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Around Campus
A rich tradition of student activism

Archived article from Oct 18, 2004

By Ashanti M. Alvarez  

Credit: Photo by: Roy Groething
Rutgers has a long history of political
activism. The university made
progressive magazine Mother Jones' list
of the Top Ten Activists Campuses this
year, the third time in the list's
eleven-year history that Rutgers made
the activist grade. Canvasser Sofia
Impellizzeri, an organizer for the Fund
for Public Interest Research.

Once a painter who looked to start his own business, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted Don Curry to join the ranks of Rutgers students who make activism on campus a priority.

“This year is a hot presidential election,” said Curry, a 25-year-old University College student who heads up that school’s governing association and sits on the University Senate. “People feel like they want to make a change … the people here are very active.”

Progressive magazine Mother Jones agrees. That’s why Rutgers made the publication’s list of the Top 10 Activist Campuses this year. Rated number five, it’s the third time in the list’s 11-year history that Rutgers made the activist grade.

Some 600 Rutgers students – which Mother Jones termed “a small army” – made their way to Washington, D.C., in April to join the March for Women’s Lives. Bearing signs such as, “Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries,” it was the largest contingent at the pro-choice rally. “People felt strongly about these issues, especially people our age. I think a lot of men and women at Rutgers realize how close we are to losing the things that we pretty much take for granted,” said 2004 Douglass College graduate Sarah Kelly, who organized the Rutgers faction.

In the past, Mother Jones editors consulted with nonprofit activist groups to rank the schools each year. But in recent years, Tim Dickinson said the magazine has tended to rely on news making activities to form the list. Other frequent list makers have been the University of Michigan, UCLA and the University of Wisconsin.

“These campuses all have a well-earned reputation for being politically active,” said Tim Dickinson, articles editor for Mother Jones. “When you’ve got 50,000 people there’s likely to be a subset doing progressive and interesting things.” In the past, Rutgers made the cut due to its activism in the areas of gay and lesbian rights, opposition of the death penalty, women’s studies and keeping college affordable.

Lauren Michaels, the president of the student chapter of the New Jersey Public Interest Group (NJPIRG), said getting involved on campus offers students a chance to find their own niche. “I think activist organizations give students the opportunity to make the university feel a little bit smaller,” Michaels said. “We have this rap about being an apathetic age group. I think the problem is they don’t reach out to us unless we have a protest and we do a letter writing campaign. You can’t ignore a powerful group.”

Anti-war protests and campus strikes

Rutgers has a long history of activism. Paul Robeson, one of the university’s most famed graduates, became a civil rights activist. As a singer in the 1940s, he refused to sing to segregated audiences. But even staying and excelling at Rutgers was a form of activism for Robeson, who was a student from 1915 to 1919. Groups protested his presence on the university football team. He remained on the football team, despite sometimes harsh physical treatment on the field by white teammates, and went on to become a Cap and Skull member and deliver the valedictorian’s address at commencement.

Student activism flourished in the 1930s when, under the impact of the Great Depression, students became more concerned about college as an institution and its role in the social and political worlds.

In 1957, fraternity men from Alpha Gamma Rho attended a demonstration in Trenton protesting financial cutbacks. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, anti-war protests around campus flourished. In 1970, student protesters took over the Old Queens building for two days, hanging banners from its windows. The protest ended peacefully. In the 1980s, students protested over the merging of New Brunswick faculties into the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. That same decade, students at Rutgers, like many colleges and universities, launched protests urging Rutgers to divest all holdings in companies doing business with apartheid state South Africa. On April 12, 1985, students chained the doors of the College Avenue Student Center and conducted a monthlong takeover of the university. Scores of students camped outside the building and several launched a hunger strike. Later that year, the university voted to completely divest from South Africa.


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