Where’s the outrage

The elephant in the room

Andrew Breland

Over the last two week, eight different professors have approached me about student issues on campus. Academics, growing up in the protest-philic 1960s, expect students to be involved and engaged with the campus environment and issues that directly affect the university. Specifically, I have been asked about student opinions on housing, grades, food, apathy, cost of education and an unresponsive administration. The first among these conversations triggered my column last week. The mass of the rest happily end the year for me with a single question: Where’s the outrage?

The professors who approached me each asked some variation of the question, “Where’s the student response?” In the face of rising tuition costs, housing shortages and an administration increasingly resistant to student complaints, it appears students seem to have retreated into the shadows, permitting the administration to reign unfettered by complaints and student protest.

Student disengagement and uninvolvement is not a new thing though. In 2007, columnist Rick Perlstein wrote an essay for the New York Times Magazine where he attacked college student apathy. Recounting a conversation with University of Chicago students, Perlstein recalled the traditional college experience: “bucolic images of a mystic world apart, where 18-year-olds discover themselves for the first time in a heady atmosphere of cultural and intellectual tumult.” But then the students he spoke with, whom he calls radicals, describe their wonder aloud, “how long the admissions office thought it could get away with [their façade] before students started complaining they’d been swindled.”

The image Perlstein projects is one where college students are promised intellectual engagement and diversity, but instead are subjected to monotonous, backbreaking work that prevents all opportunity for student opinions and action. It’s not exactly the same scenario, but this argument is not exactly novel either.

Our university and our situation put us in a unique position to examine student apathy though. This year, I have published articles on housing, greek life, the library, SAGES and intellectual diversity on our campus. Other authors in this paper have examined similar issues, adding notably: admissions diversity, international students, sexual violence and administrative unresponsiveness. But none of these issues have promoted student response or outrage.

Beyond issues right here on our own campus, Case Western Reserve University is central to nationwide conversations on academic freedom, sexual harassment prevention and admissions. President Barbara R. Snyder emailed all of campus over Winter Break detailing the university’s hard and fast response to a proposed academic boycott of Israel. In response to a Department of Education directive, the university has sponsored talks and become a hotbed of debate over new sexual harassment definitions and requirements. Just this week, affirmative action has become a nationwide issue again. Each of these issues is something students could be involved in protesting. A quick Google search of any of them brings details that would stir even the most complacent souls. But student are not involved.

The problem extends beyond simply the academic too. In class this week, a professor posited “How many students on this campus know what’s going on in Ukraine?” Her answer: “I don’t think there are very many.” The largest human rights and geopolitical conflict of the last century has attracted hardly any attention at a top-40 research university.

It’s hardly a novel statement among students when you say that students at CWRU are apathetic and don’t care about issues other than their homework. That’s a statement you hear often among the student body. That being said, a statement students hear as normal, professors deride as hilarity.

This year, I have had the great privilege of talking to professors across disciplines in the university. I have spoken with administrators about their plans for CWRU. In all of these interactions, I have too often felt that students are less engaged than the adults running the institution.

To some extent, this makes sense. Administrators are paid to manage the university as a business. But as students, CWRU will follow us for the rest of our lives. Our resumes, CVs and experience will be forever influenced by our experience at school. What happens during your four years at school will forever matter. It makes more sense to influence and craft a college experience than to simply go along with the status quo.

Or maybe this column will fall on deaf ears. Maybe, this will be a self-fulfilled prophecy and the apathetic CWRU students will continue their apathy by ignoring calls to action and continuing in a life of monotony. Hopefully, that will be false. Hopefully this serves as a wakeup call to students who want to get involved or change things—because you can.

This is not to say there are not students who actively try to change campus, who actively try to shape their college experience. Too often, these people are attacked as annoying gadflies who are there to pad their resumes. While this accusation may have some truth to it, I honestly believe that those individuals who try to better the community are doing so for selfless reasons. Those people just are not the campus majority.

Andrew Breland is a double major in political science and English, vice president of the Phi Alpha Delta Pre-Law Fraternity and former chair of the Case Western Reserve Constitution Day Committee.