This is Part I of a series exploring Northwestern's political culture. The goal of this process is to peel back the layers of campus political culture to reveal how, why and in what ways Northwestern students are politically involved.
A glance at the Rock’s current message, a schedule of Facebook events and the hashtags on flyers around campus provide a glimpse into the campus’ current political climate. We know where we stand now, but what were politically active Wildcats like in the past? Which events from history drove Northwestern students to rally?
Professor Emeritus Kenneth Janda, who spent 1961-2002 in the Northwestern political science department, said when he entered the department, “The Young Republicans were much more active than the Young Democrats. Northwestern was far more of a Republican school.”
Northwestern, like many private universities, has experienced shifts in the political leanings of its students as a result of major changes in higher education and politics.
With a more diverse student body and a different national mood later as the 1960s went on, Northwestern became more democratic, Janda explained. During the Vietnam War, “Students were very much interested in politics because of events abroad,” Janda said.
To this day, the United States remains involved in controversial wars. But students today do not crowd Sheridan Road like they did during the 1960s. The overwhelming casualties during the Vietnam War and the relevance of the draft to college students sparked student activism in a way that recent wars have not.
While passionate anti-war groups are not active today on campus, Northwestern has a rich history of such student activity. Some vocal opponents of the Vietnam War at Northwestern organized within Students for a Democratic Society, a radical activist organization. As Janda explains, such organizations rose up on many campuses across the country.
One SDS member, Jeffrey Rice, is still around on campus today. The Weinberg advisor and senior history lecturer was a prominent campus figure in anti-Vietman protests throughout his undergraduate education beginning in the late 1960s.
Although the fervor for protests may not feel or look the same on campus today, Rice doesn’t believe students are less engaged than they were during his undergraduate years. Rice offers one explanation for the perceived decline in political activism today. A shift from political to social engagement has occurred, Rice said, rather than a deterioration in student activity.
The sentiments of Northwestern-centric activism today — the Ludlow protests, rally behind a suspended employee and march in response to racism — have roots in national political and social unrest but are focused on campus policies and culture. The demands tend to focus on pressuring the administration rather than the U.S. president, but students still express their discontent and join other students in articulating their concerns.
Click here to see archival photos of examples of Northwestern political activism.