Recent efforts to raise awareness about the human rights crisis in Darfur have taken many forms, ranging from divestment to film screenings. Students have succeeded in persuading President Barry Mills and the Board of Trustees to agree not to invest in companies with business interests in Darfur. In addition, the Darfur Coalition organized Darfur Week, a campus-wide educational and fundraising campaign.
Nevertheless, the question remains: Were these efforts effective?
According to Assistant Professor of History David Gordon, the answer depends on how you define efficacy. Gordon, who is from South Africa and teaches African history at Bowdoin, thinks efficacy takes various forms, including raising awareness, instigating institutional or global change, and fund raising.
According to its organizers, the goals of the Darfur Coalition are both to educate the student body and to raise money for organizations that help the people of Darfur. In an informal Orient survey, student responses were mixed as to whether this goal has been achieved.
"In terms of awareness, they did a really good job," said Oliver Cunningham '08.
Another student said he noticed the many Darfur Week pamphlets on tables in the Moulton Union Dining Hall.
Others said they had heard about the events but had been too busy to attend, while some students said the week did not teach them anything new.
"It's hard to say how effective the week was because I already knew about Darfur," Cait Hylan '09 said.
Bari Robinson '07 agreed. "I already knew there were serious problems."
Robinson also mentioned that the impact of the campaign was weakened because students are "bombarded" with calls for activism on campus.
Professor of Government Christian Potholm expressed a similar outlook. He believes students can get "disaster fatigue" from thinking about all the problems in the world at once.
In order to combat the lack of sensitivity among students toward problems like the Darfur crisis, the Darfur Coalition has planned a variety of events such as a documentary showing, an art show, and a debate, meant to appeal to a wide range of students.
Joe Bandy, associate professor of sociology and advisor to Global Justice, an organization involved in the Darfur Coalition, said that addressing an issue from a variety of perspectives is helpful.
Bandy finds debates especially effective, as they portray all sides of an issue and draw more than "just the choir." He noted that controversial issues such as Darfur can become more publicized and draw more students.
He added that unlike national political issues, which can split students with opposing views, everyone can agree genocide is a terrible thing.
"Polarization generates conflict," he said. "There is not much polarization around the moral tragedy of genocide, which may constrain vocal debate."
Vanessa Wishart '07 agreed, saying that "there is not a lot of controversy on campus because we assume everyone is liberal."
Bandy said he believes that Darfur Week was effective in educating the campus, but he added that the administration could also play an important role in the Darfur issue.
"There could be more contentious discussion about the most effective means for institutions such as Bowdoin to help stop the genocide," he noted.
Gordon said that raising awareness is important, but that student activism has the greatest effect when directed at the College and its policies. He cited the Board of Trustees' decision to divest from Darfur as an example of a product of this type of activism, but questioned whether divestment was enough, especially since Bowdoin does not have any current investments in corporations in Darfur.
"Student activism has to transform the institution's priorities," said Gordon. "Does a symbolic gesture effectively engage the institution with the issue?"
Liz Leiwant '08, head of the Darfur Coalition, shared Gordon's sentiment.
"The College has more than a financial obligation in situations like this," she said. She added that she hoped to see greater institutional involvement in "educating the student body toward issues in the world."
Gordon believes the development of a curriculum relevant to current events is ultimately more effective than either divestment or student-run campaigns in educating the student body. Like Leiwant, he believes the College has an important role to play in educating students about global problems.
"Darfur is not a conflict that is going to go away," he stated. With better-trained leaders, he believes the United States will be "in a better position to engage effectively and diplomatically" in international affairs.
"Bowdoin's role is in training that new generation of leaders," he said.
Gordon believes a current events fellowship, bringing experts to campus to speak and teach about conflicts like Darfur, would "greatly enhance our understanding of these conflicts" and prepare students to deal with them in the future. He also proposed the creation of a Middle Eastern studies department.
Leiwant agreed that Gordon's proposal for a new department was important, but said that "student groups shouldn't necessarily put all their energy into petitioning the College for that. That's not the role of student activism."
Instead, she believes the current role of student groups in educating the community and bringing speakers is "an important one, and I wouldn't want to see that change."