Susan Bigelow

On Wednesday of last week, following a faculty vote of no confidence in President Katherine Bergeron, students of Connecticut College in New London finally ended their unprecedented 10-day takeover of the administration building.

The protests were spawned by several issues relating to the resignation of the Dean of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, the decision of Bergeron to hold an event at a Florida club that had a history of excluding Black and Jewish members, and the “bullying” behavior of the president. The message was clear: students, and the faculty and staff who supported them, wanted a more diverse, more inclusive, and more just college, and they felt that the president had become part of the problem.

Good! I hope they force her out. I hope Conn gets the kind of leader it deserves, and not just some globetrotting fundraiser who gives lip service to the ideals of higher education while acting to preserve the status quo. Too many university leaders fit the latter mold these days, running their domains like big corporations instead of institutions of higher education. It’s no wonder faculty are miserable and students feel unseen.

I’m thrilled to see Conn students forcing change, not just because I care about higher education, but because I’m an alum (class of 2000).

I just wish my generation had been as committed.

Students at Conn in the late 1990s were … less active in politics than the previous and current generations, to put it mildly. It’s hard to describe the kind of apathy that often seemed to define my generation – which was the last wave of what we call Gen X now. In our defense, white kids in the suburbs like me had grown up being told that all of the big problems had been solved by the protest movements of the 1960s, and that there was nothing left for us to do. Racism, sexism, unjust wars – you name it, they’d protested against it, and they’d won. As Dar Williams sang, we were “just too late, and just no good.”

I mean, obviously that’s complete garbage. It’s clear now, with two more decades of hindsight, that whatever we’d gained in the 1960s was desperately fragile. The seeds of all of the insidious problems we’re facing now were right there in front of us. LGBT rights were tenuous at the very best, pro-life politics were picking up steam, welfare “reform” was shredding the social safety net, incarcerations – especially of people of color – were skyrocketing, the first big mass school shootings happened, and the airwaves were dominated by right-wing hate radio.

In New London, the college president at the time, Claire Gaudiani, was hip deep in the plan to destroy a whole neighborhood in order for Pfizer to build a big new building there. I know several faculty lived in that neighborhood. But they failed to stop her, the Supreme Court agreed that eminent domain could be used to benefit big business, and the neighborhood was bulldozed.

We didn’t do a damn thing about any of it. Very few of us protested about anything until the Iraq War, and I think our failure to stop George W. Bush from pushing the country off a cliff killed our faith that protest was even effective at all.

I did go to a pro-choice “protest” at one point in front of the campus center. It was the saddest thing: there were maybe a dozen of us listlessly chanting pro-choice slogans, while two or three pro-lifers stood nearby with signs and sour expressions.

I thought about that a lot after Roe was overturned last year. We got so complacent, and so comfortable. We thought the future was secure, when in reality it was hanging by a thread.

People in their late teens and twenties today don’t have the luxury of security. They’ve grown up in a world that has thrown one gut-wrenching, world-shattering crisis after another at them. Of course they’re protesting. They have nothing to lose.

But I think the worst thing we can do is to sit back and think, ah yes, the kids will save us. What an obnoxious, selfish thing to do. We should be the ones saving them! We should be doing the work they’re doing now. We should have done it a long time ago.

I’m proud of the students at Connecticut College for standing up. I hope they never stop. But it’s infuriating that we’ve let the world come to a place where they have to.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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