The Renaissance of Student Activism

There has been a real powerful sense ... that the future they were promised has been taken away from them.”

Today's protests bring about memories of student activism in the 60s. (AP)

Maybe the campus protests seemed rather isolated at first. Dissatisfaction with the administration. Outrage over bad decisions. A student altercation gone bad.

For example: The protest at Florida State University last fall, when students didn’t like the idea of having the Republican state politician John Thrasher as their school’s president and launched a campaign—#SlashThrasher—against his candidacy. Citing the lawmaker’s corporate ties, various groups staged demonstrations, including some who organized a march to the city center.

Or the protest at the University of Michigan in September, when, amid frustrations over their football team’s losses, students rallied at the home of the school’s president to demand that he fire the athletic director. They had more on their minds than lost points: The director had neglected to remove the team’s quarterback from a football game after he suffered a serious head injury that was later diagnosed as a concussion. (The Florida students’ protest failed to change minds at FSU, but Michigan’s athletic director was quickly sent packing.)

There was the confederate-flag fiasco at Bryn Mawr, which resulted in a mass demonstration by hundreds of students who, all dressed in black, called for an end to racism on the Pennsylvania campus. A week later, more than 350 students staged a similar protest further north, at New York’s Colgate University. That one—dubbed #CanYouHearUsNow—likewise aimed to to end bigotry among students and faculty; it was in part prompted by a series of racist Yik Yak posts.

Just as has been happening in communities at large, campus protests against racism and bigotry—along with related types of discrimination—have become commonplace. Students at the University of Chicago hosted a #LiabilityoftheMind social-media campaign last November to raise awareness about institutional intolerance. A “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” walkout was staged the same month by hundreds of Seattle high-schoolers. Roughly 600 Tufts students lay down in the middle of traffic in December for four and a half hours—the amount of time Michael Brown’s body was left in the street after behind shot. Students at numerous other colleges did the same.

Of course, there were other common themes, too. Early last fall, Emma Sulkowicz, then a student at Columbia, pledged to carry a mattress on campus daily to protest the school’s refusal to expel her alleged rapist. Soon, hundreds of her classmates joined her, as did those at 130 other college campuses nationwide, according to reports. Anti-rape demonstrations became a frequent occurrence as colleges across the country came under scrutiny for their handling of campus sexual-assault cases. There were walkouts and sit-ins, canceled speeches and banner campaigns. Last May, the U.S. Department of Education reported that it was investigating 55 colleges and universities for possible violations of Title IX. As of this January, the number had gone up to 94.

Sulkowicz even carried her mattress—with the help of two classmates—across stage to get her diploma on Tuesday:

These demonstrations were, and are, very far from isolated. “There’s a renaissance of political activism going on, and it exists on every major campus,” Harold Levy, a former chancellor of New York City’s public schools who now oversees the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, recently told me. Levy attributed this resurgence in part to the growing inequality in educational opportunity in the country, which has contributed to great tensions between institutions and the public they’re supposed to serve; even protests that don’t explicitly focus on this cause, he said, are byproducts of this friction.

It’s happening again—it’s like when we were here! It’s happening! Levy, 61, was quoting a recent remark made by a friend who’s a trustee at Cornell, Levy’s alma mater. “He’s in a position of authority now, and he didn’t know whether to celebrate it or to worry about it,” Levy said. “And of course the answer is both: You want kids to be politically active precisely because you want their engagement in the world, and you want to encourage them to be free thinkers.” But that activism also threatens the institutions’ control.

This resurgence in campus activism necessarily a new phenomenon. After all, The New York Times wrote about “The New Student Activism” back in 2012, attributing the trend to the Occupy Movement. But observers say the activism that’s since proliferated has a different feel, and this new chapter could trigger significant shifts in the way things are run.

American Student Activism, Fall 2014

At least 160 student protests took place in the U.S. over the course of the 2014 fall semester alone, according Angus Johnston, a history professor at the City University of New York who specializes in student activism. “There’s certainly something of a movement moment happening right now,” he said, pointing in part to the news media, which fuels activism by putting protests on the public’s radar. “The campus environment right now has, for the past couple of years, reminded me a lot of the early- to mid-60s moment, where there was a lot of stuff happening, a lot of energy—but also a tremendous amount of disillusionment and frustration with the way that things were going in the country as a whole and on the campuses themselves.” And this sentiment has been taking hold in other parts of the world, too: Thousands of students (and teachers) have been demonstrating in Chile this month in the name of education reform, including two students who were killed last week.

