ARE today's college students interested mainly in themselves and their own careers? Is the spirit of community service -- the altruistic idealism of a previous generation -- a thing of the past? Some 3,000 students here at the University of Massachusetts indicated last weekend that it might not be.
The event was called ``Mass Transformation.'' It was a refurbishment, a massive cleanup of the inside of the 28-story college library carried out entirely by student and faculty volunteers. The library is the tallest building on the UMass, Amherst, campus and, since its opening in 1973, has been a source of aggravation and jokes. Rumors of graft and corruption surrounded its construction. In 1979, the brick fa,cade of the tower began to chip, forcing the library to close for a semester. Then it reopened for only limited use, making it a kind of ``ghost library'' for several years.
``It was demoralizing -- a source of embarrassment for the campus,'' says UMass chancellor Joseph Duffey, who took over in 1983. Many students used libraries at other local colleges, he says.
Last year, much of the library was repaired. But the school could not afford the $500,000 cost of cleaning the interior. When the idea of student volunteers was presented, it was received somewhat cynically at first. But a corps of student leaders and advisers felt sure the 25,000-member student body would buy it. They did.
Working in four-hour shifts, about 3,500 workers sanded and spackled walls, painted, dusted books, wielded mops, brooms, vacuum cleaners, and putty knives, and finished the job in less than four days. Spirits were high by all accounts, starting on Thursday night with the ``Charge of the Light Brigade,'' a surge by the football team 28 floors up to distribute some 17,000 light bulbs throughout the building. Forty art students contributed original murals. The choral group sang a cappella while matching paint.
``We needed to do this for ourselves,'' said one undergraduate. ``My family sent four kids to this school. We want to feel proud of it.''
Most experts agree that student volunteerism hit a low in the early 1980s. But a small counter-trend is also developing today, they say, characterized by new community service programs led by such schools as Stanford, Georgetown, Vanderbilt, Brown, and Harvard. (See story, next page.)
Wayne Miesel, a recent Harvard graduate who founded the Campus Outreach Opportunity League, an intra-college service organization, says it's not that today's students are interested only in themselves, but they are caught in a ``structural apathy.'' Students aren't self-starting, he says, but will devote time and energy if they are given good ideas and shown how.
This was the case at UMass, says student body president Bill Bennett, who says many of the 3,500 volunteers responded to a ``grass-roots campaign where we knocked on doors and explained the importance of this event.''
Other college experts note that time for service and sacrifice have been cut back by higher tuition rates, and the fact that more students both work and study.
Yet the service idea is not one of pure altruism, experts say. It's crucial for a fuller student development. At UMass, student leaders and officials agreed that while it was important to clean up the library, save $500,000, and bequeath a better building to next year's students, ``Mass Transformation'' was also an important experience in teamwork. It is an example, says Duffey, of ``education off the curricula.''
Duffey points to the recent writings of sociologist Alexander Astin of the University of California at Los Angeles, who notes that in all the recent major studies of successful corporations, the qualities most cherished in personnel were trust, empathy, cooperation, and teamwork. Yet the ``implicit curricula'' at many liberal arts schools tend to reinforce opposite qualities -- suspicion, competitiveness, and lack of interest in others, says Duffey.
Generating student involvement, he says, is a long-term investment. Students learn to think about the good of the whole for tomorrow, and for years away.