Matney: Northwestern’s empty commitment to fostering political activism

Matney: Northwestern’s empty commitment to fostering political activism

Lucas Matney, Columnist

In early September, University President Morton Schapiro sent out an email to current Northwestern students, encouraging us to continue to engage in political and social issues on campus in the upcoming academic year. Among other things, Schapiro pledged that his office would “continue to foster an environment that includes free expression and a robust exchange of ideas.” With the quarter winding down, where has this “uncomfortable learning that contributes significantly to greater understanding” been?

NU is a campus that can often seem to lag behind other esteemed universities in terms of political activism. The “Northwestern bubble” that Schapiro has referenced in the past often seems to be so self-focused that it is only when harsh or thoughtless incidents directly avail themselves that we critically engage the topics. This leads to a dearth of national and international topics gaining campus activism as they fail to breach our little microcosm.

There’s a temptation to blame the lack of activism solely on the students, but on a campus as intellectually engaged as NU, that’s an unlikely conclusion. While the Office of the President insists that it is making NU’s political and social activism on campus a priority, the lack of communication coming directly from the office proves that they are unwilling to get their hands dirty and foster these passionate exchanges at the expense of making headlines.

A first step for increasing engagement is heightening communication — the Office of the President engages with students far too infrequently. One unfortunate feature of the social and political communication that does make its way out of the office is that it can often be so highly manicured and filled with buzzwords that it misses the grittiness that should accompany the “occasionally uncomfortable learning” Schapiro references.

Unfortunately, meaningful dialogue from NU is often minimized and passed through Student Affairs departments that often lack the resources and reach to fully engage issues on a University-wide level, much less on a level that expands outside campus. What results from this compartmentalized communication strategy are misused and frustrated departments consistently reaching out to the same students that follow them on social media and subscribe to their email lists.

This not only yields conversations and events filled with like-minded students feeding and reinforcing their own conceptions, but also it isolates passionate persons from their fellow students due to the wide information gap on key topics.

The simple act of the Office of the President responding to a situation can have a great deal of impact on drawing attention and building up conversations regarding a topic. The Office needs to take a much more prominent role in being an active participant in responding and engaging student activism rather than watching from the sidelines or waiting until the issue is “solved” to make a statement.

If the president and the rest of the administration truly wish to achieve a “robust exchange of ideas,” then the University needs to put the onus on themselves for engaging with topics in a less reactionary manner and working in greater conjunction with student groups and student affairs departments to reach out to all students and truly foster an intellectual landscape that can critically engage key issues.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].