25 November 2015

Princeton student protests prove Millennials are not disengaged


Today’s young people just can’t catch a break from their disapproving elders. Barely a week goes by without some new study concluding that Millennials are self-absorbed, phone obsessed, and completely politically disengaged.

The tone shifted last week, however, when a group of Princeton students staged a sit-in outside the university president’s office to protest for change. After staying overnight, with many camped in tents outside, President Christopher L. Eisgruber agreed to a discussions about their demands.

Before looking into exactly what those demands were, let’s consider the basic facts. Over 75 students risked being disciplined or even expelled for the sake of effecting change which they believed would make their university a better place. Whether they were asking for lower fees or better cafeteria food, the point is they got off the phones that the mainstream media complains they are glued to, and tried to do something meaningful.

Surprisingly, the critics bemoaning the laziness of Millennials have not been quick to support this demonstration of student activism. Instead, the focus has been on demonising the protesters for what they were demanding, and hand-wringing over their desire to change the atmosphere of their university campus.

The Black Justice League had three main demands when they occupied Nassau Hall. They wanted staff to be trained in cultural competency, to avoid inadvertent racism by faculty members. They wanted a space on campus dedicated to black students. And they wanted to the university administration to acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and rename the buildings dedicated in his honour.

Of these three, it is the latter that has been getting all the attention. Many people seem horrified at the thought of questioning the reputation of Wilson and of making alterations to how his legacy is portrayed at the university. The student protesters have been accused of being “fearful”, of “inventing or exaggerating discriminatory themes”, and of seeking “to be protected from situations that they find difficult”.

These accusations make no sense. To stand up to authority, knowing the risks, because you believe (rightly or wrongly) that something needs to change is not “fearful”. Nor is it seeking protection. In fact, it is actively placing yourself a “difficult situation”, volunteering for a challenge in order to achieve your aim. One cannot look at these students and see them as vulnerable flowers asking to be coddled, when they have explicitly put themselves in the firing line.

As for “inventing or exaggerating discriminatory themes”, there is actually little doubt that Woodrow Wilson was a racist by today’s standards. He fired black federal employees and replaced them with whites. He segregated the federal government, and in 1914 said that “Segregation is not humiliating, but a benefit”. He even defended the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, the Princeton president himself told the students he agreed that Wilson was racist.

Whether or not this racism merits Wilson’s name being removed from campus is another matter. Personally, were I a black student at Princeton, I would feel frustrated by paying considerable fees to a university which honoured a man who believed I did not deserve to be there. (I felt the same way when the last Cambridge college to accept women chose a man dedicated to keeping women out of the Church as its Master.) It is not about asking to be protected, or even about erasing Wilson’s legacy – no one is likely to forget the 28th President of the United States in a hurry. Rather, it is about acknowledging that times have changed, and that continuing to honour Wilson could be seen as either failing to confront his racist views, or tacitly accepting them.

Either way, it’s a conversation worth having. And now that conversation is continuing. A counter protest has been launched, which states:

“That any steps to purge this campus of its Wilsonian legacy creates a dangerous precedent and slippery slope that will be cited by future students who seek to purge the past of those who fail to live up to modern standards of morality.”

For some reason, the students protesting against the original sit-in, who are anxious that renaming the buildings amounts to a “purge”, have not drawn the same criticisms from their elders of being over-sensitive and fearful. These students, who have risked nothing by their petition, are displaying far more fragility by their fear over confronting the less salubrious aspects of Wilson’s history than those who camped overnight outside the president’s office. Yet their efforts have been celebrated.

As for the other demands, a space dedicated to a particular group of students, whether based on race, religion, or just shared interested, does not appear that unreasonable. Diversity training also seems like common sense when you’re dealing with thousands of young people from a variety of backgrounds. More universities should offer it – that way we might avoid tragic situations like a campus policeman shooting an unarmed black man at a traffic stop. It could also have a positive effect on the drop-out rates of African American students – currently the proportion graduating is just 20.8%. And if gender diversity training were included, we might not have to worry about leading leading academics complaining that women in science labs cry all the time and distract men.

And one has to wonder, if the demands of the Black Justice League are really so trivial as to attract condescension, why has there been such outrage at granting them?

This isn’t to say that the Princeton students should automatically be given everything they want. Other students should have a chance to respond (which they have), and there should be a debate. But regardless of whether or not you agree with their point of view, their dedication and passion is to be admired, especially by the Gen-Xers who fret about Millennials’ selfish ways. They are not silly children looking for things to get upset about – in fact, they are defying the predictions their parents’ generation is continuously making about them.

Taking a risk to try to improve university life for future students is the very opposite of apathetic and self-absorbed. And anyone concerned with the political engagement of the next generation should be applauding them.

Rachel Cunliffe is Deputy Editor of CapX.