Earth On Fire: Challenging active citizenship

Students have long played a key role in the advancement of social and environmental change in our country. Propelled by a desire to transform the world for the better, they have exerted their influence on issues ranging from the proliferation of nuclear weapons to institutionalized segregation. As I prepare to graduate this month, I’ve begun to think more deeply about the ways in which Tufts University treats students seeking to effect positive social change.

Our university prides itself on a commitment to active citizenship. In his 2012 baccalaureate address, President Anthony Monaco implored graduates to “take your active citizenship into the world to make a difference” because “active citizenship and public service are part of our Jumbo DNA.”

And yet, when the undergraduate student body attempts to reform the administration’s treatment of sexual assault victims, improve the working conditions for the custodial staff or increase racial and ethnic diversity on campus, administrators appear more willing to punish the activists than engage in substantive dialogue with them. In the context of the fossil fuel divestment campaign on campus, spearheaded by Tufts Climate Action (TCA), this certainly seems to be the case.

The university’s investments in coal, oil and natural gas companies — totaling up to tens of millions of dollars — constitute a grave moral failure, which TCA seeks to rectify. On the whole, the student body knows this: in a referendum in 2013, 74 percent of undergraduates who voted called on Tufts to divest from fossil fuel companies over a period of five years. But petitions — the aforementioned referendum and direct appeals to the Board of Trustees — yielded nothing more than an analysis of the cost of divestment that was biased against divestment activists from the start, as the administration did not permit an independent review of these costs.

Last year, over 30 students and alumni occupied President Monaco’s office to protest Tufts’ refusal to divest. Although the university lessened the punishment for some students, it placed a number of the activists on disciplinary probation after the sit-in ended. This runs directly counter to its mission to inspire active citizenship among its students.

Powerful groups and institutions rarely, if ever, substantively modify their behavior or actions because activists ask nicely. A cursory analysis of social movements will reveal that boycotts, sit-ins, marches, protests and other demonstrations against the status quo have catalyzed the major changes in society.

In my opinion, active citizenship entails not only voting and attendance at city council meetings but also direct confrontation with powerful societal actors. This became increasingly evident to me at a lecture last month, during which civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis stated that he had been arrested more than 40 times for committing acts of non-violent civil disobedience — including while as a federal representative.

On paper, the administration may value active citizenship. But in practice, it undermines its own professed values.