Would Marist March? A Detailed History of Activism, Apathy and Political Dialogue at Marist
College campuses reserve a pivotal place in history as hotbeds of political activism. In 2019, with partisanship at its highest level in decades, that history should still hold true.
But at Marist — one wouldn’t be so sure.
Vietnam War protests infamously devolved into violence at Kent State University in 1970. Students at the University of California, Davis joined the Occupy Wall Street movement with their own demonstration in 2011 (and endured pepper spray from police as a result). Anti-Trump marches pervaded campuses from the University of Texas to Ohio State University in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
Marist College does not lack history of political expression. The campus currently retains two active partisan clubs, the Marist College Republicans and Marist College Democrats, which strive to engage students in political discussion and activism.
Yet the two club presidents, though overtly disparate their political ideologies, concur that they find the current population of Marist students notably apathetic.
“I’ve really tried to get college students out canvassing and out doing local events as a way to connect them to the community, and I’ve gotten very frustrated with that,” Pratt said. “I’ve become disillusioned with that because every year I try to do things like that on campus, and it’s just a hard sell.”
Nationwide, college students represent a particularly sought-after, yet historically unresponsive, demographic. Less than 20 percent of 18- to 29-year olds voted in the 2014 election, marking a 40-year low, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). CIRCLE reported an increase in the most recent midterm elections with an estimated 31 percent youth turnout, but evidently a substantial majority still do not feel compelled to exercise their vote.
An Action Plan
The club presidents’ perceptions about student political involvement could be substantiated or refuted in the coming months. Marist is now a participating campus in a student engagement initiative of the Institute for Democracy & Higher Education at Tufts University. The Center for Civic Engagement and Leadership (CCEL) is the campus department that will serve as a liaison between the schools. Marist will join the Institute’s National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement (NSLVE) to ascertain student registration and voting rates.
Dr. Melissa Gaeke, director of Marist’s CCEL and political science professor, said that by the end of the summer they will have a report outlining student participation in the last three general elections. The study will break down student voting record rates by gender, race and major. Gaeke said this level of detailed information could compare student registration with voting turnout and assist in the development of more targeted on-campus programming.
“I think that our first kind of goal for next academic year is to do a registration drive and to think about programming that helps people wonder about their voice and how voting and participating at that level is important [and] how it relates,” Gaeke said.
Gaeke attended the National Campaign for Political and Civic Engagement conference in February alongside undergraduate students Pam Armas ‘20, Gabrielle Salko ‘21 and Fall 2018 graduate Julia McCarthy. They developed an action plan to encourage students to vote. Armas and Salko will pioneer a student-led initiative called Marist Votes, which will operate out of the CCEL and build off of McCarthy’s honors senior thesis project from Fall 2018.
McCarthy organized registration tables throughout campus and collected over 400 absentee ballots from students. Armas and Salko hope to create a student coalition, comprised of students from various majors and political alignments, to continue this project. The pair has already initiated a survey on campus to grasp student behaviors and feelings related to voting. Armas said that they aim to have voting registration tables at orientation for incoming students to get “as many students registered within this year – meaning 2019 – so that when 2020 comes around it’s more about voting, not just about registration.”
Campus Atmosphere Today
President David Yellen succeeded President Emeritus Dennis Murray in the waning of the Obama administration and in the midst of a contentious presidential campaign. At the end of 2016, the Marist College Band received an invitation to perform in the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony. Through Marist’s attendance at the inauguration, Yellen strove to demonstrate political neutrality, which he considers “the essence of a college.”
“There are plenty of people who see that as an archaic notion and that the college needs to take a side on more things and that failing to take a side is itself a decision,” Yellen said. “And this is something that’s playing out nationwide. I still believe that it’s not a college’s role to take political positions in any way, shape or form.”
Marist alumna Jennifer Hoffman ‘03 created a petition to oppose the college’s decision to attend Trump’s inauguration, which accumulated over 3,000 signatures. In a memo released to Marist students, faculty and staff on Jan. 4, 2017, Yellen addressed the band’s participation and the requisite backlash.
“A college community composed of students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees holding a wide range of political views cannot itself be a political actor by staking a claim to any one position. As you may recall, last spring the College hosted a campaign event for Senator Bernie Sanders, and we were clear that this did not constitute an endorsement,” the memo stated.
At the institutional level, Yellen said he endeavors to exhibit an apolitical front; however, he added that he recognizes the manifold views that prevail within the student and faculty populations. In the nearly three years since the beginning of his tenure, Yellen has formulated a general awareness about the college’s climate.
