Activism and attitudes: Politics at Pitt


In 1970, Paul Finkelman tied a headband around his forehead that read ‘Strike’ and joined hundreds of other students at Syracuse University protesting the Vietnam War. 

“[The political environment] was much more intense when I was in college,” Finkelman, now a civil liberties expert at Albany Law School, said. “The issues of the day were much more immediate to college students. If you flunked out of college, you got a plane ticket to Vietnam, and for 55,000 American kids, that was a one-way ticket.”

Since then, college political groups have been at the forefront of some of the most important social and political movements in recent American history, Finkelman said. At Pitt, student groups such as Pittsburgh Student Marxist Association, Americans for Informed Democracy (AID), College Democrats and their counterparts, College Republicans, are all part of the long tradition of college political action.

According to Finkelman, the high cost of tuition is the most important issue facing today’s college students, and Pitt’s student political leaders agree.

Finkelman said that sometimes students are discouraged from involving themselves in politics because they face significant economic challenges. 

“Disgracefully, the United States government has abandoned your generation,” Finkelman said, alluding to the rapidly rising costs of college tuition.

Gabrielle Hill, president of the Pitt College Democrats, said the price of college is the single most relevant issue facing today’s college students.

“Many students don’t realize how much impact local and state government can have on something like interest rates for student loans,” Hill, a junior chemistry major, said. “As a student who pays for her own education, I see what I’m paying for interest. I know it’s unfair. And that matters to me.”

But while students from Finkelman’s generation may have rallied against the war in Vietnam or joined a freedom ride, students now are opting for less extreme forms of protests — and ones that will still let them get jobs. 

While Cameron Linton, a senior economics and political science major and president of the Pitt College Republicans, agreed with Hill that economic issues are key, he argued that the biggest problem college students face is finding jobs after graduation.

“The whole point of college is [to] make ourselves more competitive for potential jobs,” Linton said.

Finkelman argued that, in addition to the challenges posed by economics, current college students tend not to get involved in politics because they’re disconnected from many of today’s political issues.

Linton and Hill agree that, despite the opportunities getting involved in politics can present, political apathy is widespread among today’s college students.

“Government has such an important role in our lives, and many people, not just students, simply don’t care about politics,” Linton said.

More students, according to Hill, should be more involved in politics.

“It makes me sad that there aren’t more students involved,” Hill said. “Being able to talk and learn and discuss and network to create a concrete, well-informed foundation on what you believe in can go a long way in our world.”

Finkelman said students who get involved in minor issues on campus, such as those with rules on campus, often go on to participate in politics on a larger scale. When he was a student at Syracuse University, Finkelman said he tackled the issue of whether or not students living in dorms could set their own rules. 

“That became a major struggle, and many of those students went on to get involved in more major issues.”

According to Linton, the wide range of opportunities college students have is a key reason why many students don’t get involved in politics.

“I think that the biggest obstacle to students joining political organizations is that there are so many other clubs and groups to get involved in,” he said.

Susanna Deemer is a senior anthropology major and Vice President of the Pittsburgh Student Marxist Association and said she agrees that freshmen can be overwhelmed by the chaos of adjusting to college life, but thinks that political groups can provide stabilizing influences.

“Many [freshmen] come to college … looking for something to get involved in, something to make their time worthwhile and somewhere to build a community,” she said.

Although commentators might characterize national political parties by their constant, virulent animosity toward each other, the leaders of Pitt’s political organizations agree that cooperation is vital. Thus, they are good examples of what Finkelman thinks college political groups should be.

“[Students should] break away from what national politics has become,” Finkelman said. “[They] should be asking questions about what it means to be patriotic in a meaningful way.”