The rise of the “activersity”

National Post - Tuesday March 1st, 2016

It’s an uphill job, the campus social justice circuit.

It isn’t just a matter of showing up with some signs and megaphones and hollering, maybe disrupting the odd speech with a little horn-blowing or firebell-ringing. It takes organization and passion and energy. Most of all it takes time.

Righteousness can even take a toll on one’s health, it seems. I happened upon a recent article in the Brown University Daily Herald, entitled “Schoolwork, advocacy place strain on student activists.” Here I learned from an undergraduate identified only as David, who confronts issues of racism and diversity on campus, that “There are people breaking down, dropping out of classes and failing classes because of the activism work they are taking on.” David himself is a good example. He confides to the reporter that his commitment to social justice has resulted in dramatically reduced grades, lost weight and a regimen of antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills.

Another student, Justice Gaines, has similar problems. Once, feeling compelled to take part in a protest, xe (sic) “had a panic attack and couldn’t go to class for several days.” What helped Gaines to manage both xyr (sic) schoolwork and activism was deans’ notes deferring assignment deadlines. Usually deans are quite amenable to issuing these notes and professors equally amenable to accepting them. But sometimes – sometimes – they are not.

It was a Thursday, as student Liliana Sampredo remembers it. She had a research presentation that was supposed to be completed that week. But she was also part of a group that was activating for revisions in the university’s “diversity and inclusion action plan.” She felt her activism should take precedence on her schoolwork, so “I remember emailing the professor and begging her to put things off another week.” But the professor denied her request. And so, already exhausted and drained from her work on the revisions to the plan, she forced herself to complete the project by working all night long on it. In my day, “pulling an all-nighter” was a commonplace and nobody felt sorry for the student whose poor planning had necessitated it. But the tone here makes it clear that the reader is supposed to feel that Justice has been hard done by.

Ashley Ferranti, assistant dean of student support services at Brown, shares Justice’s pain. Activism, she says, is an “important part of the academic learning experience.”

To prove it, she goes to the front lines to show Brown students the administration is behind them 100%. Ferranti was proudly present, for example, at a Hillel-sponsored lecture that was protested by Students for Justice in Palestine, in order to offer “emotional support” for the… protesters. So I must amend my statement to say that Ferranti is not behind “students,” exactly. For there were two sets of students at the event she attended: those protesting and those wishing to hear what the (I assume) pro-Israel speaker had to say. Ms Ferranti made a choice to comfort one group and ignore the other group.

Which is rather odd, when you think about it. I have been on the receiving end of mild protest when I have spoken, and it is mildly stressful. I have colleagues who have been on the receiving end of vicious, disruptive and even threatening protest, and it is terribly stressful. In fact, the one consistent thing I have noticed about student protests, mild or harsh, is that those doing the protesting are pretty jazzed and happy, those being protested are tense and anxious. If comfort and emotional support is available from an administrator whose job it is to serve all students, it seems to me that logically, if a choice has to be made, then it should go to those who feel unsafe. Or at least to both sides.

After all, both sets of students are paying the same tuition fees, and Ms Ferranti’s job description, I feel quite sure, does not require her to discriminate amongst students in offering support services. So in fact what she seems to be doing is acting out her own political values under the guise of administrative duty. And that is both unfair to the students under siege who can see that the administration, symbolized by Ms Ferranti, is apparently against them, and ethically wrong. Administration should be neutral in political matters.

Maybe administrators have too much time on their hands. Or maybe there are too many of them and they don’t have enough work to go around. In my day, if students wanted to activate to “Ban the Bomb” (and many students in my cohort did), you did it on your own time. Your studies came first, and you would never get a “dean’s note” for anything less than a doctor-certified illness or your grandmother’s funeral. And there certainly wouldn’t be a member of the administration out there holding your hand when you did activate.

But that’s yesterday’s superannuated model. That was a university. Today Brown is exemplary of the new “activersity,” where militating for social perfection and sharing personal narratives are the main fare on the menu, while knowledge acquisition has become something of a side dish, that you can take or leave as your appetite dictates. Maybe, for truth in advertising, universities should make it clear what they are: universities or activersities. Notes exempting students from assignments for activism reasons make a good bright line. The Brown professor who refused to issue one seems to be the only individual cited in this story who seems to remember what a university is.

The Prince Arthur Herald
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