Student panelists debate campus activism and engagement

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the rampant political turmoil of the past few years, University of Arizona (UA) professor and Ramapo alum Ted McLoof believes that a culture of healthy debate has greatly suffered. That’s why he began the UA Debate Series, where he currently serves as the executive director. 

“What we’re trying to do is make sure that we’re emphasizing communication, that even when you’re disagreeing with people, that it’s coming from a human place,” he said.

As part of this year’s series about Generation Z, McLoof teamed up with the Ramapo College Honors Program to generate a panel featuring both Ramapo and UA students. The main focus was to compare how activism and engagement differ on large and small campuses.

Angus Johnston, a historian of American student activism and higher education as well as a professor at Hostos Community College, was invited to moderate the discussion. He shared a few thoughts about the role of students on college campuses.

“The campus is much more important in the life of a student than it is in the life of a faculty or administrator… It is also true that students are transient,” he said. “So students are simultaneously the core of the university and ghosts within the university.”

Johnston emphasized how fragile the college campus community can be, especially in terms of student activism, because of how fast the life cycle of a college student is.

“Student power within the university is incredibly hard to build and incredibly easy to break,” he said. “It takes a tremendous amount of energy to build it, but often all you need to do to break it is wait for the students who built it to graduate… because then you’ll be able to get away with stuff.”

The student panelists then joined Johnston on stage to begin the discussion. Representing Ramapo were freshman Sarah Glisson, freshman Bex Rodriguez and sophomore Dominique Walton. Visiting from UA were sophomore Andrew Pongrátz, junior Hunter Gibbs and junior Ananya Singhvi. 

The first topic was on-campus protests. Glisson mentioned the pastor who visited Ramapo’s campus last month and sparked counterprotests from students. She said that she noticed a divide in students’ approaches. Some conversed with the pastor while others yelled at him from afar, which she did not necessarily agree with and believes is what gives campus protests a bad reputation. 

Rodriguez brought up how, at Ramapo, it often feels like students can’t do anything without getting approval from higher-up staff and administrators, including getting posters hung up around campus. 

“They’re really trying to slow down your changes, and they’re trying to make you tired so that at the end of the day, it doesn’t seem like you going through all of this is worth it,” she said.

Pongrátz jumped in to emphasize the difference in process between UA and Ramapo. Because UA has around 45,000 undergraduates compared to Ramapo’s 5,000, there are no requirements for things like getting posters hung up because “it would be a logistical nightmare.” On the flip side, it is much more difficult for UA students to reach a campus-wide audience because of how segmented everything is.

“We really struggle just to get the word out in general when… we’re trying to get people to back an idea,” he said.

This led to a conversation about how COVID has impacted campus life and activism. Pongrátz mentioned how the turnout for UA’s student body president election last year was around 1,000 votes, indicating a larger issue of how much the pandemic affected student engagement not just at UA but on college campuses as a whole.

Walton also shared her experience with protesting in high school, where she joined 10,000 other protestors outside of a government building and how COVID continues to make organizing more difficult. 

“It’s hard to get the government’s attention… through social media or email or something like that, that can be easily just ignored,” she said. 

Throughout the discussion, the panelists also touched on ideas about the entanglement of free speech and hate speech and the underestimation of Gen Z students by older generations.

Johnston wrapped up the event by speaking about the ever-evolving future of student activism. 

“Our job is not to predict the future,” he said. “Our job is to be engaged with the present… Our job is to be a part of what is happening.”

Featured photo courtesy of the Office of Communications and Publications