The Evolution of Activism at UB
University of Buffalo Students
By Sullivan Cousins
Unigo Campus Rep at SUNY at Buffalo
The north campus dormitories at the University at Buffalo were built in the 1970’s during a time of massive social and political change. There were riots in the streets of the crumbling industrial centers all across the Northeast. The riots carried over from the smoldering streets into the once protected and pristine college campuses. Students, frustrated with corrupt government, the quagmire in Vietnam, and a faltering economy began to assemble into what turned into angry and sometimes violent demonstrations. In Buffalo, a city fraught with racial tension and a growing unemployment rate, the University officials were scared.
Their students, like students all across the country, were standing up to their once unquestioned authority by staging sit-ins, academic strikes, and clashing with the police. Robert L. Ketter, president of the university at the time, knew he had to take preventive measures. He ordered the construction of the Ellicott complex, which, according to the UB website is “A 38-building mega-structure (with) serpentine-like corridors and an overall mirror like similarity.” The purpose of this design was crowd control. The thin winding terrace, the divided and locked quadrangles, and the overall claustrophobic feel to the place, all helped the Buffalo authorities stop the demonstrations.
Now, over thirty years later, the Buffalo campus is once again pristine. It is as calm as Lake LaSalle- the man made pond just south of the Ellicott Complex. There are no longer any demonstrations that lead to violent clashes with the police and property destruction. No longer will one see a large group of students sitting in to disrupt the everyday functions of the University staff. No longer is it feasible to organize the student body into a strike against an unfair policy ordered down from the President.
The environment is now peaceful, open, and conducive to the joys of academic or athletic pursuit. The campus is almost at the polar opposite of the calamitous days of the 1970’s. But, the question is: are the current students of UB less political then their aggressive forefathers? The answer may be surprising.
Jessica Hale, a junior fine arts major, said that demonstrations and strikes are the methods of the past. The new methods are quieter and more difficult to spot. “I think that we’re just at a higher level now. Our discourse is at a higher level.” According to Hale, there is a good deal of indifference with some students, “But you find pockets of us who really think these things through.”
The political climate is felt in the cafes and bars on Elmwood Avenue and Allen Street. It is felt in the meetings of the student clubs, at the talks given at the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, and in the research done by the students and professors.
The leader of the non-partisan UB freethinkers, John Kapitany, disagrees. He feels that UB students are less political now. “The general populace at UB … is apathetic and disinterested in any activism, especially in politics,” he said. He sees the students at UB as being more liberal than conservative, but more interested in their own personal academic and social lives than political issues (He would also like to stress that his opinions are not representative of the group he is president of).
Sean Francis, former member of the UB College Democrats said, “Apathy is something that is definitely a problem here. But I think with the election, with Barak Obama running, were starting to see a change in that. We’re starting to get more interested people checking out our club. Even though they don’t show up most of the time, the interest is there.”
Munroe Eagles, Professor of Political Science, agrees with Francis. Regarding elections influence on the student body, he said, “I think the current presidential campaign has succeeded in engaging young people like none I have experienced before. UB students seem to be responding to the candidates and carefully assessing the record of the past administration. As a result, I look forward to a higher level of voting turnout among college students than we have seen in recent memory.”
The election is an important issue for UB students. Outside of their weekly meetings, the College Democrats attempt to mobilize voters, but not student voters. In a predominately Democratic state, and at a school with a predominately liberal student body, Francis feels that mobilizing New Yorkers might be a wasted effort. So, “(they) decided to take week-end bus trips to Pennsylvania, to talk to the swing voters.” They do, however, leave voter registration cards at the circulation desks in the libraries for anyone who wants one.
It makes sense, with the electoral system in place here in the US, to only focus attention on the heavily populated swing states; but it leaves the campus without a political face. However, it might be the case that the school does not need a political face. If the point of activism is to influence the institution you are concerned with, would it not be in your best interest to do that thing that will best help you to influence that institution? Sean Francis certainly thinks so.
Despite the lack of any visible political fervor - and, as some say, the presence of visible apathy - there is definitely an underground political energy at the University of Buffalo. It is not as exiting to watch as the UB students of the 1970s, but it is alive and well.