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Phillips: Despite University inaction, students still retain power

Ruby Phillips, Assistant Opinion Editor

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As the 50th anniversary of the Bursar’s Office Takeover passed last week, I found myself doing a lot of thinking about the history of this campus, and particularly about how much those student activists in 1968 were willing to risk. The occupation of the Bursar’s Office was a disruptive action rooted in a sense of duty. Black students felt they needed to stand up and make themselves heard in order to make life better for future generations. Perhaps their actions were not so much revolutionary as they were passionate, but at least the University listened. I am in awe of the drive of these students and in thinking about such motivation, I have been asking myself these past few days: What happened to the power of students?

The year 1968 (and the decade in general) is often romanticized in our minds as a global moment of revolution, when it seemed like everyone across the world was mobilizing to action at the same time. There were many other faces to this movement besides the black students at Northwestern. Students just a few miles away at some of the City Colleges of Chicago were revolutionizing the culture, curriculum and definition of their colleges that very same year. Even students in places like Paris and Brazil were forming coalitions and trying to involve the working class. It is easy to think about 1968 as a “hippie revolution,” but the youth who were involved back then believed in and actively engaged with what they were doing. They were proud of putting pressure on both government and universities about a range of issues from anti-war sentiment to racial inequality. There was a collective spirit among students at the time that to be politically engaged was to be a proud American, a sentiment I feel has since been lost.

I once sat at a table in a five-person class as a professor asked why none of us wanted to run for office. We looked around at each other. Our general response was that entering government at this point felt hopeless. And we felt even less enthusiastic about protesting against our perceived lack of power, and we wondered why anyone would care what students like us had to say about politics. The idea of joining the government, or of loving America enough to try to fix it, was lost on us. The government seemed like a black hole of bureaucracy that could never repair the deeply ingrained and hard-to-pinpoint issues of racism, sexism and classism that students today are concerned with. I feel like we don’t know how to be politically engaged or support specific policies we agree with; there’s no longer a space where we can openly and excitedly discuss social activism or plan a revolution. In fact, because of NU’s protest policy, students can’t even demonstrate without permission from the school.

I am not trying to undermine the activism and work happening on this campus that is organized by marginalized voices. Much of this work — namely the To Be Departments campaign — should serve as an example to those of us who don’t know how to navigate activism. Weinberg dean Adrian Randolph sent out an email on May 3 — during the Bursar’s Takeover anniversary — saying that the Asian American Studies program and the Latina and Latino Studies program will receive increased operating budgets and potentially tenured faculty, which was a step forward, but not a fulfillment of their request. In a Letter to the Editor written on Friday by the Latinx Asian American Collective, Students Organizing for Labor Rights and Black Lives Matter NU, students discussed the University’s hypocrisy in celebrating the Bursar’s Takeover while still refusing to grant departmental status to these programs. Despite all the teach-ins and organizing efforts of these student organizations, methods that are far more respectable from the University’s standpoint than those used in the very protest it was commemorating, progress is still slow.

This work should not go unnoticed, but when I think about the excitement surrounding the Bursar’s Takeover during the past week, I can’t find the same willingness among the majority of students on this campus to join in the activism taking place today. Moreover, it feels as though students are so desensitized to issues in America that they don’t feel mobilized to fight for policy change. In fact, unlike the disruptive action of the Bursar’s Takeover, social activism today feels increasingly representational and cultural. That’s not to devalue the significance of protest art or social justice education, but it’s important to note the differences. When we don’t have specific policy goals to negotiate or publicize, it can be difficult to garner widespread support. But we must still find the strength to mobilize for causes we believe in.

I want to know what happened to student power. Perhaps my romanticization of student activism contributes to a larger liberal narrative that characterizes the year 1968 as a more radical and progressive year than it actually was and fails to acknowledge the activism people did before then. Still, I can’t help but appreciate and admire the students who spoke up all across the globe. I wonder how so many people felt the need to be politically engaged, whether through art or protest, during this year.

There is a picture in Shepard Hall’s exhibit, which explores student activism throughout NU’s history, showing students expressing discontent when there was an increase in tuition, something that I did not see when NU’s tuition was increased earlier this quarter by 3.6 percent for the upcoming 2018-19 school year. This speaks to a larger facelessness of the University and of institutional power in general. As organizations and institutions become more bureaucratic and abstract, it feels harder to speak truth to that power. There is no clear location — like the Bursar’s Office — to take over and literally shut down the campus.

While students must recognize their own potential power, it is still essential to hold the University responsible for its inaction. When students do need an environment to express their discontent, administrators must be willing to listen and to learn from them. Perhaps, the apathy from Northwestern only contributes to the cyclical nature of students’ disempowerment and lack of protest.

As we celebrate the Bursar’s Office Takeover, let us try to remember that students still have a voice. It seems like the University has praised our passion and intellectualism without listening to our voices or meeting our demands. I do not denounce students who don’t want to politically engage or who want to prioritize their education over protest, but I encourage us all to remember that it is OK to express our discontent, especially in today’s political climate. The activists of 1968 relished their ability to protest and make change, however flawed or ineffective it may have been at times, simply because of their pride as Americans. It is hard to love a country with such a violent history that continues today, but engaging politically or being passionate about protest cannot be left to just a select few students. The beauty of 1968 came from how global it was, like one big revolt that shook the world. Let us try to regain that power and excitement, not for our pleasure or nostalgia, but because we believe in it and our ability to change things.

Ruby Phillips is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be contacted at rubyphillips2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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