When you’re an activist at a large university, optimism is a rare find. Not only are you struggling to shift a rigid and politically powerful status quo, but you’re also competing for the “hearts and minds” of the student body against other groups with contradictory ideological missions.
The University of Connecticut has a student population that is predominantly white and, according to 2017 data compiled by the New York Times, skews toward the top 20% of income. It follows that the majority of students have more of an incentive to support organizations and policies that compromise, uphold or even seek to regress the austerity-driven status quo than those that challenge it and stick out their own necks to fight for an affordable and safe higher education experience for all. Additionally, it feels unlikely that the bulk of the student body has any reason to stand in solidarity with their peers who face racist, sexist, ableist and class-based oppression — much less people on another continent whose house may be demolished by a bomb built by a graduate of UConn’s illustrious School of Engineering, for which six of the top ten employers are weapons manufacturers and defense companies.
While the evidence points to the likelihood that UConn students are generally voluntarily complacent in local social problems and global crises of imperialism and climate collapse, it would be wrong to short-change my peers on account of data that is incapable of telling the whole story. I want to know how willing the UConn community is to be in solidarity with groups who have less “privilege” — in other words, how “solidary” we are.
Acquiring this data, however, is complicated. It provokes the question of how one can measure how much we care about each other and whether those results can even be quantified. I concede that there isn’t a surefire way to gauge solidarity, especially when there’s so little popular consensus around what that word actually means. Solidarity is often colloquially used to describe voicing sympathy for the sociopolitical struggle of a person or group, as is evinced by internet leftists who can call it a day after a few exclamations of “solidarity with” this or that. Although it’s important to make public statements of support for underrepresented groups or repressed movements — a key example being the struggle for Palestinian liberation, which is treated with ire by American academia, political leaders and UConn officials alike — this definition means that showing solidarity is as facile as publishing a social media post.
Another colloquial idea of solidarity — which is functionally identical to popular misinterpretations of mutual aid — is sending small donations to people who need it. Again, this isn’t to diminish the importance of small acts of kindness that bring relief to others, but if that’s what solidarity is, it would render virtually all “solidarity movements” completely inept to help oppressed people overthrow the sources of their oppression.
In their 2003 essay, “Toward a Theory of Solidarity,” Christian Arnsperger and Yanis Varoufakis, former Greek Finance Minister and leader of the left-wing SYRIZA coalition, conceptualize solidarity as “empathy with persons afflicted by some shared misfortune” and a “disposition toward making sacrifices on their behalf will be defined below.” Assuming that neither a social media post nor donating a small portion of one’s income constitute a sacrifice, this definition undergirds exactly what I want to know about UConn students: How likely are we to make sacrifices for each other? Put otherwise, how willing are we — as a community — to make ourselves worse off for the betterment of others (Note: I do not endorse rational choice theory even if it sounds like it)?
To creep toward an answer, I propose an overhaul of a familiar friend: The UConn Campus Climate Survey.
Third or fourth-year UConn students likely recall taking the Campus Climate Survey numerous times, noticing little change in either the questions or the institutional problems they probe into. In fact, the 2015 Campus Climate Survey results, which includes responses to an additional survey on sexual assault and intervention, matches the form I remember filling out seven years later to a tee. The survey questions, which generally address the extent to which students feel supported by their peers, faculty, administration and cops (for example, a question asking students to evaluate the statement,“Campus officials do a good job protecting students from harm.”) entirely reads as an appraisal of how well the university is doing at its job. While the appended section on sexual violence does offer a few fields about whether or not a student intervened in an attempted assault (for which two-thirds of the responses were “no”), this does not fully capture the scope of how willing students are to make sacrifices for each other. Furthermore, for what it’s worth, these questions have not been offered on the officially-circulated Campus Climate Survey in the past three years that I’ve been a student here.
A supplement for the largely self-serving questions posed by current iterations of the survey, UConn should hone in on questions that ask not only about their likelihood of intervening in a situation that puts their peer in harm’s way, but also how well-equipped they feel to do so. The survey should also expand on this theme by including, without exhausting the survey-taker, self-evaluations on students’ willingness to go out of their way to help hypothetical peers experiencing a variety of issues — mental health crises, disruptions in a financial or living situation, identity-based violence or hate crimes, academic struggles and so forth. For bonus points, the designers might ask how likely a student is to attend a protest for a cause they have no direct connection to.
Any decent statistician would interject that anyone would overinflate their willingness to commit an act of kindness. While this is a valid criticism, I believe the true strength of this exercise — beyond providing slightly biased data about group solidarity —is forcing students to reflect on their relationships to the community around them, and particular its most vulnerable members. But before some polling genius can find a way to implement these suggestions into a survey, it may be preferable to simply have these conversations among our friends, classmates and coworkers instead.