From angry student protests to the backlash that paints them as coddled and pampered, we have reached a watershed moment on college and university campuses across this country as we begin 2016. Empowered and emboldened by their peers at the University of Missouri and many other institutions, students have presented college presidents, faculty members and administrators with lists of demands meant to address discrimination, racism and sexism, and to create more inclusive environments.
Those requests have been wide-ranging: hire more minority faculty, remove the names of donors and patrons implicated in colonialism and racism from buildings, include questions about microaggressions against students in faculty evaluations. And that’s just the short list.
The pushback against these students has been equally lively and includes outright mockery and ridicule -- citing the grammatical errors in a list of demands, for example. Some observers have criticized the students for being too sensitive. The president of one university accused some of them of wanting to “arrogantly lecture, rather than humbly learn.” Unfortunately, those are precisely the responses we would expect when those with power are being challenged.
But some of the reactions of college administrators and faculty members are well reasoned. Certain things can’t be accomplished within existing faculty governance structures -- or if they can, they will take time. For example, much of the faculty hiring process is well beyond the jurisdiction of students. Colleges and universities have a duty to protect not just students but also faculty members.
Those are, in fact, reasonable responses. But sometimes administrators, faculty members, and other campus leaders have undercut those responses with an air of impatience and frustration: students just don’t get it. They don’t understand how the college or university works. They don’t understand the role of faculty. They don’t understand history.
All of which prompts me to ask, as students return to classes: Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for? Until this past year, our hand-wringing about students focused on their apathy and selfishness. We criticized Millennials for their passivity and lack of empathy. But lately they’ve been standing up, asking questions, criticizing the system and arguing not just for themselves but also on behalf of others. Isn’t this precisely the behavior we wanted?
Certainly, their responses are sometimes naïve, sometimes overly ambitious. They haven’t always reflected the complexities of the higher education environment and its management. But that’s OK. They’re college students. College should be the place where they try on controversial ideas, push the envelope, make demands. And get things wrong sometimes.
What if we -- administrators and faculty members -- leveraged this moment? There is an opportunity here. We have the students’ attention -- perhaps for some less than ideal reasons, but we have their attention nonetheless. The question is, what are we going to do with it?
We could simply rebuff them and say that they need to “humbly learn.” What if, rather than rejecting their ideas outright and saying they just don’t understand how things work, we taught them how the university works, acknowledging that it doesn’t always work well? What if we engaged their demands and told them to bring their critical-thinking skills (which we say we are teaching them in every curricular assessment report I’ve ever read) to bear on the situation?
To take just one example: the historian in me can’t help but wonder what would happen if we harnessed the student critique of donors, patrons, named buildings and the like to examine our institutional histories. I’m envisioning a series of conversations among faculty members, students and administrators that explored the lives of the historical figures whom students find controversial and whose names they want erased from the institution. Rather than dismissing such demands out of hand as too sensitive or misinformed, we should use students’ demands and critiques to further their education and the cultivation of critical-thinking skills.
What if professors and students engaged in the process of curricular design to increase the diversity of course offerings? We could harness student enthusiasm for particular issues and topics and involve them in the research and work necessary to guide curricula in new directions.
What if we pulled back the curtain and let students see what shared governance and the administration of higher education looks like? I’ve mentioned a university’s obligation to protect its faculty members -- which to students often sounds like an excuse for inaction. But what if we invited them to participate in a series of conversations about academic freedom and what it protects?
Even as I pose these questions, I know why we haven’t done it yet. Digging deep into the past of our institutions’ donors and patrons might result in some uncomfortable discoveries. It might even incite the removal of those names from our campus buildings. Involving students in curricular design would mean exposing our teaching and pedagogy. And a conversation about academic freedom? I can’t even get my colleagues to have such a discussion among themselves, much less with students and administrators.
The reason we hesitate is because these protests and these demands, even when they are naïve and even when they overreach, challenge our power and authority. But that’s just it: we have the power and the authority in this situation. And without perhaps fully realizing it, our students may be asking us to use it in the service of their education. Isn’t this the moment we’ve been waiting for?
