Is Duke an “activist campus?” Three years ago, I would have replied with skepticism. The Duke I saw was a grade-grubbing, award-chasing, social-climbing campus. It was a place for intellectuals, perhaps, but not activists. Thankfully, I soon met passionate, visionary students who convinced me otherwise. And though some of the petty impressions persist, I’m starting to understand my college experience as an exercise in advocacy.
This week, I found myself inspired again by the persistence of my peers. I am thankful to everyone who worked to eliminate the statute of limitations (SOL) for sexual misconduct reporting. And hard work it was. The SOL was the subject of at least 10 Chronicle pieces this semester alone. Students shared their stories, signed petitions and aggressively posted flyers. They met with faculty and administrators and asked hard questions. They secured the support of DSG and The Chronicle’s Editorial Board, increasing the formality of the demands.
Reform isn’t driven by Facebook likes. Change only occurs if a well-organized group of people brings sustained, concentrated attention to the issue. And as a friend pointed out, this group must confront existing power structures. Any change that entails a political or economic shift—so, almost every challenge to the status quo—amounts to a shift in power.
When that status quo is a Duke policy, students leverage the University’s public image. Much to the administration’s semi-annual dismay, we are an exceptionally newsworthy institution. Each scathing Jezebel article damages the Duke brand, chipping away at the image of respectability carefully crafted in the wake of scandals: lacrosse, Ms. Owens, frat mail, progressives, ad nauseum. Students recognize the University’s sensitivity to media, especially around sexual misconduct. One Duke sophomore involved in lobbying for the SOL change said next steps would have been a large-scale protest, followed by a national wave of negative press. She added that the administration made a smart move by pre-empting any more damaging media attention.
Even apolitical issues need well-organized advocates to shift the balance of power. A case in point is the current issue of mold in Central Campus apartments. Individual students are suffering due to the University’s negligence, but there has been no collective action. To elicit a real response, each Central “house” should compile their list of complaints and flood HDRL’s inboxes. Duke doesn’t want the world to think its students live in filth.
When it comes to University reforms, the student-admin relationship is confusingly love-hate. If Duke genuinely wants to create responsible world citizens and leaders, why does the administration so often spurn our attempts to create change here on campus? Did I come here to learn, or just to fight the institution that is supposed to be teaching me?
To be fair, the administration is not always the bad guy. Sometimes the bad guy is sexism, racism, inertia or just plain ignorance. So we advocate for marginalized voices. Enter the Me Too Monologues, Student Action for Farmworkers and the Center for Race Relations. Sometimes we need to advocate for our own well-being and that of our friends. The new Peer for You network is a great example.
When I look around at my peers, activism starts to emerge as a mainstay of campus culture. How many of us have participated in a campaign, circulated a petition or tabled for a cause during our undergraduate years? Just as important as short-term wins and losses for our various causes are the skills we develop while doing so. We supplement our MMS, women’s studies or environmental science courses by taking action; we practice thinking like entrepreneurs, like activists, like political theorists and policymakers. For budding advocates—broadly defined as those who identify problems, dream of solutions and take action—college is our dress rehearsal.
I reject the use of “idealistic” as a pejorative term. Idealism is used to imply naiveté, “fluffiness” and ignorance of cold hard reality. “The ’60s are over!” screams the prevailing culture. But advocacy isn’t just for radicals or hippies who stand in front of bulldozers. An advocate is anyone who takes strategic action on behalf of someone else, working against an injustice. Undergraduate students may be the most idealistic subset of the population, but through our education we can reconcile idealism with reality. Our professors, mentors and most of our peers can provide lifelong tools for advocacy.
This is the hidden value of the University. It serves as a microcosm of society in all its unequal, bureaucratic glory. You know those well-worn Duke catchphrases—critical thinking, interdisciplinary learning, civic engagement? Those are just different ways of saying that the world is complicated. That the disciplines into which we box ourselves are arbitrary, and cooperation and collaboration are needed to make progress. That we must work together toward the better future that we envision.
Hannah Colton is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Friday. You can follow Hannah on Twitter @ColtonHannah.