For younger generations, Johnston added, the “belief that you can change the world [hasn’t been] beaten out of you yet.”

Johnston runs a blog-ish website featuring a resource that’s oddly hard to find on the Internet today: a modern timeline of student protests, including color-coded maps illustrating the location and theme of these demonstrations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the map (which has yet to be updated with data from the spring semester) reveals that most of the recent student uprisings during the fall of 2014 focused on racism and police violence, all but a few of them in the eastern half of the country. Many of these demonstrations used hashtags to mobilize, some of which are still in use today. Meanwhile, according to Johnston’s analysis, about half of the 160 protests were evenly split between two main themes: sexism/sexual assault and university governance/student rights. The remainder called for improvements to tuition and funding—about half of them at University of California schools.

But they don’t always have to do with issues specific to students. Just take the divestment campaigns, which are becoming a popular form of political activism at college campuses across the country, including Harvard, Boston University, and Princeton. These efforts are aimed at convincing university administrations to drop their investments in controversial industries (such as guns or fossil fuels) or corporations (such as those that side with Israel) and have little to do with on-campus issues.

“A lot of the protests … embrace national issues through the lens of campus policies,” Johnston said. “The university is big enough to matter but small enough to have an influence on. It becomes a site of organizing because there are opportunities to organize on campus that a lot of times you don’t have in an off-campus community.”

Young Americans are often characterized as politically apathetic and ignorant. It’s true that they vote at exceptionally low rates, but some say that’s because they don’t believe going to the polls makes much of a difference. Perhaps they see activism as a more effective means of inciting change—particularly when the change they seek has little to do with politics. Just last week, the entire graduate class of 2016 at the University of Southern California’s art and design simply school dropped out of the program in protest of faculty and curriculum changes.

Sometimes students demonstrate precisely because they don’t have political power. A group of Kentucky teens recently spent months campaigning for a state bill that would’ve given them the opportunity to have a say in the selection of district superintendents. The high-schoolers testified before lawmakers, wrote op-eds, consulted attorneys, and collected piles of research. The legislature didn’t pass the bill.

Indeed, despite the uptick in activism, those in power—from lawmakers to school administrators—don’t appear to be any more sympathetic student activists. Though graduate-student employees across the country have for years struggled to unionize in pursuit of tuition relief and better wages, for example, only a number of groups have succeeded in that effort.

Perhaps school officials are even less sympathetic now than in the past. According to Johnston, as Occupy spread, student activists were faced with increasingly violent punishment. One of the most egregious examples involved the University of California, Davis, in 2011, when a campus police officer, with the backing of his superiors, pepper-sprayed a group of seated students involved in an Occupy protest. Though that’s an extreme example, Johnson added, “we are seeing a less transparent, less responsive, less democratic university than we’ve seen in the past.”

Recently, a group of students at Tufts refused to eat for five days—more than 120 hours—in protest of the administration’s decision to lay off 20 janitors. For health and safety reasons, the students ended the hunger strike ended without arriving at a deal with the administration. But students have continued to rally, including at Sunday’s commencement:

And earlier this semester, the University of California, Santa Cruz—a school founded during the civil-rights movement that still markets itself as a mecca of radical politics—delivered one-and-a-half year suspensions to a group of students who blocked a major highway in protest of tuition hikes. (The students each face sentences of 30 days in jail and restitution, too.) Critics accused the school of capitulating to community members, who were furious over the gridlock caused by the protesters. Undergraduate tuition at UC schools has more than doubled in the last decade to its current level of $12,192—increasing at an even higher rate than has the national average.

“There has been a real powerful sense among a lot of student activists that the future they were promised has been taken away from them,” Johnston said. “One of the thing that ties (the campus movements) all together is a sense that the future doesn’t look as rosy as it might have a few years ago.”