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Campus war protests a far cry from Vietnam

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2003

The day after U.S. bombs began falling in Iraq, philosophy professor Tom Auxter joined hundreds of protesters sitting on the grass at a park near the University of Florida.

They gathered near Gainesville's Liberty Tree, holding tiny white candles and listening to speakers rail against the war. A local singer performed John Lennon's Imagine. A police helicopter circled overhead.

But only a few dozen UF students made the short trek from campus for the vigil. Auxter, 58, who protested the Vietnam War as a schoolteacher in Pennsylvania, wasn't surprised.

Most college students, he says, have no sense of political activism, especially compared to their professors, many of whom came of age during the campus tumult of the 1960s and early '70s.

"There's been a generational change," says Auxter, echoing a lament heard often these days in faculty offices across Florida.

While some professors are expressing opposition to the war by marching, signing petitions or writing letters to the editor, the vast majority of Florida's college students are sitting quietly on the sidelines.

"Students have become more conservative," says UF law professor Joe Little, 68, who recently signed his name to an antiwar ad published in the Gainesville Sun.

"The faculty do a lot more talking than students," says Stacy Tessier, a 22-year-old University of South Florida senior who strongly opposes the war. "Every professor I have had is really liberal and pretty outspoken about it."

Experts point to several reasons for the generational divide. Today's students don't have to worry about the draft, making war considerably less personal. Most are from a different social class than soldiers in the all-volunteer military, making it harder for them to relate to those who enlist.

"Students are blase about the ways of the world," says Charles Figley, 58, a professor of social work at Florida State University who was active in the Vietnam Veterans Against the War during the 1960s.

"They're not as impacted. For my generation, it was life and death."

A culture of narcissism

That's not to say the barricades are completely empty. Since the war began, there have been numerous protests on Florida campuses, though most have been small, involving just a few dozen students.

The only rally of any size happened at FSU, where an estimated 1,500 students walked out of class the day after U.S. troops crossed into Iraq. But many of those students were counter-protesters who expressed strong support for the war.

Some of the people bemoaning the dearth of student outrage blame self-interest; students, they say, are so consumed with their busy lives that they have no time for the world around them.

"Our society has become one in which it is possible to become detached from the concerns of the world," says Sean Kinane, 34, a USF graduate student and leader of the Alliance of Concerned Students, which has organized most of the USF protests.

"There may be wars and suffering all around the globe, but as long as your fake ID gets you into the clubs of choice in Ybor City you don't have to worry about it," he says. "Too many students simply don't care because they feel they don't have to."

USF historian Ray Arsenault, 55, calls it the "culture of narcissism."

He says the societal change playing out on Florida campuses has been brewing since Watergate, when Americans became less interested in voting, volunteerism and politics.

"This peace movement is not the peace movement of the Vietnam War," says Lilyan Kay, 47, a USF nursing instructor who went to a Washington, D.C., protest in January.

But there are similarities.

As during the Vietnam era, professors who oppose the war are considerably more vocal than faculty members who have mixed feelings or support the war.

Many of the most vociferous professors once again come from the social sciences -- disciplines such as history, sociology and the humanities, where hard absolutes are rarely embraced.

One of those professors is Nancy Tyson, 54, a USF English professor and faculty adviser to the Alliance of Concerned Students.

She says it's hard to find faculty members who support the war.

But Tyson, who carried a "Bush Lies" sign when the president spoke at MacDill Air Force Base last week, also complains about faculty members who are afraid to take a stand.

More than once, she says, she has stood at the main entrance to USF holding a sign protesting the war. Professors wave and honk their horns, she says, but rarely stop.

A number of USF professors who were contacted for this story declined to discuss their feelings about the war. Some said they feared a backlash from the USF administration that threatened to fire tenured professor Sami Al-Arian after he failed to say during a controversial television appearance that he wasn't speaking for the university.

"The environment for faculty protests is less respected or supported now than 20 or 30 years ago," says USF philosophy professor Roy Weatherford, 59, who protested against the Vietnam War at Harvard University before coming to USF in 1972.

Weatherford emphasized that he wasn't speaking for USF.

Subdued climate

Student activists think critics may be misreading Florida's universities.

They say it's difficult to assess antiwar sentiment at commuter schools such as USF and Florida International University in Miami, where students spend relatively little time on campus. And they note that most students were busy with exams or on spring break when war broke out.

UF senior Christen Parker, 22, has been protesting for months as part of the peace and justice group, Pax Christi. She says a lot of people who want to express opposition either don't know how, or are afraid to get involved.

"We have mass media telling us the war has already started and we should support the troops," she says. "It's hard to convince people that being proactive is a good idea."

The climate has definitely change since the 1970s, when students were almost expected to challenge the status quo.

"It's not cool to disagree with your government," Weatherford says.

Still, some people think the climate could change if the war becomes bloodier or if U.S. troops still are fighting in Iraq several months from now.

Others think the window of opportunity already has closed.

"There was potential for stronger impact before the war started," says UF history professor Julian Pleasants, 64. "It's difficult for (students) to see what impact they might have now."

-- Times researchers Kitty Bennett and Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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