Students starving to be heard at U

A strange thing happened last week — I witnessed a hunger strike on the University campus. Really. Right here. In 1998.
When I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke. Hunger strikes were demonstrations in the past. They occurred at a time when almost every college student was an activist and people like our parents could justify smoking pot because it was part of “the movement.”
But what could be the cause for a hunger strike today? Peace in the Middle East? Peace in Northern Ireland? In Bosnia or North Korea or Colombia? I can think of plenty of countries and causes.
The original 22 protesters, students from the Chinese program and student cultural centers, stopped eating April 8 because they wanted to increase funding for the University’s Chinese program. For years, they have claimed that the program was under-funded and under-staffed. The students wanted more professors and independence from the East Asian Languages, Literatures and Linguistics department. I agree; this is a noble cause.
For the University’s 21 Chinese majors — and the numbers themselves remain a debatable topic — there are two professors and two temporary professors. Again, I would be peeved if I were majoring in Chinese.
But why did these students take such dramatic actions? Hunger strikes usually mean serious business, like if the government’s going to send students to die in another country’s civil war. Somehow it seems strange to starve yourself in the name of one or two professors. I wouldn’t skip a single meal for most of mine.
The students’ ends didn’t justify the means. Granted, in the end they fared well. They successfully educated the public about the long-standing woes of the program, and they received a $50,000 China Studies Scholarship Program and an 18.1 percent budget increase. But they also deprived their bodies of nutrition for eight days.
They probably could have received these concessions without starving themselves. Sadly, though, I doubt they would have had as much success without a demonstration.
In the end, they were satisfied with their own means and ends. But more important than minor criticisms of their methods, the incident points to a larger issue — students have little influence on how the University is run.
The University, enormous institution that it is, operates with top-down management. Students are the scum bottom of the University hierarchy. Even the janitors might have a little more power than students do. At least they’re unionized.
If a student has a problem with one aspect of the University, what are her options? She can write a letter to the dean of her school or head of her department. If the issue isn’t resolved, she can move her way up the administrative scale.
If students have problems with specific professors, they can fill out an evaluation form. Sadly, this is probably their most frequent and powerful way of making their voices heard.
Students can also join the Minnesota Student Association or various governing boards and committees if they can manage to be elected to one of the few available seats. But MSA’s influence is limited. It doesn’t have the power to make decisions affecting the University as a whole. It can only make recommendations to other University organizations that vote with consideration of MSA’s position.
In other words, the student’s opinion is a faint whisper in the daily debate over the University’s policy and funding decisions. The administration makes decisions that will supposedly benefit students, yet the doors are narrowly open to hear their opinions.
As it is, students have few options to communicate their opinions and needs at the University. Unfortunately, it takes a protest these days for the administration to take notice and public pressure to react.
Students should cultivate ongoing communication among themselves, staff, professors and higher administration that will allow them to discuss problems with and even positive aspects of their University experience.
Granted, at a university of more than 37,000 students, the administration can’t possibly listen to everyone at once. But there should still be a means for students to voice their opinions and have them taken seriously by the people in charge. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
As was proven by the hunger strikers, protests often obtain results more quickly than attempts to change policy through traditional channels. The protesters were able to gain more face-to-face access to the University’s top officials in one week’s protest than they had in several months of interdepartmental letter-writing.
Perhaps part of the problem is that University administrators and much of the public believe students to be apathetic about the policies and politics of running a university.
A nation-wide study released in January showed that 27 percent of college freshmen believe that keeping up with political affairs is a very important life goal. The results were more dismal for participation in campus politics: 21 percent said they voted in student elections, compared to 77 percent in 1968.
Given these statistics, it appears that students are disinterested with campus politics and social action. It may be true that students are more apathetic than years past, but perhaps they are more disenchanted. The broad issues of war and civil rights don’t exist to attract student activism today as they did in the 1960s. There’s no reason for a campus-wide protest or campus-wide hunger strike.
Students still want their voices heard, but perhaps about more personal issues. Today, students are pressured by parents to graduate within four years while working to help support their tuition costs. In addition, they’re encouraged to work as interns in their chosen field, often for free. This leaves little time for social causes and, regrettably, even less time to read a daily newspaper.
This lifestyle forces them to become more interested in specific issues and it limits their activity in broad issues.
Students can do better to educate and involve themselves in political and campus activities. But the University is also to blame. Under the current structure, the University doesn’t seem to be interested in anything more than student suggestions. It does not want students to make actual decisions.
Unless the administration can keep an ongoing conversation with students about their concerns, protesting seems to be the only way to warrant quick attention. Last week’s events illustrate that students have something to say, even if they don’t have a good way to say it.
The University can do better to include and encourage student involvement in decision- making — something between a letter and a hunger strike.
Sara Goo’s column appears every Tuesday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected]