War and Parking

In an era about nothing, SLU student activism is a welcom sight

Young soldiers are off to war and college students are protesting in the streets.

It's enough to make an old campus activist mist up.
True, the war (bombing of Yugoslavia, opposed mostly by right-wing Republicans) and the protests (staged at St. Louis University over an increase in parking fees) don't have a great deal to do with one another.

But it's a start.
On its face, the protest last week by a couple hundred students -- followed by a vote of "no confidence" in SLU President Lawrence Biondi and his administration -- pales against the glory days recalled (often creatively) by self-righteous boomers. A parking-space hike from $200 to $330 is steep, but it's not exactly Kent State.

The knee-jerk reaction of a grizzled Vietnam-era protester is to roll eyes to the heavens at the notion that it takes a parking-fee increase -- for crying out loud -- to motivate students to express their indignation.

"Whatever happened to social issues?" wheeze people like me.
Moreover, the object of the protesters' disaffection, Father Biondi, is a Jesuit priest with quite a record of achievement and a sunny disposition to match. He's nothing at all like the nasty authoritarian figures whose mugs you could put on a placard next to Tricky Dick's three decades ago, no matter what you were protesting. Hey, they've even got naked statues at SLU now.

But the students have a point today, and it's not just about parking fees. It's about having a voice -- and about being treated with respect -- in the affairs of their university.

What galls student leaders more than the size of the increase is that it was handed down by the SLU administration without input from the people it affected: students, faculty and staff. Add this to last year's unwarranted crackdown on the student newspaper (the charter of the University News was changed to give the administration more control) and SLU's ongoing refusal to add student and faculty seats to its top governing boards, and you have a cause somewhat more compelling than "Hell no, we won't pay this much for parking spaces!"

The student-government president, Joe Hodes, told me Tuesday that the parking issue was just a "flashpoint" around which students were rallying.

"What we're asking for is quite reasonable: We want a voice at the decision-making table of the university community," Hodes said. "We deserve no less."

Hodes, who was among students and faculty scheduled to meet with Biondi and other administrators at RFT press time, said Biondi's "modus operandi is the old truism of Jesuit education: It's easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission."

I wasn't able to reach Biondi, but though he steadfastly defended the parking-rate increases in a statement issued last Wednesday, he also seemed to give way on the involvement thing. Here's what he said:

"I am prepared to act immediately on a number of items, including directing the vice presidents, deans and directors to examine decision-making in each of the divisions, colleges or schools with the goal of developing more effective mechanisms for consultation and participation of faculty, staff and students. I will ask the Board of Trustees to consider allowing student participation on various standing committees of the Board. I will reestablish the Budget Advisory Committee, composed of representatives of the deans, faculty, staff and students, to advise the Vice President for Business and Finance on budget matters."

It all sounds a little like Father Biondi's writing 100 times on the blackboard "I will not ignore you students and faculty again." It also sounds a whole lot like what administrators in my ancient day said to crazy campus activists like me when they wanted us to pipe down and leave them alone.

The University News, in an editorial last week calling for Biondi's resignation, responded:

"Fr. Biondi, we don't want your crumbs. This ... is the third time in one week ... that (Biondi) has presented his views about shared governance: We can watch him make up his mind."

I don't share the paper's view that Biondi should step down -- he has, after all, done wonders for SLU over the past decade -- but it's hard not to like the students' attitude. They're standing up for what they think is right.

Just as important, the students are rejecting the patronizing notion -- held not only by most administrators but by the public at large -- that they should just shut up and learn, and leave running the school to the professionals. It's what we used to call the "educational sandbox" theory of student government.

This is a not-so-distant cousin to the authoritarian philosophy that has led to increased censorship of high-school and college newspapers for content that is embarrassing (or otherwise troubling) to administrators, school-board members or regents and parents.

In short, the promotion of order and obedience is given more priority than the promotion of independent thought and activism on campus. It's a terrific approach, especially if you're trying to foster a culture in which most citizens turn out to be politically illiterate and choose not to vote.

I think Biondi and the other powers-that-be at SLU should be thankful that the students have enough of a sense of community -- and concern about their school -- that they would bother to protest against their exclusion from decision-making. SLU ought to jump at the chance to include a student seat on the Board of Trustees and on the President's Coordinating Council: It's the right thing to do, and even if it weren't, it would be the smart thing to do.

Meanwhile, the students should keep raising hell. It would make sense to depersonalize the attacks on Biondi, because he isn't a villain and he isn't going anywhere, in any case. But the students' instinct to use their collective power as a community is a good one, not only for themselves but for SLU.

They'll make a difference if they keep fighting the good fight. And someday, perhaps, the headlines won't mention parking fees.

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