“My sense of the Marist student population is that it’s reasonably diverse politically compared to many colleges. Something I’ve said to people since I been here...it strikes me that Marist is, as a whole, maybe a little bit to the right of a typical Northeastern college but certainly to the left of where the country is as a whole,” Yellen said. “Whether that’s right or wrong, we clearly have a lot of different views represented in our constituencies.”
Joseph Perrotta ‘20, president of the College Republicans, similarly characterized the Marist student population as “vaguely right of center” and said that Marist presents a more welcoming environment to conservative views than some other institutions.
“I would compare our school to a school like Vassar and say that if you are on the right politically you probably would be much more comfortable here than there,” Perrotta said. “I think that nationally there is a perception of college campuses as hostile environments to people on the right, and I think that that’s not true of Marist.”
As far as political ideologies among the professoriate, Perrotta said the climate likely varies by school, but he considers the School of Liberal Arts to be “monolithically liberal.” Erin Eldridge ‘21 concurred.
“I am a Democrat, so usually when we discuss social issues and professors make their views apparent, I am not often offended. With that said, I have been in situations where professors become pretty didactic, which can be uncomfortable even when agree with them,” Eldridge said.
Dr. Georganna Ulary, a philosophy professor at Marist, said that navigating political discussion in the classroom can be a challenging feat.
“There’s this kind of unwritten rule that politics shouldn’t enter, it’s not an ideological space, the classroom is not supposed to be that,” Ulary said. “I think that there’s something a little bit problematic about that because I don’t think there are these neat partitions between ‘Oh, that’s your politics’ and ‘This is really the truth of the matter. The facts.’”
On this issue, President Emeritus Murray points to the Marist Values Statement, which outlines the college’s overarching goals and principles. The statement acknowledges that Marist is a “diverse community united by a shared commitment to the free exchange of ideas, consideration of the opinions of others, and civility in all our interactions.” Murray said that these values should guide discourse in the classroom between students and faculty.
“A Case of a Lack of Christian Conviction”: History of Activism
Yet Marist still boasts a history rife with political and social movements. Students and staff have tackled issues at the campus, local and national levels. The Circle Archives present copious evidence of campus political engagement, from students pronouncing their dissent about the Vietnam War to their boycotting grapes from the Poughkeepsie A&P.
Despite their vocalization for certain causes, the word “apathy” is explicitly connected with past Marist students, as well. In a 1965 edition of the Circle, a letter to the editor bemoaned the lack of Marist student representation at a civil rights march in Poughkeepsie: “The problem here may be more than that of an apathetic student body...It could be a case of a lack of Christian conviction.”
Marist was certainly not immune from the tensions concerning Vietnam that permeated college campuses across the country. Ezekiel Sanger ‘21 made anti-war movements at Marist the focus of his independent research, and he compiled assorted articles from the Archives that illustrated the college’s environment. He expected to find students strongly anti-war, but his findings instead demonstrate a somewhat factious divide within the student body.
Sanger did find evidence of student groups conveying their objection to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. A student organization called T.A.C. – Thought, Action and Communication – spearheaded anti-war demonstrations and discussions on campus, including an attempted petition to end on-campus recruiting and barring a Marine film showing by army recruiters.
Andre Béliveau ‘19 also discovered evidence of students and staff who opposed the war with vigor. He conducted oral history interviews with alumni, former faculty and Marist Brothers who recall a well-attended sit-in around Donnelly Hall in early 70s. Students and faculty linked arms in opposition to the war.
But many of these actions were met with resistance from a vocal group of pro-war students, who tore down T.A.C.’s flyers and protested their initiatives. Pro-war advocates hosted their own events, such as a “bleed-in” in 1965. The blood drive, hosted by the Marist Young Americans for Freedom and the Student Committee for Victory in Vietnam, drew approximately 180 students to donate blood and express the government’s position in Vietnam.
“I expected most students to be against the war...That’s kind of what we learn in history classes: that a lot of college students were very liberal...But that was not the case at Marist,” Sanger said. “I found a lot people who were indifferent to the war and very much against activism and against radical thinking or radical activists.”
Béliveau’s current research focuses on early LGBTQ movements at Marist. In the 60s and 70s, a group of students and faculty members, including straight allies, gathered in clandestine meetings in the old Fontaine building. The group did not become an official chartered club until 1997, but its genesis reveals the groundbreaking, modern notions existent in the college’s earlier years.
