What better time to declare that “your real education is outside the classroom” than on the first day of classes? The quote appears on the cover of the 2009 Disorientation Guide, a booklet with several articles on student activism at Ohio State that a group of students put together over the summer. Hundreds of copies were passed out at the student involvement fair.
While learning outside the classroom for many people has to do with the bar and club scene or Ohio State football, it is essential for new and returning students to learn about and engage with the social and political issues at the university and the broader Columbus area.
These issues range from environmental sustainability to worker rights (for university staff, as well as factory workers employed by apparel companies contracted by the university,) to sexual violence and prevailing rape culture. In addition, racist incidents, police abuses, gentrification, foreclosures and other housing related concerns are all relevant for OSU students and those living in neighboring communities.
Students play an important role in responding to these issues. Rather than simply looking forward to shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries with high level university administration, we should be prepared to ask critical questions and challenge the decisions they make on behalf of the university. Students need to be a part of the community and take part in applying pressure where pressure is needed for positive change.
For example, take Ohio State President Gordon Gee’s recent visit to India, where he sought to enhance academic and business ties. During his visit, Gee gave the Ohio State University Ambassador Medal to industrialist Ratan Tata, the chairman of the Tata group conglomerate. Gee went as far as to say that Tata is “someone who has used his own success as a powerful tool for good.”
Unfortunately, President Gee seems to only know about Tata’s philanthropic initiatives and does not care about the conglomerate’s poor human rights record. This includes supplying hardware to the military junta controlling Burma, environmentally and socially destructive land confiscation, toxic waste dumping and union busting just to name a few. There have been multiple instances when farmers and villagers were displaced or killed when land was forcibly taken for Tata factories and other industrial facilities.
President Gee’s connection to Tata pales in comparison to Ohio State’s list of investments.
The university is invested in military armament manufacturers, oil companies, big box retail companies and fast food companies that are socially irresponsible to put it mildly. There is even a mining company on the investments list that admitted to fueling the conflict in the Congo.
This is only a glimpse at the issues that exist in and around the university, but it is clear that there are numerous opportunities to build student and community campaigns. Student movements that find common cause and connect issues together help shift away from the notion that we come to college only to get a job, moving us toward an understanding of the university as a vehicle for social justice.