Elizabeth A. Lehfeldt is dean of the Jack, Joseph & Morton Mandel Honors College and Mandel Professor in Humanities at Cleveland State University and vice president of the teaching division of the American Historical Association. She blogs at Tales Told Out of School.
Not surprisingly, the news media are reporting the incident as a violation of freedom of the press, and they may be right. But there are boundaries when it comes to media access on campus, and it's worth discussing them.
Years ago when I was an administrator at the University of Michigan, we had a horrific incident in which a student living in graduate student housing was stabbed to death by her live-in boyfriend. The assailant followed her out of the apartment and finished his attack outside in the yard in full view of the residents, many of whom had families with children. The sensational nature of the crime led to an embankment of satellite trucks, cameras and reporters in the grassy area outside the apartments, many of whom shone lights on and took up camera angles that looked right into the apartment windows of nearby residents.
We did not feel we could remove them because this was a major news story and because Michigan is a public university. But after the disaster was over, we began to question our decision making. Was it really reasonable to allow families to have their homes intruded on in this way? Could we not set reasonable and respectful boundaries?
I remember another circumstance when, after the Sept. 11 attacks, students were holding a candlelight vigil to grieve and express their sorrow. That created powerful visuals for the media, who again showed up in droves. The cameras sometimes positioned themselves inches from a crying student's face. Purely on compassionate grounds, that would seem to be an unreasonable invasion of privacy. But where to draw the line? Would it be OK for cameras to record the vigil but from a reasonable distance? How much personal space is sufficient?
Yet another ambiguous circumstance occurs when student reporters have access to potential sources in situations that are normally shielded from the media. Is it OK for student reporters to interview students in their dorm who are grieving over a fellow student who has died? Can they take pictures for publication in spaces that are normally off-limits to the public?
For public institutions funded by taxpayers, the presumption should be for access. But, even there, limits can be set. Conversely, private institutions have more latitude to restrict media access, but it is not always in their best interest to exercise that right. Many private colleges have a "public square" space where events and protests more frequently occur, and they often grant journalists broader access to those spaces than to private campus buildings.
In the aftermath of the stabbing death at Michigan, a group of us who worked at the university got together to create some clear policies around media access. We consulted many experts, including lawyers and those who advise the student media. In the end, we formalized and disseminated a set of guidelines that could help everyone make better decisions, rather than acting in the heat of the moment.
We shared the guidelines with media outlets regularly covered the university, including the student newspaper. We educated student groups that might be in the news about both access and boundaries. And when we knew big events were coming up that would attract media (such as the Sept. 11 vigil), we reached out in advance to remind reporters of our policies. All of this proactive work led both to more access when it was warranted and to better adherence by the media to reasonable boundaries.
Michigan's guidelines have been updated periodically over the years, but the core ideas have remained consistent. The presumption is for access, and the university typically allows all media such access in outdoor campus spaces and inside events that are open to the public.
However, some clear exceptions are spelled out. Among other situations, media access may be limited in:
Clinical or waiting areas where counseling or medical care is being provided, in order to protect patient privacy
Student housing areas including courtyards, lounges and other places where people may have a reasonable expectation of privacy
Classrooms when class is in session
Libraries, museums and other areas where quiet study is enforced or collections may be damaged by media equipment
Private functions that are by invitation only
Active crime scenes or areas deemed to be unsafe (such as after a fire or earthquake).
If your campus has not created such guidelines, I encourage you to do so and to consult widely, using this as an opportunity to have a thoughtful conversation about your college or university’s particular culture, values and reasonable boundaries. It is more helpful to have the discussion before you are in the midst of an incident where emotions are running high and people may act without thinking.
In addition, I recommend that campuses provide guidance to student groups and their advisers about interacting with the media. You can use development of media access policies as a hook for a discussion with students.
You can also watch for student groups that emerge in the news and get to them early in the cycle with expert counsel and an offer of support. During my time at Michigan, we frequently did this through a close partnership between the communications office and student affairs.
All of this proactive work will help you get through the moments when your campus is suddenly thrust into the spotlight. By the time the satellite trucks show up, it may be too late.
Julie Peterson is a consultant focused on strategic communication and leadership development in higher education. She previously served as vice president for communications at the University of Chicago and in a variety of leadership roles at the University of Michigan.
