NSA Rethinks Role of 'Students as Students'
Council Committee Urges Reaffiliation, Seeks to Limit Area of Political Concern
This Monday, the Student Council's Committee on NSA will present a report "to the students of Harvard College with the hope that the observations we make will provide a basis for a decision to rejoin the National Student Association."
The report frankly admits the lack of concern for student problems at many colleges, and the lack of awareness on the part of many students of NSA issues. Apathy at Harvard was manifested last year by the referendum which permitted the Council to withdraw from NSA. This year it can be said at best that most undergraduates are uninformed about the structure and philosophy of NSA. The Council's report seeks to bridge this gap, in anticipation of another decision by the student body.
Membership in NSA, or concern for NSA activities, will probably never become a burning issue around the Yard. American students simply lack the sharp class identity retained by students of colonial and underdeveloped areas. College students in the United States no not rest as far above the general population in ability to decide political issues from an "enlightened" point of view as their foreign counterparts. While many Latin American and African student unions are important political factors in their own countries, NSA is only one of a number of "pressure groups," drawing its strength from the prestige of the individual student governments in the Association.
However, NSA is a complex organization with as many potentialities for improvement as it has accomplishments. It is undergoing a period of transition--rethinking its own philosophy of student concerns and reorganizing its structure. It would be foolish to pass it by without taking the time to find out what it is.
The National Student Association had a strange birth indeed, for after two years of existence it had turned upon and denounced its generating organization, the International Union of Students. The need for an American student organization was conveyed to colleges and universities chiefly by the enthusiasm of the "Prague twenty-four," a group of students who had been in Czechoslovakia during the formation of the IUS.
An NSA report noted that the group was "inevitably caught up in the exuberent spirit of cooperation among nations which had joined in the successful struggle against the Aixs powers." The Prague twenty-four returned to the United States convinced that America must be represented.
There is no doubt that there were several Communist party members and fellow travellers among the twenty-four, but most were simply swept up by the energy of the European student groups. Most were unaware of the Russian Communist plot to create the organization, then subvert it and turn it into a front for Communist propaganda. The existence of that plot was confirmed several years later by a man who had been working with Allied intelligence in Austria. He told an NSA national officer that he had found out plans of the Communist group, which urged the formation of the ISU and then gained control of its secretariat at the Prague meeting.
A year after the IUS was formed, 1947, delegates from student governments met at Madison, Wisconsin to draft the constitution of the USNSA. The student organization that was to emerge was new in name and structure, but in spirit a descendent of the student organization of the thirties, the National Student Federation of America. The President of NSFA in 1932 had been a young man named Edward R. Murrow; its last congress in 1940 had been organized by Orville Freeman, now Governor of Minnesota.
There were two basic conflicts at the Madison meeting. The first dealt with the issue of whether NSA should speak out on purely political questions. The Communist and left-wing delegates desperately needed the freedom to leave the realm of student problems in order to become an effective propaganda instrument. It is difficult to imagine today, but the threat of subversion posed by Communist Party and fellow-traveller members was quite real.
More moderate elements carried the day, however, and the Constitution was written to read:
... No body acting on behalf of USNSA shall participate in secretarian religious activities or partisan political activities; they shall not take part in any activity which does not affect students in their role as students...
The phrase "students as students" is still probably the phrase most nearly defining the nature of NSA.
Once the Communists were repulsed on the first issue, they sought to gain control of NSA with another tactic, giving representation in NSA to "organizations other than student governments." They had hoped to bring front organizations into NSA which could be used to control the congress. Again the moderates prevailed, and the proposal was voted down.
Once the Association began to function, a third issue split the membership: whether to join the IUS. NSA sent a representative, William Ellis '46, to Prague, charged with 13 conditions under which NSA would join IUS. While the negotiations were going on the Communist coup d'etat took place, and the IUS refused to take a stand against the new government for jailing anti-Communist student leaders and professors. Ellis broke off negotiations, resigned from the Prague Secretariat, and denounced IUS's betrayal of student liberties.
A report noted that "few NSA leaders doubted that the IUS was controlled by an outside political force which disregarded the interests of "students as students," but for the next few years members still clutched at what they considered the last straw for international student relations. The issue was not laid to rest until the early fifties.
NSA Breaks with IUS
The turning point came in 1950. Student associations of the free world decided to split from the Communist-run IUS. Tactics such as levelling germ-warfare charges against the United States convinced many associations that IUS could not be reformed. A meeting in Stockholm established the International Student Conference, now the largest international student organization in the world.
