Gene's Blog: The kids AREN'T alright--and that's just fine

Gene Mueller's Blog

We knew Washington was coming.

And Chicago, as well as New York, not to mention Milwaukee and other big cities around the country where kids upset about gun violence in schools gathered en masse to protest, to vent, to call for change. The "March For Our Lives" had been circled on calendars for weeks, planned to make sure the predictable outrage after the massacre in Parkland, Florida remained stoked, unlike what had happened so many times before.

But did anyone see Stevens Point a few days before? Anyone, of course, outside the central Wisconsin community?

It was there, on the UW Stevens Point campus that an estimated 300 students, faculty and community members not only demonstrated--they did something that hadn't been seen there since the days of the Vietnam War: those taking part in this week's event occupied the school's administrative building, Old Main, where they presented the UWSP chancellor with their grievances.

The issue: the school's proposal to drop 13 humanities and social sciences majors while adding more in the tech sector, areas where administrators say they see more student interest. UW Stevens Point faces a budget crunch brought on by falling enrollment and thus, diminished revenue. Part of the problem: more kids graduate within four years, and they're leaving faster than they can be replaced. And, it would seem, those who DO come want sheepskins that'll give them a better shot at a job.

The protestors see things otherwise and seem most concerned about being left out of the process by the administration--hence, the occupation which included 13 minutes of silence within the hallways of Old Main, one for each of the majors that would be axed.

Point, like other schools in the Vietnam era, saw student protests, kids upset that they and their friends were getting drafted to die in a war they didn't believe in. It was there, in 1967, that a new chancellor moved in to that very same Old Main, one who said he wanted to hear what the students had to say in a controlled, more orderly manner. To that end, he would don a bright red vest, a wardrobe choice that made it impossible NOT to notice him, to approach him, to willingly engage with the guy in charge in HIS level: calm and cerebral. Lee Sherman Dreyfus' fashion choice helped quell campus unrest and build trust among the student body. Did they always agree with him? No, but they respected the fact he didn't hide in Old Main. Dreyfus walked the campus, shopped downtown, even hit "The Square" on the occasional Thursday night when kids gathered in bars, all while swaddled in the vest. It would be there, in Point, where Dreyfus would start his campaign for governor in the mid 70's, an underdog bid launched by a political newcomer who entered the race as a newly minted Republican, saying he did so to preserve the two-party system he saw endangered by Wisconsin Democratic domination.

It was a different time, in so many ways. Do events of this week suggest a return to the protests of a half century ago, an era where the young thought they were on their elder's pay-no-mind list? Then, it was an undeclared war fought for questionable reasons, led by a government that claimed we were on the cusp of victory when, in fact, history would show we weren't even close. Now, the cause could be classes on a Midwest campus or violence in classrooms nationwide.

"Activism is addictive," conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt told Chuck Todd on NBC's "Meet The Press" Palm Sunday morning. It was civil rights that helped spawn the Vietnam blow back which then morphed into all manner of protests including rights for gays and women as the 70's became the 80's. The leaders of the "March For Our Lives" protest vow to continue, no doubt fueled by the notice their classroom walkout generated, not to mention the turnouts and media buzz this weekend's events spawned. What happening in Stevens Point is getting notice nationally--NBC's "Today" did a story on what happened this past week--and the issue is getting traction in Madison as lawmakers call for more study of the UW system (do other state universities find themselves in the same bind as Point?).

"Snowflake" is the derisive term used to describe the young by the old/in charge, a generation they  see as self-appointedly unique and entitled, addicted to social media to the point of alleged distraction and blind to the world around them. Not so. Like generations before them, they're pushing back against their parents, blaming them for the woes they're facing and the problems they'll be left to fix.  As for that alleged "entitlement", they're all to willing to point out that it was us, the Boomer moms and dads, who made them feel that way with participation trophies for games that ended without winners or losers to make sure no one went home feeling bad. It was our generation, they say, that let the economy damn near crater with no one punished for misdeeds except they, the millennials, who'll be hard pressed to buy homes amid rising prices and crushing student debt.

Simply put, folks are pissed, the guttural term more accurate for a moment during which "angry" or "upset" don't seem to capture the moment. Analysts tell us it was anger and a quest for change that put Donald Trump in the White House in 2016. And, it's change is being sought in the streets of big cities this past weekend by people too young to vote but too pissed to go away. Inclusion is being demanded on a tranquil, central Wisconsin campus where the student union is named in honor of a chancellor who called his "a First Amendment university," one with hears open to all voices, even those who didn't like what Old Main was doing. The actions--or lack thereof--from those in charge will decide if recent protests are a one-off, or if this is our new reality.

 

 

 

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