Administration encourages more campus activism


Historically, the University has been a hub for activism, with students uniting against financial cutbacks, civil rights violations and war abroad.

But while speckles of civic engagement among students appear on campus today, some would say the student body's involvement leaves something to be desired.

"We are having a very decisive election in a couple of weeks. I don't hear a buzz on campus about what this means for our nation and the future of our society, which is in [students'] hands," said Philip J. Furmanski, executive vice president for Academic Affairs. "Maybe I'm just a little too insolated, but … I would think there would be a high level of engagement."

University President Richard L. McCormick, however, cited a walkout staged by the Latino Student Council at his annual address to the University as a recent example of students standing up for their beliefs.

"I feel that what they did was within the bounds of the tradition of dissent at Rutgers," he said. "If student activism is on the rise, so be it. … It's a good thing."

McCormick said he hopes students will continue to get involved in such activities, as long as the expression is conducted in a civil manner.

But while protests and activism are just one part of political involvement, thinking deeply about the choices government officials make on a day-to-day basis and how they relate to students is more important, Furmanski said.

"The protests come and go, but if you [want to] become a vital member of a community and take responsibility for defining your future, it starts now," he said. "At the end of the day, it's about the fact that in less than two weeks, less than 40 percent of the eligible voters in this country will be making a decision that, ultimately, will affect us in very profound ways."

Barry V. Qualls, vice president for Undergraduate Education, also said he is surprised more students have not expressed discontent concerning political issues, especially given the state of the economy.

"I'm not nostalgic for the Vietnam Era, but it sometimes reminds me that our students are not more politically engaged," Qualls said. "This is really about a changing definition of a civil society."

Qualls said this is perhaps because political issues, like the draft, affected students more directly decades ago, while many of today's issues seem more distant.

Yet McCormick said the decisions made today will affect young people's futures, and therefore, he supports their involvement, which often gets more attention than older people's participation.

"The impacts of this economy, of the transformation of the environment, of the improvement — or not — in health care are things that profoundly affect your lives, and a key component of a Rutgers education should be the knowledge of how to make a difference," McCormick said.

The University is working on a project to get students more involved in civic affairs, Furmanski said. In the same way that the University provides students with the opportunity to conduct research, an emerging program will also encourage students to get involved in civic affairs.

"What we're trying to do is get every department and every major to do something that allows students to participate on a civic level," he said.

Until then, leaders on campus will have to determine how best to increase students' involvement.

Rutgers University Student Assembly Vice President Matt Cordeiro said alienation, not apathy, is the problem among young people, who need someone to bring them together.

"There's no national, young figure who's really trying to rev people up," he said.  

Breaking down barriers to voting could also help, said Cordeiro, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. For example, students could use Facebook, a social medium that is already a part of their everyday lives, to register to vote.

Old techniques of organizing people are also no longer applicable, he said. While protests were fresh and new to people in the 1960s, it just seems as though today's movements are simply copies.

Roosevelt Institute President Bhavin Patel agreed with Cordeiro's point. He said a lack of innovation has led to stagnation in politics.

"Today, students who try to organize recycle [other generations'] slogans," he said. "They don't adapt to the younger population."

Also, some students may not be involved because they support the current administration on its face and do not follow up on details about what is going on, said Patel, a School of Arts and Sciences senior. Whether or not they are content with the government, young people still need to pay attention, he said.

"I think it's very unfortunate [that students do not get involved], because it's their loss," Patel said. "They're the ones that are going to have to deal with the all the policies and politics happening now."

At times, certain politicians, such as former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin and Republican Senate nominee Christine O'Donnell, are not the best representatives of the political world, and in fact, may turn young people away from politics, Patel said.

"The fact that they're all over the media discourages some students [who say], ‘What's the point? Why should I get active?'" he said. "Well that's exactly the reason they should get active."

Kelly Ng, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, is one person who said politicians' actions discourage her from getting involved. Often, she would rather have other people deal with them and take responsibility for what they do.

Although Ng, an out-of-state student from New York, said she does not really feel New Jersey politics affect her, she did say Christie's recent change in funding for education does make a difference to her.

Still, she would not go as far as making a scene about it on campus.

"To me, protests are really important, but on the same level, I think these little protests on campus, people don't really care unless you really do something dramatic," she said. "If you just have you and your friends do something, like a little protest outside of Brower, people aren't going to see it."

School of Arts and Sciences junior Katherine Congelosi said she is too busy for civic engagement but said she will think about it after graduation.

"Of course [political issues] affect everybody, but I'm worried about too many other things, like getting through school, to be caring about political issues," she said.

School of Arts and Sciences first-year student Forrest Tennant, who came from a high school where he remembers discussing politics, said he is not seeing the same engagement on campus.

"Since I've been here, I have not really heard anything radical from either side or independents," he said.

Tennant said he thinks protests are a good way to get a message across, especially with issues he cares about, like raising the minimum wage.

"If it's something that I feel strongly about, then I wouldn't mind coming out and representing," he said.

But to get the most people involved, he said using new media is a good technique for creating awareness.

"Mass communication is definitely the best way," he said. "You're not going to be able to get to people by just standing shouting with a megaphone to one specific group of people."


Colleen Roache

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