Faculty and administration need to support student activism

Josh Groven, Contributing Writer

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Activism is seemingly close to Macalester’s heart. The walls of the Ruth Stricker Dayton Campus Center and pages in promotional materials celebrate activists. Numerous student organizations lead outings to marches and protests across the state and Macalester seems to rejoice in the process. However, the student perspective towards activism is different than the administration’s and faculty’s. Many still look down upon missing class for activism as “skipping class,” and the administration is hesitant to truly support student activism on or off campus. I believe there’s a disconnect between the ideal of the “activist” that Macalester promotes and allowing students to do the actual work needed for impactful change.

Although I’m only a first-year at Macalester, I’ve already seen the pressure of academics squash activist participation. In the first few months of fall semester there were multiple climate marches, protests for gun control and on-campus organizations for fossil fuel divestment. As I, and other students, weighed whether or not to attend these events, we didn’t waver in support of the issues, but felt anxious about missing class. When asking faculty for advice or permission the large majority provided no encouragement, but instead implied the negative effects missing class would have on grades, participation scores and our education. A clear distinction has been drawn between “academics” and “activism,” one that varies starkly from Macalester’s promotion of activism as part of college life.

Macalester’s administration hasn’t historically supported activism either. Stubborness in the face of Fossil Free Mac (FFM) and Proud Indigenous People for Education (PIPE) efforts to move the college in an ethical direction display administration’s grip on the status quo. In 2013, the administration went so far as to punish activists demanding the college stop economic affiliations with Wells Fargo in light of the bank’s infamous home foreclosures and shady policies. Students barricaded the entrance to Weyerhaeuser for three days, but the students were ultimately disbanded and given varying degrees of academic punishments. The following summer Macalester actually increased financial relations with Wells Fargo and still uses the bank seven years later.

Despite all this, I do want to emphasize that this is not a blanket statement. While professors voice support for these movements, many do not actually support students’ involvement in them. Conversely, some encourage it — like one professor last semester who cancelled class for students to attend the climate march. Though faculty and staff reactions vary widely, there is still a persistent negative attitude towards activism in opposition to academics.

Coming to college, especially somewhere like Macalester, I expected the staff’s attitude towards activism to be different from high school. In my senior year, friends and I organized multiple walk-outs and sit-ins for reasonable gun control. Despite these events advocating quite literally for student survival, increasing participation was difficult. Getting people to attend was always an emotional process that required eliminating abstract guilt created by administration. Again, students’ main concern was fear of missing class. Even when there weren’t looming tests or presentations, students simply feared upsetting their teachers and creating a bad impression. Unfortunately, here at Macalester, I see the same stigma.

The central tension is a dichotomy between “education” and “activism.” The Macalester faculty and administration support activism, but only when it’s convenient. However, “convenient activism” is almost an oxymoron. Disrupting norms and regularity is a central activist tactic used to draw attention to marginalized social problems. This attempt to water down the reality of activism succeeds by convincing students and staff that student activism is zero-sum. Either you are a “good student” and inactive or you are a “bad student” but a more involved activist. The FFM “study-in” was an attempt to break down these distinctions but that type of generous branding shouldn’t be necessary.

It is the responsibility of educators and educational administration to promote activism as an important part of student learning. It is the most involved form of “hands-on” education. Macalester loves to promote “community engagement,” but staff and faculty still distinguish between campus-supported events like class field trips from marches, protests and gatherings  where the entire purpose is to engage community. Roderick Ferguson, professor of American studies and gender and sexuality studies at the University of Illinois argues in his book “We Demand” that “it is time we begin to see student protests not simply as disruptions… or inconveniences” but as “intellectual and political moments in their own right.” This mindset can help us see student movements as activities that can be just as intellectually, politically and socially engaging as an hour of class.

So, what should Macalester do? First, it’s important to emphasize this isn’t an issue we’re facing alone. Other Minnesota schools have reacted in more meaningful ways. In a Dec. 12 issue of the University of Minnesota Daily, philosophy professor Michelle Bizri wrote that “we owe a debt of gratitude to the students… who marched to [demand] that the University take effective action in mitigating the devastating effects of the fossil fuel industry.” She argued that simply because these students are protesting without sanctioned permission from the university doesn’t mean they should be viewed as oppositional. Instead, student activists should be seen as propping up the values of progressive colleges — like Macalester. The University of St. Thomas grapples with this issue by having a major for justice and peace studies that trains students to be activists. Their classes promote student participation in local activist movements instead of viewing them as mutually exclusive activities. Macalester faculty should heed these encouraging words and actions and emulate the same support of student activism.

Another potential action Macalester could take is faculty adopting absence policies allowing for student activism. Class attendance policy varies a lot among professors, but generally there’s an expectation that you should only miss class for a “valid” reason. These “valid” reasons usually require some kind of tragedy or injury to justify an absence. Understandably, these explanations ask that you attend class if you are in good health and capable of doing so. This reasoning, however, ignores the fact that many of these protests are fighting to quite literally preserve life. The Climate March, March for our Lives and Black Lives Matter are all organizations grappling with existential and social problems that have and will result in the deaths of students. Students who miss class to attend those groups’ events or similar rallies are fighting for their ability to live.

This, along with professors’ responsibilities to allow students’ intellectual growth, should promote faculty’s allowance of student absences for activism. There’s also the fact that faculty can, and will, change schedules for holidays, weather and school events, indicating that flexibility is an option. A few class periods can be sacrificed for the student body to take part in massive and historic movements.

I’ll be the first to admit that there is, of course, room for these allowances to be abused. Yet, when there are many classrooms half full on days of protest and FFM, PIPE and Students Demand Action can grow the student infrastructures they do, there’s a clear sign that activism is drawing in the majority of the student body. Opening the door for those who are already active and those who are hesitant due to academic pressure would only further this positive community action.

Macalester students want to be activists. They fight in opposition to Macalester’s flaws and fight alongside Macalester’s best values, but faculty and administration feel no need to support them. It’s time for campus officials to voice their support for student activists and become part of the movement.

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