Alumni protest over lack of protest

January 4, 2008

Political apathy among students is giving cause for concern in the US. Jon Marcus reports.

An unpopular war in a foreign country. A controversial president leaving office. A crowded field of candidates to succeed him. A generation anxious about its future.

It could be 1968 on American university campuses, not 2008. Except for a deafening quiet so pronounced that one group of Vietnam War-era alumni have complained to their university head about "widespread apathy and political indifference" on the campus, even as presidential balloting begins this month.

And if students have chosen to forgo politics, politics has also chosen to forgo them. Jockeying for advantage in the complicated presidential primary process, one state after another has moved its election forward - directly into the winter university holiday period, potentially excluding tens of thousands of students who will be away at the time.

"The dedicated caucus-goers, such as myself, will no doubt make the trip back from the surrounding states to caucus," said Jacob Bofferding, a student at Iowa State University. Iowa is home to the nation's first presidential caucus. "I'm sure it will stop a few people, but I doubt it makes a huge difference in the dismal student vote anyway."

Recent history supports Mr Bofferding's pessimism. The precinct in which Iowa State is located has a low turnout in caucuses and elections. Only 17 per cent of attendees at the 2004 Iowa caucuses were aged 17 to 29. Nationally, 47 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voted in the 2004 general election, compared to 64 per cent of all Americans.

In a survey of Iowa State students, 57 per cent said they would participate in the caucuses, and 22 per cent said they would not. The rest had yet to decide. Eighty-four per cent said their decision was unaffected by the change in the caucus date. There are 26,000 students at Iowa State University and 30,000 at the University of Iowa.

Regardless of whether an election falls while universities are out of session, said Iowa State political science professor Steffen Schmidt, "student participation is lousy anyway".

"Students are not real people," said Professor Schmidt. "Students are between things. They're not rooted in the location where they are. They're transitional. In the US, college students generally go to a college or university where they plan to stay as short a time as possible, get their degree and leave.

"They are not socialised into regularly participating in politics. You can't get them engaged every four years in a presidential election when they're not used to voting anyway." Besides, said Dr Schmidt, US university students are very busy. "They're working two jobs to pay for their tuition, so their lives are not necessarily focused on civic participation."

"Maybe half the student population bothers to identify with a party or philosophy," Mr Bofferding said. "Less than a fourth could possibly list the candidates, not to mention describe their views.

"It's hard to even estimate the percentage of students around here that actively support a candidate, but it's definitely small. Students barely pay attention to the news at all."

After the Iowa caucus on January 3 comes the first presidential primary election, in New Hampshire on January 8. That is also a month earlier than usual. The important state of Michigan has also moved its primary election date ahead to January 15. And South Carolina has pushed its election forward to January 19. In each case, these dates fall while most universities are out of session and students are home - often in other states.

"It could have some effect," said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "This is the first time the primary's been held during winter break. A lot of people go on vacation. School here doesn't start again until the 22nd, and it might be the case that students, particularly first-time voters, might not be familiar with how to vote absentee."

Some activist organisations have offered transportation and accommodation to Iowa students who return for the caucuses. Iowa State and Northern Iowa universities have agreed to reopen their dormitories for students who want to vote on that day. The University of Iowa, however, has declined to allow students back on the closed campus.

Democratic candidate Barack Obama has been particularly aggressive in urging students to return and vote. In the Iowa State poll, Senator Obama enjoyed a wide lead among students - 60 per cent of whom supported him. Among Republicans, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani led among Iowa students, with 40 per cent support.

Some 1960s Harvard alumni have decried what they consider the apathy of current-day students. In a recent letter to the university's president, Drew Faust, they called for a task force to determine why there has not been more student activism against the Iraq war, among other things.

"To cite the opening line of Bismarck's famous quip, 'Whoever is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart'," the letter says.

"It's always the case that older people criticise the young for being apathetic," said Dr Scala. "I think they get a bad rap. It's also the case that young people are not stakeholders in American society as early as they used to be. Young people don't own their first house, might not get married and might not have kids until they're in their late twenties or early thirties. Young adults aren't expected to carry their weight the way they did years ago.

"I have little patience with people who criticise or make fun of young people. That's more than anything else an indication to me that people are getting older."

Dr Schmidt, who was at Columbia University in 1968 when it was a hotbed of radical protest, agreed.

"Vietnam is not a useful benchmark against which to measure student activism," he said. "That student activism was motivated in large part by the fact that students didn't want to go off and get killed." Without a draft, he said, "students have no fear that they're going to be stuck in the war in Iraq, and while they generally don't support it they don't have any fear that they're personally going to have to fight it".


"Acknowledging that our own coming of age was shaped by the Vietnam War and the frenetic, at times violent, political activism that it engendered, we are perhaps more sensitive than later classes to the need for the college to be a center of debate over the moral issues of the time and a home for views contrary to those of established forces, particularly those of governments. To cite the opening line of Bismarck's famous quip, "Whoever is not a socialist at age 20 has no heart."

"It has been our collective understanding that Harvard, as one of the founders of the liberal arts curriculum in American education, is among the first to defend a four-year 'time out' for self-examination and broad intellectual growth versus the careerist, vocational orientation that can be typical of some lesser institutions across the country.

"As contributors to Harvard's many fund-raising appeals over the years, we have taken pride in the university's standing as the best-endowed institution of higher learning in the world, with a reported net worth of $36 billion. We would expect that this wealth frees the university, and certainly the college at its core, from the need to pander to the prevailing political moods in the US and enables it to fulfill its calling as one of the more active participants of the global pluralistic society.

"We are concerned by what we see to be the widespread apathy and political indifference of the student body at Harvard College today. If these were ordinary times, years of peace and prosperity, this would be sad, but forgivable. Given that the US is engaged in an occupation abroad that has inflicted countless thousands of civilian casualties while at the same time trampling on US citizens' own constitutional rights in the name of the 'War on Terror', and that the Administration appears to be planning a further strike in Iran, the apparently docile political behavior of the undergraduate student body suggests that one of two things is seriously amiss - either Harvard College's recruitment criteria and procedures have gone seriously wrong, or undergraduate life at the College today is not giving due encouragement to civic courage and political engagement.

"We earnestly appeal to you to create a task force to investigate this and to recommend possible remedies.

"We would hope that in addition to faculty and present-day students you would invite onto such a task force representatives of the alumni representation from earlier, less laid-back days."

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