This past Friday morning on Facebook, an English professor at the University of Missouri and former doctoral student of mine, John Evelev, made what he says will be his last post about the protests against racism at the University of Missouri. Those protests culminated in the resignation of the system president and the Columbia campus chancellor -- and then led to a horrible number of overtly racist counterprotests and threats of violence against black students, faculty members and even ROTC members.
Evelev has written before about the climate of racism that the students detected and that now pervades the campus. In this post, he extrapolates from their concerns and their protests about racism to the very idea of protest itself, to the concept of participation and civic action in a democracy.
What Evelev wrote is so important to the future of democracy and of higher education that everyone needs to take it in. He has given me permission to quote him here: “While most people see this as simply or exclusively a protest against racism, the proper way to see this is as a pro-democracy movement. Universities and public universities in particular used to be democratic spaces, spaces of civic representation in American life. Faced with decreased public funding, they are being run more like businesses with leaders who are unresponsive or downright dismissive of students and faculty. The student protesters, along with the faculty and administrators who worked to remove Tim Wolfe, UM system president, and R. Bowen Loftin, the chancellor of the Columbia campus, were not just fighting racism, but fighting for university leadership that was democratic, responsive to the community, that recognized the university is not just an institution with a really bad profit stream. It is easy enough for the right-wing to dismiss the goals of the students as ‘getting rid of racism,’ but what they really don't want is an American population that actually seeks representation in their institutions, whether education or political. If faculty want shared governance, they are ‘living in an ivory tower.’ We should all want more involvement, more stake-ownership in the important public institutions of our society, not less.”
The students were protesting against racism, a climate of racism, and specific racist acts. They were also protesting against being silenced, being rendered invisible -- which, of course, is one of the most devastating, debilitating and definitional features of racism. The students were also advocating for the ability to have a voice, to make oneself heard. If anyone is silenced in a democracy, we no longer have democracy. That is true particularly of race, especially at this historical moment, as these students have shown us.
It is also true about democracy in general. What I believe John Evelev is saying here is that, in their protest, these students represent the highest aspirations of all education, higher education and public education. Indeed, they represent, as he so beautifully states it, the aspirations of a public in democracy itself.
We have seen so many attempts to suppress democracy and participation in public life -- from voting rights being curtailed to Supreme Court rulings making corporations into “people,” thus allowing businesses and the vastly wealthy to have inordinate power in shaping democracy. President Jimmy Carter has said we are no longer a democracy but an oligarchy, and many social scientists have said that, by definition, he is correct. Is this the society we want?
We cannot, as a nation, allow this to happen. We must reverse this terrible tendency. And the university is the place where this re-energizing of an idea of a “public” must begin. The university is where young people who are minors learn to become full active adults. If universities were only about vocational training, learning how to participate in a democracy would be a secondary factor. And for the vast numbers of full adults returning for skills redevelopment, this certainly may be true.
But we in America have opted to make higher education the place where we send those who are just reaching their majority: these are our children, our nation's future. And we hope that, when they graduate, they will not only know more about a subject, field, discipline and vocation. We also hope and believe that they will be ready to be fully responsible adults, productive members of a society.
In a democracy, that means participation. That means standing up for one's beliefs -- in a way that is civil, responsible, meaningful and true. That means learning to think clearly and articulate one's ideas. It means being able to write eloquently and express one's opinions persuasively. It means knowing not just a subject matter but why that subject matters in the world.
And sometimes it means protests -- especially when an open car, in which the president of your university rides, drives into a stadium in an official capacity and moves forward into a group of protesters, possibly even, according to one accusation, clipping one. Throughout this, the president sits in the car silently. These are his students, at his university. And they are black students. In Missouri, a state already riven by the racial incidents in Ferguson.
There is a lot of talk about whether or not the president should have resigned. It is his prerogative to resign. No one forced that decision. I don't know enough to comment.
What I do know for sure, about any university president, is that he or she must set the moral compass of the institution. Silence, in the car and in the aftermath, is not setting an example, is not modeling public discourse, is not addressing a problem. In view of that, it is not a surprise that Wolfe resigned. Not because of protesters, but because their protest threw into such vivid light what he himself had not addressed for over a month of a silence.
