Making Waves : Christian University Gets First Taste of Protest as Students Fight Apathy

Times Staff Writer

Now that the 1990s are almost here, the '60s have finally reached Pepperdine University.

In what is being called the first organized student protest in the Malibu college's history, a small group of students have set up a round-the-clock vigil at the campus. The focus of their protest: student apathy.

"We're on the cutting edge of student apathy," said Scott Talcott, one of the protest leaders. "Pepperdine is the land of BMWs, and we're trying to make people aware that there's more going on in the world. We're trying to wake the students on campus up."

In the hope of generating some student unrest, the group has been hanging out for the last 14 days under the Christian university's massive cross, known as the Phillips Theme Tower, which looms over the entrance to the private college in the hills above Malibu. Up to 40 students have joined in at one time but less than a handful usually sleep at the spot overnight.

Letter to Gorbachev

At Pepperdine, a conservative university with strong ties to the Republican Party, that's about as radical as it gets. But, Talcott says, it's a start.

"Being in Malibu, you're sheltered and isolated from a lot of things," Talcott said. "We're an island. We don't even have good relations with the rest of Malibu."

Inspired by a visit from the Soviet National Debate Team recently, Talcott, Jeff Duby and Eric Overman decided that they needed to increase "overall awareness" among their fellow students and set up their group, IMPAKT. They wrote a letter to Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, asking him for his cooperation in creating a permanent exchange program between Soviet and Pepperdine students, requesting that a sister school be established for Pepperdine in the Soviet Union and saying that they would keep a candle burning until they receive a response from him.

A big gust blew the candle out Monday afternoon, but they quickly re-lit it, and the vigil continues.

Although the students haven't been given the official blessing for their actions from university officials, Pepperdine administrators have turned off the sprinklers around the tower to avoid dousing the activists with errant spray. They've also agreed to supply them with electricity, so that, presumably, they can study at night under strategically placed lights.

"I think the main intent is to develop some good relationship with students from the Soviet Union," said John G. Watson, Pepperdine's vice president for student affairs. "I believe that they are correct that there is some apathy, but that's nationwide.

"I would encourage them to generate discussions and to generate some issues and focus them. I think that's encouraging."

The students mostly gather at the small area around the tower, check out the spectacular view of the Malibu coastline and play cards, study or talk to their friends. There are no placards or other outward signs of a demonstration. A smattering of beach chairs, sleeping bags and one small tent dot the site.

'Shock People'

Duby likened the protest to a case of a few putting their reputations and grade-point averages on the line for the benefit of the many.

"A lot of students think what we're doing is really stupid," Overman said. "You've got to shock people before you can make them aware. At the very least they know that something is going on."

"Somebody came up to me the other day and said, 'I didn't know anybody at Pepperdine stood for anything.' So I think that shows that what we're doing is having some effect."

The students said they would continue the demonstration until they receive word from Gorbachev or until the Christmas break, whichever comes first.

"I think the administration is amazed that we're still here," Overman said. "It was time to take a stand."

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