Opinion | Online petitions: not always a useful form of activism


Photo via change.org

9,665 students signed the petition urging Pitt to cancel classes on Jan. 30 due to extreme cold.

By Julia Kreutzer, Staff Columnist

While I typically groan at the sound of an early morning notification, waking up to the E.M.S. Alert for cancelled classes last Wednesday elicited quite a different reaction. I was ecstatic, not only because I was able to avoid my algebra class at the crack of dawn, but because I knew I had contributed to a revolutionary feat: getting a snow day at Pitt.

9,665 of my closest friends at Pitt and I saved ourselves from frostbite, hypothermia and slipping down the Chevron steps by signing an online petition urging the University to cancel classes due to extreme weather.

This is just one example in a wave of petitions and other means of student demands for action. While a snow day seems a welcomed result of these petitions, making decisions based on a few thousand online signatures has much larger implications — students overestimate their influence and go above those with authority.

Primarily, these petitions mislead students into believing that simply taking a minute to type their name on Change.org will make tangible change in the University. On Jan. 30, for example, many students believed their petition was incredibly influential in University officials’ decision to cancel classes.

But in a shocking turn of events, the next petition encouraging Pitt to also cancel classes on Jan. 31 did not accomplish its goal, despite gaining 5,374 signatures. Both Wednesday and Thursday saw subzero temperatures. Both petitions gained thousands of signatures. Neighboring schools like Carnegie Mellon cancelled classes on both days. The only difference was the action by people with the authority to actually take action.

While I take extreme pride in knowing my e-signature bolstered such a movement, it’s more likely the Student Government Board’s influence, designed to advocate for students, was more effective. SGB President Maggie Kennedy heroically emailed administrators after several students raised concerns at their meeting. The next morning, classes were cancelled. Joe Miksch, a representative of the University, explained what contributed to their decision — which did not include the petition.

“The University takes many factors into consideration when making determinations related to our campus operations, chief among them is supporting a safe learning and work environment for our community,” he said. “Other factors include information from students, faculty and staff, access to and around campus, public transit status, immediate and projected weather conditions and more. Conversations with our campus community have prompted us to reassess whether or not our current policy is well-understood by everyone and meets our community’s diverse needs.”

The impassioned students signing these petitions truly believe they are affecting change. But petitions often elicit a form of confirmation bias coupled with a virtual mob mentality. Students heard their beliefs echoed by thousands and gained an unrealistic view that everyone on campus agreed with them. While many would argue a vast majority of the students supported the petition’s message, opinions of students without authority don’t really make a difference.

All of this isn’t to say our voices have no power at all. But we need to point them in the direction of those with authority to make a tangible change. For example, students can directly advocate for themselves by speaking at an SGB meeting.

President Maggie Kennedy articulated that students’ input matters to the board and was a definitive factor in her decision to email administrators.

“To hear from a student during one of the open floors that this is something he and other students are concerned about affirmed to us that this is a widespread issue,” Kennedy said.

The polar vortex petition was rather harmless and in the end, students lucked out with a day off to try to keep warm. But this is not the case for all student-driven attempts to effect change in the University.

In early December, dozens of students signed a petition raising concerns over biology professor Craig Peebles, contributing to a new lecturer being assigned for the course this semester. Students were rightfully frustrated with class averages of 47 percent and 49 percent on their first and second exams, rendering two-thirds of the class ineligible to pass. For another section of Biological Sciences 1000, taught by Professor John Rosenberg, the mean score was 30.5 percent higher than that of Peebles’ section.

There is a clear problem with these inconsistencies. Students have the right to raise concerns, but they must do so through the correct channels if they wish to have any sort of impact. Taking matters into their own hands sets the precedent that evading the system in a mob mentality is an effective strategy. These petitions not only wrongfully demonstrate that evading procedure is effective, but mislead students into believing they’re effecting change. Signing a petition is not exercising their civic duty to right wrongs, but rather an excuse to avoid putting in the actual effort to begin a possibly time-consuming process.

Not all petitions fall into this pattern of misinformed activism, but it is important to recognize the key difference between petitions that have worked and those that won’t. Activists used a petition to overturn a Boy Scouts policy excluding openly gay members and leaders in 2012 by petitioning companies that supported the Scouts. This pressure led the Scouts to accept LGBT individuals the following year.

A 2003 petition signed by 1.3 million Californians resulted in a recall election for governor of the Golden State, leading to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election. While these petitions were incredibly successful, an important differentiation between these and those surfacing at the University is that America is a democracy, and Pitt is not.

The line between justified activism and bandwagon anger is blurred, but when aiming to influence the career of a professor of four decades, airing on the side of caution is key.

For academic disputes, the Dietrich School website details a step-by-step procedure for students to follow in order to raise concerns — and it doesn’t include Change.org. After contacting the instructor, a student should then approach the department chair, followed by meeting with the assistant dean if needed. The assistant dean is then responsible for investigating the incident and taking necessary action.

Students contacted Valerie Oke, assistant chair of the department of biological sciences, after the first exam. But per the Dietrich website, their next step should have been meeting with associate dean John Twyning, to whom the petition was addressed. A simple meeting would likely have been more effective than a public, online petition.

Decisions like these should not be taken lightly. The more students attempt to bypass the system, the less likely it is that these situations can be assessed by figures of authority in an unbiased and adequate manner. When we allow the opinion of the masses to dictate tangible change, we inhibit the process specifically aimed to yield the most effective result.

Yes, it should be the goal of the University to educate students in an effective, enjoyable and safe manner. Students should be able to speak up when these conditions aren’t met. Yet there is a reason we have thousands of faculty members in positions of authority. They have the experience and knowledge to handle situations effectively and, frankly, a mob of thousands of angry students does not.