"Citadel of Apathy"?: Student Activism at UNL, September 1968-May 1969

Project Editor:Jillian Gotfredson, History 470: Digital History, Spring 2008

Active or Apathetic?

Lincoln, Nebraska: A Reflection of the Movement on a Different Scale
Public Displays of Activism: from protests to talk-ins
Hyde Park Forum
Students Unite: committees, groups, and unions
Who Protests?
What is Apathy?
National Context: a timeline of student activism on campuses
International Context: a timeline of student activism on campuses
Works Cited

Those were the days, my friends.
We thought they'd never end.
We'd sing and dance forever and a day.

Greeks controlled all the organizations while Barbs relaxed in idle disunity. Football was the center of all discussions and "social concern" generally meant anxiety due to a conflict in house parties. Jollies. All you needed was as "C," four or five years to spend and financial backing. There was little to worry about, let alone protest.

But somewhere between Berkeley, class of '65, and Columbia, '68, this nifty chapter in "The American Dream" came to a close. The public blamed student agitators, nihilists and anarchists, while students blamed a deaf, unfeeling educational monolith. It seemed that, like the Deacon's "one hoss shay," the ivy-covered wheels of a typical American university suddenly collapsed into a pile of sawdust-a century old buggy succumbed to internal wear and tear.

But Nebraska...Nebraska is different somehow. Like a prairie land Machu Picchu, the University of Nebraska stands as a citadel of apathy. Observing the atmosphere of student unrest at NU is as exciting as watching paint dry.

This isn't to say that the Nebraska student body is a nonentity devoid of personality. However, as in any organization with few common bonds of unity, the goals and ideals of NU students are not easily defined. Ends and means are the most common indicators of student personality. Unfortunately, Nebraska students are too often characterized not by their approach to a problem but by their total lack of interest in it.

Apathy-like an overworked epithet, the word has almost lost its meaning; it is the perennial whipping boy at Nebraska. The newspaper, the students and the faculty all decry its constriction of campus life. Like the weather, everyone talks about it, but understandably, no one does anything about it.

In spite of the state's conservative reputations, it is difficult to believe that NU's apathetic students are the products of life in an inert intellectual atmosphere. Issues are continually raised, yet something in each student's personality prevents him from responding to these stimuli. Perhaps part of the answer lies in the student's early social environment. The average student from out state Nebraska comes from a rural or "small town" community. Occasionally potential activists observe school district reorganizations, but otherwise they have no chance to learn how a community works together to solve a mutual problem. Intimately associated with this problem is a second-a large, complex university provides no sense of a community. Community need can be strong motivation force, but it is difficult to achieve this feeling in the university world of student I.D. numbers, ticky-tacky dorms and SRO registration lines.

Obviously this does not provide a complete answer. Extreme examples of such impersonal institutions have actually provoked students to action. A Daily Nebraskan survey probably provides a more immediate answer to the NU dilemma. "Nebraska students reflect the conservatism of their parents. They don't generally jump overboard on any issue." And perhaps that's why Nebraskans have the nations longest average life span (71.9 years).

This may be disheartening to campus activists attempting to spark a real revolution, but it is not a hopeless situation. Although a "quiet" campus compared with the rest of the nation, Nebraska is beginning to show the first signs of a changing personality; the NU student body is gradually awakening to awareness, cautiously inspecting for the first time its own unrealized potential power.

Some have tried to describe this awakening in terms of "student mood". They speak of the student mood as if it were a measure of the collective cognitive processes of any given student body. When a central issue dominates the thought of an entire campus this maybe a safe inference. But at Nebraska, where issues suffer from congenital obscurity, unrelated factors influence the student mood.

Football came on like a flat tire. As the spirit of "Go Big Red" became a fumbling ghost, students began noticing the irrelevance of Nebraska's football orientation to current national problems. Although it left a void, NU students, lacking dynamic leadership, failed to replace football fever with attention to relevant campus problems.

