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Professors Protest as Students Debate By: Kate Zernike
New York Times | Monday, April 07, 2003


It is not easy being an old lefty on campus in this war. At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, awash in antiwar protests in the Vietnam era, a columnist for a student newspaper took a professor to task for canceling classes to protest the war in Iraq, saying the university should reprimand her and refund tuition for the missed periods. Irvine Valley College in Southern California sent faculty members a memo that warned them not to discuss the war unless it was specifically related to the course material.

When professors cried censorship, the administration explained that the request had come from students. Here at Amherst College, many students were vocally annoyed  this semester when 40 professors paraded into the dining hall with antiwar signs. One student confronted a protesting professor and shoved him. Some students here accuse professors of behaving inappropriately, of not knowing their place. "It seems the professors are more vehement  than the students," Jack Morgan, a sophomore, said. "There comes a point when you wonder are you fostering a discussion or are you promoting an opinion you want students to embrace or even parrot?"

Across the country, the war is disclosing role reversals, between professors shaped by Vietnam protests and a more conservative student body traumatized by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Prowar groups have sprung up at Brandeis and Yale and on other campuses. One group at Columbia, where last week an antiwar professor rhetorically called for "a million Mogadishus," is campaigning for the return of R.O.T.C. to Morningside Heights. Even in antiwar bastions like Cambridge, Berkeley and Madison, the protests have been more town than gown. At Berkeley, where Vietnam protesters shouted, "Shut it down!" under clouds of tear gas, Sproul Plaza these days features mostly solo operators who hand out black armbands. The shutdown was in San Francisco, and the crowd was grayer.

All this dismays many professors. "We used to like to offend people," Martha Saxton, a professor of women's studies at Amherst, said as she discussed the faculty protest with students this week. "We loved being bad, in the sense that we were making a statement. Why is there no joy now?"

Certainly not all students are pro-war or all faculty anti. But "there's a much higher percentage of liberal professors than there are liberal students," said Ben Falby, the student who organized the protest at Amherst only to find that it had more professors than students. On campuses like Yale and Berkeley, professors say their colleagues are overwhelmingly against the war. By contrast, students polled by The Yale Daily News are 50-50. Interviews elsewhere find students' attitudes equally fractured. Some are solidly for the war. Some are against it, but not to the point of protest. "Protesting is a niche activity," said Prof. Michael Kazin, co-author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960's." "There are some people who do drama, some people who do protest, other people who drink too much." At Georgetown, where Professor Kazin teaches history, a handful of antiwar students had a sleep-in last weekend on Red Square, named for the color of the bricks, not the political sentiment of those who gather there. Other students expressed disgust, so much that Professor Kazin said to his students that they seemed more upset about the encampment than the war.

He hears similar accounts in academic e-mail chains across the country. One example was a campus protest that drew 40 students, maybe 60. Amherst's history should make it predictably antiwar. The Vietnam protests were so spirited that in 1972 they swept up the college president, John William Ward, who was arrested in a sit-in at nearby Westover Air Force Base. The protest included 1,000 students, 20 faculty members and the president's wife.

Now, the departing president, Tom Gerety, is firmly antiwar, as are most professors. The students, however, have yet to be swept up. Last month, the Progressive Students Association asked the student government to ask the faculty to take 15 minutes in class to discuss the war. The government refused. Some professors chose to take the time anyway, but many did not, having seen the reaction to the dining hall protest. "There was a sense this is a different world," said Austin Sarat, a professor of political science who was active in antiwar protests in 1970 as a graduate student in Madison, Wis. Students opposed to the war say they appreciate the professors' sentiments.

"It's a lonely place to be an antiwar protester on the Amherst campus," said Beatriz Wallace, a junior. In the dining hall, students have set out baskets of ribbons, some yellow, some red, white and blue. Prowar students say they feel just as alienated. "The faculty, and events, has a chilling effect on discussions for the prowar side," said David Chen, a sophomore. In a discussion, Professor Sarat began with the proposition that if you love the United States, you must, as an act of patriotism, oppose the war. Students took exception. "President Bush has taken an imperial position," Professor Sarat insisted. Michael Valentine, a sophomore, replied: "I don't think it's the dominance of the United States. It's the security of the United States that's at issue. They're saying the only way we can ensure the security of our citizens is to go in there." "And to make the Middle East safe for democracy," Professor Sarat interjected. "Professor, that's only because a regime poses a security risk," Mr. Valentine said. Professor Sarat said the change in tone reflected a larger shift.

"The notion that campuses are awash in political correctness," he said, "is given the lie every day in my classroom." Still, he and others expressed wistfulness for days gone by. "In Madison, teach-ins were as common as bratwurst," he said. "There was a certain nobility in being gassed. Now you don't get gassed. You walk into a dining hall and hand out an informational pamphlet." The students' attitudes have many possible explanations. There is no draft this time. Students on small liberal arts campuses like this one are more diverse than those of the 60's and 70's. More receive financial aid, and many are more concerned about their careers than about protesting. But the students have also been pulled toward a more conservative mainstream than their parents.

"The most left president they know is Bill Clinton, running on, `I'm tough on crime,' " Professor Sarat said. "The Great Society is to them what the New Deal was to me." John Lewis Gaddis, a professor of history at Yale, agreed, saying: "These are the kids of Reagan. When I lecture on Reagan, the kids love him. Their parents are horrified and appalled." This generation is also shaped by Sept. 11. When Gary J. Bass, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton, asked his class on "Causes of War" how many students were in R.O.T.C., two raised their hands. The rest applauded. "I had asked the question before Sept. 11 and not gotten that response," Professor Bass said. "I definitely hadn't expected it."

A nationwide survey of freshmen by the University of California at Los Angeles over the last 37 years reflected other shifts from Sept. 11. This year, more students called themselves conservative than in other recent surveys, and 45 percent supported an increase in military spending, more than double the percentage in 1993. At a teach-in at Yale, the president, Richard C. Levin, announced that although he was against the war, the speakers were chosen to represent a range of opinions. At Amherst, Prof. Barry O'Connell, too, tries hard. As he sits in a discussion group with students, he patiently listens to those who argue in favor of the war, even though he remains adamantly against it. Across the hall, a mug shot of Henry A. Kissinger is posted outside his office with the heading "Wanted for Crimes Against Humanity." "My job is not to get my students to agree with me," Professor O'Connell insisted.

Still, he conceded, "There is a second when I hear them, and my heart just falls."




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