He isn't just anyone. He is the president, the leader. His actions and his words represent the university. He embodies, in actual and symbolic power, what higher education and democracy are for.
Was he afraid to speak? We don't know.
In some ways, the resignation is as baffling as the silence leading up to it. Open, public, intelligent discourse -- from the beginning and with wise and attentive and concerned leadership of the president -- might have been far better for everyone. Now two senior leaders will be replaced with two other senior leaders. What does that solve? Replacing one president with another does not change the conditions of the university. Replacing one administrator with another does not redress the problem of racism.
Leadership change changes leadership. Period. Open, strategic, participatory democratic attention is required to identify, address and solve a systemic problem. Change will only happen if whoever comes into the positions is committed to a better way. Such commitment is hardly a foregone conclusion.
That leads to a larger issue, one that Evelev is pointing to because it is a condition of higher education throughout the United States now. University presidents everywhere are under tremendous pressures these days, especially at public universities, to speak certain kinds of carefully guarded and protective and screened truths or be faced with trustees who want their resignation. More and more presidents are being chosen by such boards, sometimes without real support from the faculty members, students, staff, alumni or other administrators. The case of the University of Iowa is especially pertinent here.
But it is a pattern, an alarming one. President after president is being pressured to respond to politics, not to the mission and the calling of higher education. And I don't mean the small-p politics of student protests but the larger party politics of governors, trustees and funders who have ideological motivations and corporate ones, too.
Higher education must be about the free circulation of ideas, about genuine and responsible expression of ideas, about public discourse at its highest and its most urgent, about debate and dissent conducted in public as well. If there is no room for democratic discourse at a university, then our society is, quite simply, sunk.
Indeed, since John Evelev’s original Facebook posting, the terrible violence in Paris has given new meaning to the call for sane, rational, informed discourse in a democratic society. Innocent people have been murdered. And one reason they have been murdered is because terrorists do not want sane, democratic discourse. They seek to feed blind, uninformed panic. Such panic can lead to retribution not just against the guilty (who deserve it) but also against innocent people who can seem (to outsiders) to share characteristics of ethnicity, race or immigrant status with the perpetrators of violence.
Feeding a cycle of unthinking blame laid against the innocent is exactly what terrorists want. We are hearing far too much of this xenophobia already in the tragic response to a terrible tragedy.
And that brings us back, again, to the issue of racism. Attributing guilt to an entire group is, of course, one attribute of racism.
We have bequeathed to this generation the legacy of a frightening, complex world where the solutions are as difficult to understand as the problems. It will be their job, in the future, to solve these problems. There is no more profound mission of the university than to help prepare them for a future where informed democratic discourse and deep and substantive critical thinking are in constant danger of being drowned out by the forces of ignorance, prejudice and violence. It is a formidable challenge. The least we can do is respect the seriousness of the struggle.
Cathy N. Davidson is a distinguished professor and director of the Futures Initiative at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.
We talk, we text, we tweet. And that’s fine. We needn’t require ourselves to think deeply at all hours, in all weather. Some things just don’t need the time, space and gravity we associate with such terms as “discourse,” “debate” and “dialogue.”
But many things do. And one of the dangers for a society that gets too used to the frenetic and featherweight -- and to media tailored to delivering little else -- is that when a real issue comes along, with conflicting ideas and multiple facets, and complexity and weight and much in the balance, we simply have no way to discuss it.
Think immigration in Arizona, justice in Ferguson, religious freedom in Indiana, water wars in California, Confederate iconography in the South, sexual assault on college campuses.
And, importantly, issues like these don’t “come along.” They’re always with us, constantly testing us, and our decisions about them matter. They determine what lives we lead, and what world we’ll leave behind.
So it makes a difference that discourse today, when it happens at all, is often rife with personality, politics, opinion and noise but short on facts -- much less analysis and insight.
This predicament touches on a counterintuitive point that goes to the heart of the problem: facts are not enough. Daniel Moynihan’s eminently quotable “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts” is true enough as far as it goes. But simply memorizing those facts, then trading them with people who already agree with you, advances no argument and makes no decision easier or wiser.
