For nearly a century, student activism has been a hallmark of the college experience for many — and Penn’s campus is no exception.
It’s hard not to feel strongly whenever Penn’s administration implements a controversial new rule or mandate. Most students have an opinion, and there is often backlash.
But resistance comes in many forms. Signing a petition is different from debating a hot topic with friends, which is different from angry reacting on Facebook on a news article. Emailing Amy Gutmann is different from attending a protest, which is different than leading said protest.
We are a part of a generation that values social media activism. But often, this isn’t enough to make the change we need on campus.
On Aug. 23, 2018, The Daily Pennsylvanian published The Wharton School’s decision to change Huntsman Hall’s previously 24-hour operations, describing the new policy to close the building at 2 a.m. Wharton Dean Geoffrey Garrett described the change as part of an effort to improve mental wellness on campus.
The decision received immediate and strong backlash from students. Nearly 600 people reacted to The Daily Pennsylvanian's article on Facebook, over 250 comments were made, and the post was shared over 40 times. The reactions and comments were overwhelmingly negative. Within hours, students created a petition to reverse the decision.
Two weeks later, after classes had begun, students scheduled a sit-in to protest the new closing time. You may remember the headline: “More than 300 marked 'going' to the Huntsman Hall protest on Facebook. Eight showed up.”
Huntsman Hall currently closes at 2 a.m.
In 1989, Wharton tried to change Steiny-D's hours in a similar move. But after a multi-day sit-in by students, the decision was reversed — as a direct result of the protests.
The two situations aren’t directly comparable. The motives behind the decisions were different. They were made by two different administrations. And the two protests happened 29 years apart.
But our current era allows us to much easily become “slacktivists” — low-effort, often social media-based messengers of change. It’s much easier to retweet something you agree with than participate in a march.
We need to remember that hands-on activism is effective. It has the power to raise awareness about certain issues in a tangible way that is hard for administrative figures to ignore.
In the past few weeks alone, there have been multiple attempts to lobby the administration to make changes.
On Feb. 26, 15 student groups held an open forum in solidarity with Penn Hillel's Falk Dining Commons workers after Penn canceled their traditional Black History Month event. Five days earlier, members of Asian Pacific Student Coalition, Penn Association for Gender Equity, and Spice Collective covered Penn's LOVE statue with notes describing the experiences of Asian-American women, specifically as they relate to fetishization.
Undergraduate Assembly members are currently lobbying to bring on-site Counseling and Psychological Services clinicians to the College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Nursing, and the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Since the beginning of the semester, leaders of the 6B have been meeting with Penn administration to petition for more space on campus beyond ARCH basement — and progress appears to be coming.
And this is just what has been reported on in the immediate past — student groups across campus are constantly working to make change. Fossil Free Penn is making a new, focused, proposal to get the University to divest from coal and tar sands, and Penn’s IFC and PHC leaders are directly challenging Penn’s new sophomore on-campus housing rule.
Influencing or reversing a policy made by the administration may seem like an impossible task, but it has certainly been done before. We must continue to advocate for the change we want through hands-on activism.
Numerous protests about the lack of adequate mental health resources on campus and Penn’s stressful academic culture prompted the University to repeatedly increase CAPS’ funding and make a clear commitment to campus-wide mental wellness — participating in two Campus Conversations surrounding mental health, in the fall of 2017 and spring of 2018.
After consistent student and faculty-led efforts to preserve the Asian American Studies Program at Penn, an interim director was hired in the spring of 2018 and a full-time ASAM lecturer was hired in the fall.
This being said, “slacktivism” isn’t necessarily bad: social media is a powerful and necessary tool in activist efforts. Keep changing your profile picture template, and sharing and commenting on articles that are important to you and you think should be read by others. But understand that there is more to be done.
Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.