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April 17, 2024

Student Activism (or Lack Thereof) at Hopkins

By MICHAEL GLENWICK | February 19, 2009

As one of the co-chairs of the Foreign Affairs Symposium, I am fortunate enough to have the opportunity to spend some extra time with our internationally renowned speakers before and after our events. A few weeks ago, I walked our first keynote speaker, Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the Jordanian Ambassador to the United States and a Hopkins alum, to his car, and we discussed a number of different topics. From the United Nations to the war in Iraq (and everywhere in between), the Ambassador had something to say, and my fellow co-chairs and I were happy to listen.

But then, all of a sudden, we passed Garland Hall, and the topic changed. "Is that still the admissions building?" Prince Zeid asked us. "No," we responded. "The admissions building is a new building on that new quad behind Garland." Because Garland wasn't that old when the ambassador was a student here, he was surprised by the site change.

However, that was not the only change Hopkins has undergone in the past 20 years. As we continued walking, the ambassador continued to talk about Garland and how, in October 1986 - his senior year here - a number of Hopkins students staged a sit-in for nine days inside the then-admissions building, protesting the University's investments in companies doing business in apartheid-ruled South Africa. He asked us if that sort of thing - that energy, that excitement regarding political events and Hopkins's role in them - still existed. The answer, we said, was no.

Can you even imagine Hopkins students taking over a University building for nine straight days to protest a school policy, a political ideology . . . anything? Would we even dare risk expulsion or arrest as did both students and professors back in 1986? Is there anything that would get us out of the library on a school night and onto the lower quad to build a mock shantytown, as did Hopkins students on not one but two occasions in that same year?

Maybe the University's investment in an apartheid government was the sort of extreme situation that could galvanize a bunch of college students, and we just don't have those sorts of issues hovering over our campus today. But that should not be an excuse for the overall apathy that persists on this campus.

This is not to say that there aren't politically active and aware student groups and individuals on campus. We have the College Democrats and Republicans, and there are other student-run organizations that focus on socially aware community service (like Tutorial Project or Project Health) or specific causes (like STAND, whose goal is to end the genocide in Darfur).

But how far will any of these groups go to protest a policy or event? A few years ago, when I was a freshman in STAND, we discussed the possibility of replicating the 1986 shantytown to raise awareness of our University's possible investments in a government sponsoring genocide. In the end, however, we decided not to do it. I'm not exactly sure why, but, as much as we cared about the issue, maybe we just weren't ready to put our criminal records (or, God forbid, our transcripts) on the line.

Why was 1986 different? Maybe it was the kids, the specific issue or maybe just the general historical context that triggered such a powerful movement. The kids in '86 faced the same career challenges as we do today - they understood the risks they took when they camped illegally on the lower quad or invaded Garland for nine straight days - but something was different back then.

Prince Zeid sounded understandably disappointed when we told him that the sort of activism he knew during his four years at Hopkins no longer existed here. Neither my fellow co-chairs nor I could give the ambassador - a Hopkins alum who has dedicated his life to public service and humanitarian work - a good excuse for our relative apathy.

Hopkins students are smart, and for the most part, we care about the big issues of the day. But when it all comes down to it, maybe we just don't care enough to put those issues ahead of our own, mostly selfish needs.

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