Campus growth also effected a subtle shift in the student mood. The daily din of construction surrounding the chem. Building, Andrews and the Union made the student keenly aware of an expanding active university. From an esthetic viewpoint it was not all that appealing. Oldfather hall, whose graceful steel superstructure appeared inspiring through the summer, deserved the name "Austerity III" when covered with fall-red brick. To some, construction merely reflected a big university; like big business and big government, another big institution too complex to fight.

The manifestations of this fluctuating mood, although sparse, were the first instances of positive student action on the NU campus. Three hundred students marched to the courthouse to protest discriminatory housing practices in Lincoln. It was organized, it showed strength and it was encouraging. After the march however, organizers found few volunteers to circulate petitions, write letters and do tedious paper work. Although transient, the march was the first break in the wall of apathy.

Despite growing awareness and concern most Nebraska students failed to comprehend their own problems as students. Although told that they were second-class citizens, denied many basic rights, they appeared so accustomed to their subservient role that few a questioned the administration, the faculty or even themselves.

Most student leaders found themselves unprepared for the rough game of confrontation politics. Although an honest and sincere effort, the student Senate's self-initiated drive to gain power through administration-recognized channels showed little promise of gaining complete approval. Student proposals to liberalize housing requirements and the so-called student bill of rights received token Board of Regents approval, but actual implementation of both documents was long delayed.

In spite of subtle but calculated resistance to student moves for self-government, the administration often demonstrated more savvy than student leaders. Speaking to the ASUN prior to the passage of student government Bill 24, Dr. Joseph Soshnik displayed apparent understanding with smooth, albeit general, statements. However, following passage of the bill designed to give ASUN expanded powers, the Lincoln campus president maneuvered it into a student-faculty-administration study committee, a favorite administration stall designed to talk the measure to death.

Above all else the administration understood Goethe's axiom-power should act, not talk. As long as Student Senate merely talked about taking power, passed resolutions and drafted documents proclaiming student rights, it would remain a powerless body. Had the student body attempted to openly seize power and assert their rights, the administration might have had some cause for alarm.

In short, "student power" is not yet a reality at NU. Part of the blame lies with student activists who have failed to conduct a large-scale educational campaign. Most cornhuskers are unaware of the freedoms students enjoy on other campuses; they do not know that there re workable solutions currently in effect to may of their complaints. Worst of all, because they refuse to speak, they are unaware that they are voiceless.

Nevertheless, the present student generation is characterized by one factor which sets it apart from the quiet generation of the Fifties. Today's college years are marked by a search for meaningful values and an identity that depends on them. Social psychologists point out that today's college youth are the first to recognize and react to the gap between this nation's words and deeds. They see a country which professes Christian love yet spends 80 percent of its income on the machinery of war. They attend college in a city which purports to be the liberal light of a conservative state yet rejects an open housing code 3 to 1. A society riddled with hypocrisy has destroyed the credibility of value systems supplied by organized religion, legislative bodies and peer groups, and students increasingly look elsewhere.

This search, although quiet, is very real at Nebraska. You hear it in bull sessions in the Crib. It frustrates you when you try to explain it to your "do-dah" roommate. It excites you when you find a stranger looking for similar landmarks to guide the way. It is I kinetic force which universities have failed to take into consideration when setting goals and planning programs. On some campuses this misunderstanding has led to violent conflict. On other campuses it has forced educators into meaningful re-evaluation.

Due to the magnitude of its size and organization, any university is slow to change. Ironically these institutions are producing the manpower that has created the fastest changing technology in the world. As the university of Nebraska enters its second century it bears the responsibility of catching up to this changing nation. However, without the involvement of a greater percentage of the student body needed reforms may be "a long time a comin."

Don't stand in the doorway, don't block off the hall.
For he that gets hurt will be he who has stalled.


Author: 1969 Cornhusker Staff Member
Title: "Introduction"
Periodical: 1969 Cornhusker