The wide base of the ISC deeply affected policy within NSA. A great number of Latin American, African and Middle Eastern student associations joined ISC, bringing with them their concern for politics. Suddenly, student issues were no longer travel, hostles and book stores, but prisons, persecution and Peron.
The change led to the expansion of NSA's international activities in the early fifties. A major factor in the success of the international program was the new respectibility which NSA had acquired. A large grant of money by the Ford Foundation testified to the stable character of the Association, and opened the doors to later grants by all the major foundations.
Participation in the international conferences led to the rethinking of the phrase "students as students." It became evident that NSA couldn't continue to avoid the issues that were of vital importance to students in colonial areas and newly independent countries. The suppression of student rights in Paraguay or Cuba or Algeria were issues of burning importance at an ISC conference, yet at an NSA Congress they were merely "political issues."
Nuclear Tests Condenned
The reinterpretation of the nature of student problems progressed rather imperceptively throughout the fifties. Today the concept of student problems includes issues which affect students of foreign countries in their role as students. The furthest the definition has even been stretched was on the nuclear testing resolution passed by the Twelfth National Student Congress in August. The resolution was tied up with concern for international student issues.
Before this summer's resolution the Congress had simply "encouraged its members to inform themselves on nuclear bomb testing as a subject of vital concern to the educated student." But the Twelfth Congress made a specific, though moderate, stand on the testing issue by expressing 'its confidence in the resolution of the ISC concerning 'a definite agreement on the suspension of nuclear weapons tests.'" USNSA (at the 8th ISC at Lima, Peru) backed that resolution in order to block a counterproposal by three Communist-dominated student unions to censure only the United States for continuing tests.
Proponents of the broad interpretation of the "students as students" phrase on issues concerning students of foreign countries maintain that USNSA occupies a unique position in world affairs. They claim that because of its contact with other student groups, which assert considerable political pressure in their own countries, NSA has its fingers on the pulse of world politics. A former NSA International Affairs vice-president said that because of his contacts with foreign student leaders, the NSA files in Philadelphia had a more accurate picture of the Cuban Revolution and the Icelandic Elections than the State Department.
In order to continue contact with world-wide student movements, as well as to strengthen the free world's ISC, asserts the "liberal" wing of NSA, American students should continue to accept world-wide student issues as their own. The more conservative group which favors the textual meaning of the moderately-worded resolutions, frequently contributes negative votes on the grounds that as a student organization the NSA lacks the qualifications to judge an issue.
The Student Council reports favored the more restricted interpretation of the phrase "students as students." The report recognized the fact that "our relations with foreign student unions demand that we take an interest in their problems, which are often of a political nature."
However, it set up a series of "tests" which should form the basis for international political issues. The first criteria rejected the conception of any foreign student issue qualifying as an issue affecting American students. Other tests were that the issue must be important, and that it be free of direct implications outside the academic community.
The report applied its criteria to the controversial Algerian resolution passed by the August Congress at Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. In doing so it modified the sharp criticism of a similar resolution passed the year before by the 1958 Student Council Report on NSA. The 1959 report says that "the Algerian resolution is acceptable in so far as it is a protest against certain acts of the French government," but claims that it goes beyond the role of "students as students" when it advocates a specific political solution, the independence of Algeria, since the stu- dent problem is only a small part of the whole problem of Algeria.
The nuclear testing resolution also qualified only partially under the Student Council committee's tests. The report said that "it is legitimate to pass a resolution that expresses a desire for effective and definite disarmament and does not call for any specific way of achieving this disarmament, and thus does not involve military and strategic considerations outside the role of a student as a student."
Opponents of NSA have pointed to these very issues, at least semi-political in nature, in claiming that since the college delegates are only vaguely aware of the issues involved they cannot purport to represent even the students at their own schools. The end result of the NSA Congress, the critics maintain, is that policy declarations are made which seem to represent the whole American student population, but actually represent only the personal views of the delegates present.
Another aspect of NSA which had come under fire was the haphazard and confusing organization of the plenary sessions, during which the Congress acts on resolutions and mandates. At the 1958 Congress only 25 of 100 bills ever got to the floor. The rest were sent off to the National Executive Committee for final disposal.
Supporters assert that the National Student Congress only claims to represent directly the student governments of the member colleges. Furthermore, they say, foreign student leaders realize that the resolutions of USNSA do not necessarily represent the views of "American students."
However, the more liberal elements of NSA maintain that the representatives actually do represent American students to the extent that delegates are enlightened, intelligent members of the student community. They point to the fact that NSA resolutions have followed the general trend of student thought in the dozen years since NSA was founded.