To argue in the sense of debate, to hold a constructive, reasoned conversation with the potential to change minds, we first have to engage the minds we would change: our own as well as others’. Students don’t necessarily arrive at college with the skills to do that, unfortunately, and it’s no wonder. Our digital bubbles and the social media hall of mirrors make it possible to seem connected to every person alive, discussing every topic under the sun, when in truth we’re often engaging merely with enclaves of the like-minded.
A hall of mirrors doesn’t add perspectives, it only multiplies your own; its depth is all pretense.
This is a major paradox of our time. Think, for example, of the heyday of broadcast TV, when news networks numbered exactly three and were indisputably more homogenous than today. And yet they routinely offered opposing points of view. Today our options for news and views have grown exponentially, but paradoxically so too have our tools for sorting ourselves into virtual silos. Two points of view are rarely sufficient in any case, as almost nothing worth arguing about has just two sides. But now, with 1,000 channels and countless blogs that double as echo chambers, we don’t have to listen to even that many.
And while real debate would doubtlessly improve our current landscape, perhaps “dialogue” is the best word for what is most needed today, and always. For true dialogue, two things are required, besides the will to think for oneself rather than accept some authority’s shrink-wrapped opinion package.
The first is to find a sense in which we’re in it together. “We” can be students in a classroom, business competitors, House and Senate colleagues, or newly established neighborhood associations, but the default position has to be the same: if an “us vs. them” dynamic prevails, everybody loses.
In this way, dialogue is equally pledge as practice: it urges us to uphold a sense of community above all, no matter the size of the controversy or the intensity of the conflict. It’s more huddle, less face-off.
It’s also our best tool for delivering productive, civil and nuanced results from even the most passionate disagreements -- which, it’s worth pointing out, is not only inevitable but desirable in a place dedicated to the life of the mind.
Here higher education plays a role that can be easily obscured by the very proper focus on difference. College should most definitely put young people in touch with the vast variety of human thought and experience. But if we do it right, they should also have a growing appreciation for what unites us beneath our differences in color and country, class and gender, age and era: the reassuring bedrock of the genuine human needs, abilities, drives and virtues that we hold in common.
And let’s not pretend any of this is easily done or effortlessly taught. It takes considerable self-awareness, patience and discipline to contribute to such complex conversations, and it takes even more to lead them, to say nothing of the skills and wisdom needed to teach others to do the same. It should be the goal of every intellectual community to advance the depth, breadth and sustaining power of face-to-face dialogue.
The second requirement for true dialogue may be even more important. It depends on a mind-set that can be expressed in four words: I might be wrong.
“The spirit of liberty,” Judge Learned Hand famously said in a 1944 speech, “is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.” The rest of his sentence is less often quoted but equally pertinent: “The spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women … which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.”
That’s a high bar for a species as tribal and fallible as ours, but it’s a worthy one. Truth be told, it’s the only way we’ll ever make progress in judging how best to live together, whether that means in colleges, communities or countries.
The best way to start clearing that bar?
Helping our young people to value reflection over reflexes, giving them effective ways to listen, think, converse and cooperate -- not offering them “cut flowers,” as the educational leader John Gardner once put it, but “teaching them to grow their own plants.”
Ryan Hays is executive vice president at the University of Cincinnati.
Media pundits agree: college students are politically correct, infantile whiners who can’t tolerate discomfort regarding their values or sense of identity. Versions of this narrative have become common in recent months as student activism has increased around issues of sexual assault, race-based discrimination and hate speech.
Descriptions of exaggerated behavior are trendy: Judith Shulevitz’s article for The New York Times in which she expresses concern about student hypersensitivity has been shared on Facebook more than 100,000 times since it was published in March. One anecdote from Shulevitz’s article, describing students’ creation of a “safe space” for sexual assault survivors that featured a video of puppies, has been recycled by thousands of other media outlets.
At Princeton University, we saw an uptick in student activism during the past academic year, including demonstrations and social media campaigns. I’ll admit that, like every college administrator, I’ve encountered a few student activists who are strident or immature. Some students reflexively oppose everything proposed by “the establishment,” and some don’t understand the concept of freedom of expression. These activists undermine their own causes by making themselves ripe for caricature.
