“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.”