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September 02, 2003 - Image 27

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The Michigan Daily, 2003-09-02

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The Michigan Daily - New Student Edition - Fall 2003 - 5B

Radical chic and the state of student activism
ZAC PESKOWITZ THE LOWER FREQUENCIES

SAM BUTLER TH1E SOAPBOX

F

April17, 1969 -
The American
Council on Educa-
tion publishes its "Declara-
tion on Campus Unrest"
criticizing student activists
as "a minute group of
. destroyers who have aban-
$doned hope in today's soci-
ety, in today's university
and in the processes of orderly discussion and
negotiation to secure significant change." Uni-
versity President Robben Fleming and the heads
of 19 other major institutions sign the document,
creating one of the most scathing and coordinat-
ed attacks on campus activism to date. In the
next several months President Fleming's rela-
tionship with activists will become increasing-
ly antagonistic as activists stage massive
demonstrations over the failure of the Univer-
sity Board of Regents to implement a student-
run discount bookstore and the ROTC's
presence at the University.
Juxtapose that image with one of the latest
pieces of University propaganda coming out of
the Office of the President. In a welcome video,
available at http://www.umich.edu/pres/welcome-
rm.html, University President Mary Sue Coleman
urges new students to take part in the University's
storied history of activism.
"Whatever way you decide to contribute, you
will be carrying on one of the great Michigan tra-
ditions - the tradition of student activism."
Within approximately 30 years, student
activism has been attenuated from a force that

gripped the hearts of the University administra-
tion with fear to a force so powerless that the
administration is now able to cheerlead for its
resurgence without caution.
Either Coleman and her scriptwriters are vic-
tims of stupefying naivete, who believe student
activism will mesh with their interests or they are
evil geniuses, prepared to exploit one of the Uni-
versity's untapped sources of possible prestige.
It's easy to imagine future brochures appealing to
the sentimentalities of the echo boomers.
Right next to the seating capacity of Michi-
gan Stadium and the average starting salary of a
B-School graduate, envision an infographic on
the history of Students for a Democratic Society
and Ann Arbor's radical past. Color sidebars
giving wide-eyed high schoolers the possibility
of becoming the next Tom Hayden, starting the
revolution, ending oppression, etc., etc. The
crass subtext of Coleman's message is that the
spirit of student activism is a commodity to gen-
erate excitement, a sense of involvement and the
feeling of community. In this world, student
activism exists for its own ends and is praised
by society as a trendy good.
Coleman's little welcome video illumi-
nates the crisis at the center of student
activism. Why do students become activists?
Are their motivations often misguided? Prof.
Donald Kagan of Yale and others have criti-
cized many activists as the children of the
privileged who seek an escape from the
banality of their lives with the sound and fury
of sit-ins, protests and marches.
As students at this University have occasion-

ally shown, Kagan's vision of activism as deca-
dent escape fails to recognize the real good arises
from their work. However, the criticisms of the
culture warriors remain relevant. Activism, of
both the left and right, is often corrupted by indi-
vidual motives, At the University it can be a
means for students to stand out from their peers
and achieve a semblance of recognition in an
often faceless environment. In its current state,
activism has the difficult task of rooting out the
glorymongers in its ranks and rejecting any per-
ception that activism is stylish. The indulgent
tendencies of student activism provide activism's
critics with their most potent ammunition and
encourage individuals with questionable goals to
devote their existences tQ goal X. The worst
excesses of student activism on campuses can be
attributed to these conditions.
This academic year will give University
students the opportunity to show Coleman
wrong. Students can combat the University on
the vital, but unglamorous, work of disman-
tling the Statement of Student Rights and
Responsibilities, formerly the Code of Student
Conduct. Drafting position papers, arguing
over clauses in the Code or attending Michi-
gan Student Assembly meetings will never be
as invigorating as a siege of the Fleming
Administration Building, but these are the
necessities that will propel students' efforts to
success. It's time to embrace the pedestrian,
the tedious and the drudging.

- r"$i' 2/77711t~ .
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Peskowitz can be reached
at zpeskowi@umich.edu.

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