Grad Student Runs for Mayor
by Ronah Sadan
Some would assume that the graduate study of literature involves a total dedication to a vita contemplativa, reading books and reading books about books and writing about, well, books. Others understand that even graduate students can have extracurricular interests, but know that earning the degree leaves little time for other pursuits. Steven Syrek, a Rutgers English Ph.D. student, defies such expectations. Last year, he divided his time between studying Renaissance literature and running for mayor of Princeton Borough.
As an undergraduate, Mr. Syrek – who triple-majored in English, History, and Classics at Rutgers College – had no civic inclinations. “It was only after college,” he said, “that I became politicized.” When he moved to Princeton in 2001, his initially abstract convictions on geopolitics evolved into an interest in community politics and local involvement, spurring him to action.
After a yearlong residence, Mr. Syrek ran for Princeton Borough Council on the Green Party ticket. He lost but got twenty-two percent of the votes – better than any other New Jersey Green candidate. To the crowd’s standing ovation at the election night party, Mr. Syrek announced, “Next year I’m running for mayor!” What was first a half-serious, hyperbolic declaration became a real possibility when Princeton’s incumbent mayor announced his retirement, opening the field for elections.
Although he did not win, Mr. Syrek received an impressive thirty percent of the votes, suggesting that his platform had a serious appeal to voters. He remains engaged with some of the issues from his campaign. When there was no opening on the Princeton Environmental Commission, the new mayor offered him a position on the Committee on Traffic and Transportation. As he explained with a sigh, that committee’s meeting time conflicted with an important graduate seminar. Of course, the option to run for mayor again, building on past experience, stands open.
Keeping politics and literary study separate is important to Mr. Syrek, for both philosophical and practical reasons: “In order to be confident and maintain credibility in politics one must have values and be fairly consistent about them, while in academics one generally tries to challenge values, avoid coming to definitive conclusions, keep an open mind, and be willing to approach any subject from different perspectives.” He nonetheless believes that, in continually broadening horizons, a liberal arts education lays the foundation for political engagement. When asked if he finds any guiding principles in literature, Mr. Syrek replied that the Renaissance humanist emphasis on balancing action and contemplation suits him as an ideology. A phrase from John Milton’s Areopagitica, “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary,” serves as a personal motto. “If it doesn’t sound too presumptuous” he said, “I would say that this is my attempt to ‘sally out.’”