Activism for the ’90s is more private, more diverse

by Alan Bjerga

Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-day series examining the 25th anniversary of the “Eight Days in May” antiwar demonstrations and the legacy of activism at the University.

There were signs and shouts. There was a bullhorn. There were impassioned speakers advocating student action. There was even a police officer watching the rally from the steps of Northrop Memorial Auditorium.
The demonstration had everything except an audience. On May 9, 1997 — the 25th anniversary of the day when hundreds of University students clashed with police in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood — about 10 students attended a Progressive Student Organization demonstration supporting a tuition freeze.
Times have changed.
As students face greater financial and academic strains, political and social activism — the hallmark of student life during the Vietnam War era — seems to be a relic of bygone days. But as political and social issues continue to affect the University, student activists face new challenges in addressing University concerns.
The unheard call to activism
“It’s always hard to get people to a tuition freeze demo,” said University sophomore and PSO member Lee Pera. “It’s not a very controversial issue. But it needs to be made that way.”
A PSO-sponsored resolution supporting a tuition freeze passed with 93 percent voter approval. But with a 6 percent turnout among eligible student voters, the resolution is far from a mandate for change.
Low levels of political activity have been characteristic of University students during the past quarter century. American studies professor David Noble, who has taught at the University for 45 years, said student attitudes changed noticeably as the 1970s progressed. “There was a dramatic shift from the activism of the ’60s and ’70s,” Noble said. “By ’76, it was gone.”
The development was jarring for Noble, who was known for his unconventional teaching methods. “In the ’60s, early ’70s, I felt a lot of excitement over my own anti-establishment style. By the late ’70s, I felt resentment. It really made me think twice.”
Student trends in educational goals and expectations show an increased focus toward career development, with less emphasis on personal growth than in the past. According to last fall’s University of California-Los Angeles annual freshman trends survey, the proportion of students who said they were attending college to develop a “philosophy of life” has declined from about 68 percent to 42 percent in the past quarter-century. In the same period, the number of students who hoped to become “very well-off financially” increased from about 40 percent to 74 percent.
The proportion of freshmen who consider it important to keep up on current events has also declined, from 43 percent to 29 percent in the same survey. “There is a skepticism about change,” said history professor Hyman Berman, who has taught at the University since 1961.
Berman attributes the current perception that students aren’t as concerned with political and social issues as they once were to the actions of small groups of students. “Every generation has a defining minority,” Berman said. “The critical minority in 1972 was actually seeking social change, looking for mass solutions, while the critical minority today is looking toward market forces, trying to minimize the intrusion of state power into their lives.”
Different kinds of action
One critical minority group on campus, the PSO, has been active at the University since 1981, working to get ROTC off campus, opposing the 1991 Gulf War and supporting access to the University through lower tuition and diverse program offerings. PSO member Jennifer Udelhofen said motivating students to public action is more difficult than during the Vietnam War era but dismisses the notion of student apathy.
“I don’t think students are necessarily more apathetic,” Udelhofen said. “The issues aren’t as burning to most people.”
The absence of mass unrest can lead to more effective individual communication, Udelhofen said. Although the antiwar protests of a generation ago may have received press attention, they sometimes lacked lasting educational value.
“Large groups gathering were exciting, but people got hurt,” Udelhofen said. With the smaller groups, you have more of a chance to educate. We can say, ‘Hey — what did you think of this action?’ We can do that because we’re smaller. And if a time ever happens again where there are mass protests, maybe they’ll be tighter.”
While groups like the PSO continue to hold ’60s-style demonstrations, other organizations work for change through hands-on private service. Last spring break, a group of 55 University Habitat for Humanity volunteers traveled to Florida to help provide quality housing for low-income families. “With Habitat, you can see the results of what you’re doing,” said University senior and Habitat President Heather Owens.
“I think a lot of people would see big ’60s-type radicalism as extreme,” Owens said. “I know protests can be effective, but it’s also important to be out there and actually getting the work done.”
Community service and voluntarism have become increasingly popular among college students in the past decade. As University organizations like Habitat experience membership growth, national organizations also report increased activity.
College Compact, a national organization founded to foster civic responsibility, reports that the number of participants in affiliated service programs jumped from 320,000 students to 543,000 students between 1995 and 1996. Programs such as President Clinton’s Americorps are raising the profile of community work. And last month’s summit about voluntarism featuring Clinton, former President George Bush and retired Gen. Colin Powell, highlighted increased community service among students.
While Udelhofen said she appreciates activism through community work, she also sees a continued need for public action. “I think people try to do on a personal level what could be created on a broader level if they organized.”
To College Republican and former MSA Academic Affairs chairman Matt Curry, the lack of student voices makes political activism even more important than before.
“If I don’t speak up, who will? I disagree with a lot of the students I see speaking for students. It makes me sick. They take a lot of bad positions, and so few people speak up today that when a common idiot like myself speaks, people listen,” Curry said.
So many causes, so little time
A basic cause of student “apathy” may be its opposite — students today have to care more about grades, bills and the job market than ever before.
Students are more serious now than in the past, said Wendell Anderson, a recently retired regent who was a University student in the 1950s and the state’s governor in the 1970s. “I think students now don’t have the same security economically,” Anderson said. There’s a little more competition, a need for a little higher grades and a more impressive resume.”
Tuition hikes, especially in the past decade, have led to more financially strapped students. Shifts in financial aid from grant-based to loan-based packages have translated to greater debt burdens for graduating students. On average, federal grants provide almost 20 percent less support for students now than 10 years ago, while the percentage of aid provided by loans has increased proportionally.
Unlike 1972, when University students were mostly full-time students with stable financial situations, today their status is less secure. The proportion of full-time undergraduates has dropped from more than three-fourths to about three-fifths of the student population. Many of these students have to work more hours to make ends end meet, said Judy Swanson of the Univ-ersity’s financial aid office.
With more need to have jobs while attending classes, and a less-secure job market waiting for graduates, more pressure is on students to work toward surviving in the world, rather than changing it.
“It’s frustrating when (College Republicans) try to put something together and we get our core 20 people together and that’s it,” Curry said. “It comes back to more people being focused on immediate things, like classes and careers.”
“When you’re taking classes full-time and working and studying, when do you have time to organize?” Udelhofen asked.
Continuing to change
Despite concerns about student apathy and inevitable comparisons with the more vocal students of a generation ago, today’s students continue to work for social and political change.
A Take Back The Night Rally last month drew a crowd of 120 people to raise awareness of safety issues, and about 30 attended a protest on Monday against the presence of Playboy recruiters on campus.
University employee Emmanuel Ortiz, the host of Radio K’s “RadioActive” program and a participant in the Playboy protest, said that although student strains may make it difficult for students to devote themselves to causes, activism is still possible. “Writing a letter is activism. Making a phone call is activism,” Ortiz said.
And with student service on the rise, the University community continues to be shaped by its students in less vocal ways, as well.
“The University is the University,” Berman said. “It’s still the engine of intellectual development, of scientific inquiry, of economic growth, of student activity. … There are ebbs and flows.”
“More people used to want to change the world,” Curry said. “I want to give a go at it.
“There are some things you can’t change. You may fall flat on your face. But you keep trying, and maybe someone will notice and you’ll get them to think. And hopefully some good comes of it.
“You always gotta try.”