Taking The Bait: Spanier Successfully Misdirects Activists

After President Graham Spanier’s provocative column published last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “Is Student Activism Dead…Or Just Misguided?” students from niche groups on campus have banded together to prove…what?

For those tuned in to campus politics at Penn State, there’s no shortage of headlines on the activities of campus activists like the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and Student Labor Action Project (SLAP). They’ve dominated headlines over the past two years protesting university apparel produced in foreign manufacturing plants.

Yet, despite activists like these and many others at Penn State, quite a few of these students apparently felt as if they had something to prove to Mr. Spanier after reading his column. This confirmed the fears of many: that these students don’t necessarily maintain a coherent long term agenda, but are, in fact, reactionaries.

Safeguard Old State has long applauded student engagement in virtually any form at our university, but it’s profoundly disheartening to read of the recent creation of the bizarre “Progressive Students’ Alliance,” or PSA. The PSA was formed in direct response to Mr. Spanier’s column condemning what he called “misguided” activism.

While the intent behind the PSA is surely noble, we at Safeguard Old State cannot help but fear that our student colleagues are falling into a well conceived trap. Mr. Spanier’s interests have so far been very nicely served by a core group of student activists who focus on “big picture” issues — things like sweatshop labor, foreign wars, federal laws, etc.

So, while these students now rally under a banner of “progressivism” in reaction to Mr. Spanier, a whole host of vitally important issues that directly impact the lives of Penn Staters goes ignored and unexamined.

Fighting for federal laws and the end of sweatshop labor is surely honorable, but as many student have dedicated themselves to these fights, the live of the undergraduate at Penn State has become, ironically “progressively” worse.

So, Mr. Spanier is well served by the formation of the PSA and the rallying of ever more niche special interests dedicated to issues far outside of our Happy Valley.

The more students who rally outside Old Main and the Allen Street Gates for an end to genocide and sweatshops, the fewer students who are challenging Mr. Spanier on his tuition hikes, admission policies, housing programs, construction plans and spending binges.

If the student activists across campus would not only focus on the big picture goals of ending foreign entanglements and sweatshop labor, but also fighting for a stronger student voice and more indepedent faculty, perhaps we would no longer face standard tuition increases between 5-8 percent annually.

Indeed, if the goal is to protest the policies of the administration, it’s time Penn State activists considered bringing things back to basics, because so long as we focus solely on sweatshops rather than student empowerment, and rallies meant to embarrass Mr. Spanier rather than substantative dialog and action, things will just get worse for everyone.

And the only person smiling will be Mr. Spanier, because we forgot to put our own town before our politics — we took the bait.