In our Sept. 28 Letter to the Editor (“The University needs to revive student activism”), we lamented the lack of student activism on campus and called for more cooperation among student organizations and greater involvement by all students in general. Our article, rather unsurprisingly, was met with various challenges, most of which we believe are unwarranted. With the hopes of clarifying our main points and to continue a healthy conversation, we would like to list some of the criticisms of our article and respond to them.
Public schools tend to be more vocal. The claim that private universities are generally less politically active because their student body tends to be more conservative might be true, but it cannot fully explain the experience of USC. As such, we politely disagree that students in public universities are more vocal compared to their private counterparts. If this were true, how could we explain Columbia University in the 1960s, where protests erupted in response to the alleged connection of the university with the American government during the Vietnam War? Or how could we explain the dozens of elite private universities that had chapters of Students for a Democratic Society? Similarly, how can we explain public schools that are apolitical? We chose to discuss UC Berkeley not because it is a public institution, but because it is familiar to us and because we wanted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement, a gesture we thought important as the anniversary went mostly ignored by the media.
Our “true intentions” are for students to be more vocal in favor of “liberal causes.” We will politely disagree with this statement in full. The examples we use in our article included rape, sexual assault and discrimination (perhaps even racism) but we were accused of calling for a “specific activism.” But it is not clear to us what is precisely “liberal” or “left-wing” about these issues, as the comments imply. We are not asking students to share our opinions. We explicitly state that we want more activism from both the Right and the Left and all their variants. Our overall argument is that no real voices are heard and our main concern is isolated activism. As stated in our article, the Free Speech Movement would have not been successful if it weren’t for the unified participation of political organizations ranging from the Young Socialists to the Young Republicans.
Why rape, sexual assault, racism and discrimination? Comments on our article questioned why we would like to see more activism dealing with these issues as opposed to other issues. We were questioned as to why we don’t call for action in the following cases: when Governor Brown allowed undocumented migrants to acquire drivers licenses, Obama’s delayed response to the threat of ISIS, and the control of unions on local and state budgets, among other issues. While these are all important (and we truly believe they are), we chose rape, sexual assault, racism and discrimination because they affect many USC students in a direct way. Have any of your students been raped and forced to continue attending school with their perpetrator? Ours have. The examples mentioned in the comments, we believe, are less connected to the daily functioning of the campus and students. That doesn’t mean that they are less important, but we are talking about the issues that are at our doorsteps. Call us biased, but we care more about students getting raped than undocumented migrants being able to drive to work. Again, they are not irrelevant issues, just less pertinent to our article.
In closing, we would like to point out that apathy is not conservative, as suggested by comments. Both Left and Right organizations on campus are sparsely supported. Additionally, our argument was not meant to be partisan as also suggested by some comments. In our opinion, commentators disagreeing with our position seem to put ideology above our common community on campus. And this is what we are striving for: a common community where all ideologies agree on cases of clear violations of human rights.
Universities are, at heart, institutions built to help students understand the world, question conventional wisdom, and foster a community of learning and development. If students of any and all political persuasions are not questioning, campaigning and conversing on all kinds of social issues, then the university has failed its mission. If students are aware of horrible tragedies that violate human rights, but are not moved to do something about it, then this is both a moral failing of the student, and a failure of the university to foster a sufficiently close Trojan Family (a recent survey by the USG found that 29 percent of Black students have a low sense of belonging on campus). One cannot expand one’s intellectual understanding without developing one’s emotional understanding. Too often, we believe, USC students are receiving information but not an education. We can see it in the lack of action, or what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the fierce urgency of now,” when our community most needs people not to walk by on the other side.
Juve J. Cortes
Department of Political Science