“[In the 90s,] the reputation of Marist was extremely conservative, even though we could say with some certainty, based on historical evidence, that’s actually not the case. Marist in the 60s and 70s was actually extremely progressive and the concept that we know today of Marist being a conservative school is actually a construct of the late 1980s and 1990s,” Béliveau said.
In 1985, hundreds of Marist students wrote approximately 700 letters to oppose President Reagan’s federal cuts to federal student aid. Marist’s Progressive Coalition strove to educate students about apartheid concerns in South Africa and planned an apartheid awareness week in 1986. Students turned their attention to the local community in 1989 to protest the Ku Klux Klan’s presence in Dutchess County; a group of Marist students joined forces students from five other colleges in a 12-mile march through Poughkeepsie.
Gaeke recalls striking instances of activism in the college’s recent history, as well, such as a unity march that took place shortly after Trump’s election in 2016. She remembers the organizers did not intend to march for a specific, politicized issue, such as immigration, but rather to express solidarity.
“At least from my vantage point, students wanted...to talk about what the implications of the election were on broader issues, like tolerance and civility,” Gaeke said. “I remember some of the organizers saying, ‘We want the Republican students to feel like this isn’t a march against them.’”
Yellen said that since his arrival, most of the political activity on campus has steered more positive and educational.
“Certainly, there are absolutely plenty of college campuses I’m aware of around the country where there’ve been many sort of overtly political controversies and protests...And we are definitely not a school where that’s at all prevalent,” Yellen said. “I caution whether that equates to apathy but I think, clearly, our students are not very likely to march and protest.”
Further Discourse at Marist
With the 2020 presidential election brewing, discussions within the college’s partisan clubs and within some classrooms will once again fixate on the state of the country and the way forward. Throughout his 37 years as president, Murray said that he’s seen student political involvement ebb and flow, but it usually heightens in the midst of election seasons when students can latch onto certain causes and candidates.
Yellen emphasized that overt activism and detachment do not constitute the only possible characterizations of a college’s political atmosphere, and Marist’s current state could be emblematic of students aligning more closely with specific issues rather than political parties.
“On some level, I’ve been hearing, ever since the 60s happened, people have been saying that young people are apathetic. And I just don’t think, as a general rule, that that’s true. If you look at all of the issues that there’s so much passion for from young people that may be less traditionally politics and more issue-oriented and culturally-oriented,” Yellen said. He added that he’s witnessed fervent student support for a wide variety of causes, from diversity and inclusion to volunteerism.
Murray said that though he’d like to see students more engaged civically, he sees students undertaking other activities on and off campus that represent different manifestations of engagement. Murray has observed students demonstrating their passions for environmental and immigration issues; even more, he’s recognized student outreach through Campus Ministry programs – namely the recent trip to Mérida, Mexico and the annual Giving Tree Ceremony – and other clubs, such as Habitat for Humanity.
He esteems the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, home of The Marist Poll, as “one of the most phenomenal programs that exists in the country today.” Since 1978, The Marist Poll has immersed students in political polling at the local, state and national level. Through this institute, Marist students have attended political events, including the New Hampshire primary, and lectures featuring top political minds.
“When you look at the whole panorama of everything that goes on here, I think it’s pretty impressive,” Murray said.
New initiatives continue to arise on campus, striving to facilitate further discourse amongst students. Sophomores Celeste Gigliotti, Declan Fung and Steven Ciravolo established a new program this semester, Red Fox Real Talk (RFRT), which holds open forum discussions on hot-button issues, including Colin Kaepernick and the #MeToo movement.
“We have three pillars for RFRT - embracing discomfort, expanding perception and fostering acceptance. Our goal is that students will come to the events and gain a better understanding of their fellow students, the larger social and political justice issues our country faces today and the importance of openly discussing these issues with people who may differ from you,” Gigliotti said.
The College Republicans and Democrats traditionally host a debate once a semester to exchange perspectives political issues and have attended each other’s meetings in the past, as well. In fact, one of the three topics in this semester’s debate was how the two parties could better work together.
“We try to work together as much as possible, and we’re also forced to work together because if we want to do any voter registration drives, anything like that,” Pratt said. “Republicans are very passionate about that issue as well. They’ve been great partners with us on those sort of things and trying to change the campus culture.”
Ulary attests that, beyond the College Republicans and Democrats, students need comfortable spaces to engage politically.
“Maybe have more events on campus that are directly political. Bring in speakers or activists who could talk about that and how to generate student interest,” Ulary said.
“You can do that in a non-ideological sort of way.”