution of otherwise laudable ideals.
Columbia's tradition of political activism has, all too often, been
its own worst enemy. While serving an atmosphere of student
engagement, campus activist movements create political conditions of
their own, frequently undermining impartial and open implementation
of reforms. The POTUS Project, a self-described "grassroots
initiative" to convince President Obama to speak at Commencement, is
only the latest example of a delusion that has plagued our campus for
decades. The delusion, briefly: that gathering a group of Ivy League
students to stage loud demonstrations, write letters, and submit
extreme and unrealistic demands to a figure of high authorityand
stamping it with the label "grassroots"is the most promising and
fairest course of action possible.
Such campaigns purport to speak for entire communities, but by
working outside of pre-existing democratic processes, they are
necessarily unrepresentative movements. The publicity that protests
generate supports an illusion that they represent uniform agreement
and broad interests. This assumption of consensus becomes dangerous
when movement leaders submit demands that affect a population broader
than themselves. They may claim to fight on behalf of indisputable
notions of "social justice," as did the student hunger strikers of
2007beliefs that are in the eye of the beholder. Without explicit
consent, such as polling or elections, they have the potential to be
tyrannies of a minority.
For example, one of the most hotly contested issues of Columbia's
Manhattanville expansion is whether the "local community" (albeit an
artificial construct) approves of the project. Anti-expansion
protesters claim they represent the entire community and point to the
disapproval of an unelected community board, while University
officials cite the support of elected representatives. The very fact
that neither side can agree on such a basic issue speaks to the lack
of democratic representativeness inherent in protest-based movements.
The POTUS Project, similarly, was launched this month with a
groundless assumption that the majority of Commencement's 11,000
degree candidates support its goals. There has been no polling of the
student body, no debate on the issue, and no open consideration of
By campaigning to convince others, such movements pose a danger of
effacing the nuance of an issue. At other university commencements
that hosted Obama, for example, security restrictions limited the
number of people allowed to attend, caused massive delays, and
required attendees to undergo background and citizenship checks.
Similarly, in the push for gender-neutral housing over the past year,
while circulating a petition, proponents framed the issue as one of
inclusiveness for LGBT students, while opponents framed it as an
excuse for unmarried couples to live together. Only once a proposal
was reviewed thoroughly by a University task force did complexities
over blind doubles and first-year room selection begin to be
considered publicly. Students behind the movement made tremendous
progress toward reform, but an unbiased conversation on the issue
took place only within formal processes.
Too often, the protest is a tactic chosen reflexively and without
consideration of its consequences. Columbia has a serious need for
mediation and examination of the demands of activist movements in
light of their potential for misrepresentation, and in the spirit of
meaningful debate. The conversation that results from campus activism
is the root of the exciting energy here that keeps students
challenging each other. But our campus would benefit from a greater
awareness on the part of students of the pitfalls of campus activism
rather than zeal about the issues movements address, which often
blinds us to the politics at hand. A healthier discourse must be
removed not only from the politics of the University administration,
but also from the politics of student activism.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in political science
and English. He is a former Spectator news deputy and opinion columnist.