12/18/2015 Laura Newcomer

If a Tree Falls on Campus, Do You Hear It?

This magazine article is part of Fall 2015 / Issue 83

Not with a bang, but with a whimper.

When contractors removed most of the Protest Tree on Franklin & Marshall's campus on a rainy morning in early October to address safety concerns stemming from the tree's heavily rotted trunk, there were no spectators, and there was no protest. A photographer documented the process as a crew cut down all but six feet of the formerly majestic tree's trunk. The crew packed up and left. The rest of the campus went about its business.

It is difficult not to draw parallels between the demise of the iconic white ash and what some perceive as the political apathy currently shrouding F&M's campus. There have been many discussions on campus about honoring the tree's legacy; the Campus Tree Advisory Committee will solicit input from the College community and make recommendations about what to do with the trimmings and remaining trunk by the end of the year. Yet the relative quiet with which the Protest Tree came down belies not only its storied significance but also the years of campus activism that once transformed the culture of F&M.

Birth of a Symbol

When Stephen Bernstein '61 arrived on campus in the late 1950s, he remembers the tree—situated near the southeast corner of Distler House, just a stone's throw from Old Main—as nothing more than a bulletin board for students to advertise social events. It was during his undergraduate tenure that the tree earned the name it still bears today.

That transformation coincided with several on-campus protest marches in support of desegregation. The tree became a meeting place for student activists, recalls Bernstein—it was where marches began and ended, where protests were publicized, and where students stood and talked about critical issues.

As the tree's symbolism began to change, so too did the dynamics on campus. Bernstein credits the marches with occasioning that shift.

"Franklin & Marshall was a quiet campus compared to what was beginning to be a much more politicized national culture," says Bernstein. "The first march was a protest against passivity and lack of involvement. We wanted to say, 'Hey, wake up! What are we doing here? Terrible things are happening, and we're just sitting back getting ready to go to graduate school? There's something going on in the country, and we should be a part of it.'"

By the time the 1970s rolled around, the tree—and a culture of protest—became thoroughly entrenched in campus life. Fred Owens '72, F&M's Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, arrived as a student on campus during heated protests over the Vietnam War.

"It's not much of an exaggeration to say that all the students were concerned," says Owens. "It was the first time for many of us that we had to recognize that some of the stuff the United States does is downright shameful."

Stuart Pimsler '71 concurs. He credits the draft, disenchantment with U.S. foreign policy, and the country's rising youth movement with inciting the vigorous protests that swept F&M's campus and the nation. During that time, the Protest Tree served as a place for some students to air their grievances.

"The tree was like social media incarnate," says Owens. "It came to symbolize not just protest, but a certain form of serious engagement in public life, and a willingness to confront power with what [we saw] as truth."

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The Rise of Passivity

Today, the willingness of students to make a stand for causes that matter is a subject of debate.

Erin Moyer '16 arrived on campus eager to get involved in campus life. She joined The College Reporter, took on leadership roles at the Alice Drum Women's Center, and regularly attended campus discussions.

Over time, she began to notice that attendance at campus discussions on critical matters ranging from sexual assault to mass shootings was limited to the same small group of students.

"The people who are directly impacted by these issues are, for the most part, the ones who concern themselves with these things," says Moyer. "It's disappointing that more people don't seem to care."

Moyer isn't the only student to note disengagement on campus. She recalls someone advertising this grievance on the Protest Tree with a sign that read, simply, "apathy." Just as with the 1960s marches for desegregation, "someone was protesting the lack of protest at F&M," Moyer says.

But while the marches ignited a culture of campus activism that persisted for decades, today no such awakening seems to have occurred. And the pulse of student opinion has moved from the great white ash to social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

It's hard not to draw analogies from the Protest Tree's own decline. "This poor tree is rotting," Moyer says. "And while it was alive we didn't even notice it."

Whither Campus Activism?

Untangling the apparent lack of political engagement on campus today is difficult.

Moyer notes that "a lot of people are here to be good students. So maybe it's not that they don't care. It's that they have to balance everything with being a student."

According to Owens, "The whole culture of government and politics has changed in ways that are very disturbing."

From Pimsler's perspective, the now defunct draft was a uniquely polarizing force. "I think one of the big differences causing a lack of outrage on the issues that are problematic today is that there is no draft," he says. "For many people, there's nothing really at stake in the immediate." Pimsler also names the financial constraints facing students today as further barriers to political engagement.

At the same time, it's important to recognize the ways today's students continue to demonstrate concern for the world, says Owens.

"There are a lot of young people who are trying to make this world a better place," he points out, citing F&M's Sustainability House and students' involvement in Lancaster nonprofit work as examples. He also credits young people with starting the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Indeed, our collective investment in a better future is perhaps too complex for one tree—or one campus—to bear.

"Life's too complicated for a small tree to make a big difference," says Owens. "But at the same time, these kinds of symbols encourage people to think about things that are bigger than our individual selves. The Protest Tree reflects a component of civic responsibility that the College and our students need to take seriously and carry forward."  

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