The de-evolution of activism on our campus
By Adam Polaski
Passionate students report to class with instruments in tow, ready to learn the intricacies of composing and performing music. Their professors stress that they should develop habits of extensive rehearsal, viewing music as their priority and everything else as a distraction from practice. As classes end, the students return to their single-gender dorms, as visiting the dorms of members of the opposite sex is not allowed. The surrounding county is deeply devoted to the Republican Party, having voted overwhelmingly so in every election from 1920 to 1960.
This is life at Ithaca College in the 1960s. Then, the school was still linked to its foundations as a tiny, focused conservatory. Professors often encouraged students to give priority to their musical disciplines over their other curriculum. For this reason, undergraduates were generally apathetic about extra-curriculars, especially student government.
Now, Ithaca College is as highly regarded for its communications, physical therapy and advanced liberal arts programs as it is for its music curriculum. The student body takes advantage of the multitude of extra-curricular activities available. Males and females live in the same residence halls.
The most glaring difference from Ithaca in the ’60s may be that the town is one of the most pro-Democrat small cities in the United States. Although the town did not start voting strictly Democrat until the 1984 election, it is interesting to see that while the town voted nearly 80% Republican in the 1956 election (previous years had similar results), it voted only 54% Republican in 1968. In the most recent election, Ithaca voted 60% Democrat.
1968 was the pinnacle year in this radical transition of the college’s ideologies and policies. Stimulated by national and world events, students attempted to become the agents of social change, pushing for political discussion, greater student involvement in college governance and fair representation of all races.
Perhaps the most important catalyst for Ithaca students’ passion in national concerns was the Vietnam War. At the start of the US’ involvement in the conflict, many students were supportive, developing committees that backed President Johnson’s policies regarding Southeast Asia.
However, when the topic of the institution of the draft was popularized, students were motivated to research the conflict. Soon, a majority sect at Ithaca College reacted with outrage that they would be potentially drafted for what they viewed as an unnecessary, unwinnable war even though they did not have the right to vote, as the voting age in ’68 was 21. The issue came to a head in April when students initiated the college’s first-ever political demonstration, which focused on opposing the draft. As the general population of Ithaca became more progressive, so did the students; their decision to become politically active has affected where the college is today. A large number of school-sponsored organizations, including Students for a Just Peace and IC Feminists, deal with social and political activism just as ’68 students did.
Despite the fact that students have this freedom, few exercise this option; clubs focused on activism and awareness of global issues rarely boast large memberships. The IC chapter of STAND, one of the largest activism groups on campus, includes about 15 regular members. More popular extra-curricular groups are those dealing with well-known service organizations, such as Colleges Against Cancer and Habitat for Humanity, which each involve over 50 regularly contributing members. It appears that although the students of ’68 made participation in political activism possible, their efforts are perpetuated by only a small percentage of IC’s current population.
The interest in the politics of the Vietnam War is largely the reason that Ithaca students started paying greater attention to the administrative efforts of the college. A group of undergraduates actively sought to contribute their own ideas to the institution of campus governance, and ’68 saw the first real results emerge from student participation efforts. In the spring, several students published the “10 Points,” a list that they described as a method of “suggesting to one another ways in which Ithaca College can become a stimulating educational center.”
The list of requests includes the formation of a campus life committee, the appointment of student representatives to share their opinions with administration about curriculum and teaching methods, and permission for Ithaca students and the press to attend staff and board meetings. In 1969 the student body president urged his peers to push for these changes, writing in The Ithacan, “There can be no denial that the role of the modern student is to help reconstruct American education and by so doing reconstruct America.” By now, in 2008, all of the 10 Points have been realized. The school is headed by a prominent Student Government Association, which seeks to improve student life and serve as a liaison between the student body and the administration. Still, involvement in SGA is underwhelming, with only seven freshmen running for four senator positions this year and few members of the student body understanding the purpose of the association. This suggests that the foundation for student self-government set in ’68 has remained stagnant, failing to evolve into a more influential presence on campus.
The issue of racial equality gained immediate attention from Ithaca students after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 of the year. After MLK’s death the campus sought to correct racial inequalities. At the time less than 20 black students attended IC. A devoted group of student activists demanded that the school admit more minority students, hire several black teachers, create an Office of Black Affairs and offer a broader range of courses on black history and culture.
In recent years, IC has worked vigorously to build a reputation as a diverse institution that provides a “global perspective” to students. These efforts include the now-prominent MLK Scholarship Program for minority students, a range of classes on multiculturalism and the unique “Housing Offering a Multicultural Experience” living community.
Although Ithaca pushed hard for greater minority representation, minority students constitute only 9% of IC’s total population. This number is well below the national demographics, which are reported at about 32%. This lack of results begs the question of whether Ithaca’s efforts to foster racial diversity are working at all. IC is clearly still a predominantly white college.
Students and staff members at IC began initiatives for change in these areas 40 years ago and have been consistently attempting to strengthen the school. However, it is inaccurate to say that Ithaca has undergone drastic changes. A fraction of the student body engages in political activism, only a small population expresses any interest in contributing to self-government, and the lack of racial diversity remains an accurate punch line.
Even 40 years after these monumental issues gained attention, the school’s efforts are not reflected in the current climate of the institution. It is almost as if the passion associated with correcting these on-campus issues from the sixties has died out, leaving the few who are still concerned left with unwieldy problems. The lack of participation in clubs and government and overwhelming sameness of the school’s demographics bring up a vital question: how much has Ithaca College progressed from the Ithaca Conservatory of Music it originally was?
Adam Polaski is a freshman journalism major. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.