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While the national spotlight remains fixed on the 2012 presidential election and the impassioned duel between Republicans and Democrats over the course of the United States, something appears to be conspicuously missing at the University: politically active student organizations.
A staple of college life at many institutions of higher education across the nation, political organizations are currently nonexistent at the University even during the contentious presidential election. Politics and religion remain controversial topics that are often banned at the dinner table or among circles of friends, but college campuses have been considered hotbeds for political discourse for decades, with students and faculty members voicing opinionated speech and honing political worldviews.
Such discourse certainly goes on at the University, but public displays of political views are few and far between on campus. Beyond the occasional Facebook post or in-class discussion, there are no political student organizations, no political petitions in circulation, no get-out-the-vote drives on campus.
“Typically on a campus, you expect to see some political activism,” said Dr. Robert Stacey, the interim provost and dean of the Honors College who teaches government courses and was recently featured on a PBS program discussing protest movements. “Something seems to depress political activism here.”
With the reins to the most powerful nation on the planet up for grabs, the 2012 presidential election could mark a profound shift in the course of the nation. The nation may be focused on the contest, but the face-off between the Republican and Democratic parties has yet to draw out politically active students who want to begin on-campus organizations affiliated with either leading political party.
This has not always been the case at the University. Both the Young Democrats and the Young Republicans, traditional college organizations, were once a part of the on-campus community. The groups fell out of fashion in 1972, during the Nixon administration. Students occasionally attempted to restart them, but party-affiliated political organizations remained relatively inactive until 2010.
During that year’s partisanship-inflamed elections, Dr. Chris Hammons, interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities and chair of the department of government, challenged students in his Campaigns and Elections course to bring the organizations back. He even offered to sponsor both.
“Government affects almost every aspect of a person’s life, so political organizations really allow a person to advocate for the type of life he wants to live,” Hammons said. His challenge in 2010, amid an election that many Republicans viewed as a chance to overturn President Barack Obama’s lead from the 2008 presidential election, inspired several students to form political groups.
Dillon Smith, B.A. ’11, who was in Hammons’ course, spearheaded the project to restart the Republican organization on campus. He worked to begin a chapter of the College Republican National Committee, a nationwide political group with more than 1,800 chapters. “We originally started up pretty effectively,” Smith said of the organization that topped out at 12 members, including officers. “It kind of fell apart.”
The political group held more than 10 meetings and even planned a political event for February 2011. But demands on the time of the members, particularly the officers, meant that the organization eventually collapsed in the spring.
Senior Kevin Ramirez approached Hammons in fall 2010 in order to begin the College Democrats. He said the organization never heard back from the administration after the three students submitted the necessary paperwork. “The waiting got so long we assumed it didn’t go through,” Ramirez said, adding that the group did not follow up on it.
The lack of political organizations at the University has puzzled some, including administrators and professors. Whit Goodwin, director of Student Life, said he could not explain the deficit of political organizations at the University but that he would welcome them if their applications were submitted.
Students have their own opinions on why political organizations are absent. Some attributed it to a lack of interest or general political apathy. Others think it is because of a lack of education on the topic. Still, others pointed out that many students who are most interested in politics are often busy.
Senior Samantha Smith said her generation focuses on things other than collective political action. “I think we don’t have them because our campus very much represents the postmodern culture — more focused on the individual and less on the corporate community,” Smith said, adding that many students choose to devote their time to activism groups like Love 146, which works to end human trafficking.
Whatever the underlying cause of the lack of current political student organizations at the University, Goodwin and other administrators believe that, as more students move into on-campus housing in the coming years, more students will begin participating in political groups.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
CORRECTION: Jan. 27, 2012
Dr. Chris Hammons is the interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, not the dean.