But we should resist this dismissive depiction of college students, which uses the most egregious examples to mischaracterize the full range of activism. It’s seductive to buy in to this distortion because it allows colleges and universities, as well as the general public, to play down the causes for concern.
We can’t allow trivializing stories about the beliefs and behavior of a few students to distract us from the responsibility to prevent unfair and discriminatory experiences for those with minority identities.
Explicitly bigoted events still happen with painful regularity on campuses. This year, Bucknell University expelled three students for racist comments made on a radio program, and the Westchester County district attorney’s office is investigating images of swastikas and nooses spray painted in dormitories at the State University of New York’s Purchase campus. The University of Oklahoma closed a fraternity chapter after video footage surfaced of a racist chant by the chapter’s members.
When incidents are so extreme, colleges and universities typically respond with reprobation and swift disciplinary action. But many of the barriers to an inclusive campus climate are more nuanced and difficult to address. When students challenge their institutions about these issues, they are expressing real concerns about real experiences.
When Harvard undergraduates launched the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign in 2014, they used self-portraits to express the subtle ways in which they were made to feel isolated or stereotyped. “You don’t sound black … you sound smart,” one student recalled being told. The campaign has since spread to more than thirty universities on four continents.
Two new studies confirm that these interactions -- ranging from the small slights often labeled “microaggressions” to outright harassment -- are common and have lasting effects. One study (Caplan and Ford, 2014) describes the ways in which racism and sexism on four campuses undermined students’ academic performance and ability to take advantage of extracurricular offerings. A second project that surveyed students of color at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Harwood, Choi, Orozco, Huntt and Mendenhall, 2015) found similar outcomes.
On another front, student activists have pushed college administrators to respond more aggressively to sexual harassment and violence on campuses. Cases like the recent rape trial at Vanderbilt University get the most attention, but evidence continues to accumulate that the risks in general, particularly for young women, are inexcusably high.
In June, both a University of Michigan internal survey and a broad-based Washington Post poll reported that one in five women say that they were sexually assaulted in college.
These negative personal encounters are being exacerbated by anonymous social media platforms like Yik Yak. These apps, which work within a restricted radius close to campus, have become a well-documented vehicle for anonymous abuse, including racist, homophobic and sexist statements as well as threats of mass violence.
Examples like these remind us that issues of campus climate and safety are not just the fantasies of thin-skinned students. On the contrary, coping with these experiences requires resilience.
I won’t claim that students on my campus always knew how to organize effectively, or that their indignation was always well expressed. Contrary to the media portrayals, however, they were consistently constructive. Stimulated by the episodes of police brutality nationally, our students worked with faculty members and administrators to apply the problem-solving skills they were learning in the classroom and make recommendations to enhance the campus climate locally. Both the undergraduate and graduate student governments sponsored forums and referenda that provided useful feedback.
Let’s not allow cherry-picked examples and silly stereotypes to distract us from the responsibility of colleges and universities to guarantee equitable experiences. Nor should we underestimate the meaningful role that student activists can play.
This year is the 55th anniversary of the Greensboro sit-ins, when students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University decided that they would no longer tolerate segregated lunch counters. As the sit-ins spread to multiple cities, anxious college leaders disavowed the protests and tried to persuade the students to halt.
We can be grateful that the Greensboro students ignored their elders. Our students will ignore us, too, if we waste the opportunity to work with them to create the fair, inclusive environment that they deserve.
Michele Minter is vice provost for institutional equity and diversity at Princeton University.
Students were a key force in toppling Ukrainian autocrat Victor Yanukovych. They were on the Maidan battleground in Kiev from beginning to end. They were also instrumental in the 2004 Orange Revolution in the aftermath of that year’s presidential election, which was marred by corruption and outright electoral fraud. Students were active on Tahrir Square in Cairo when Hosni Mubarak was forced from office, and they were active participants in all of the Arab Spring movements.
The beginnings of student-dominated youth movements in “color revolutions” come probably with the Serbian Otpor (“Resistance”) movement, which was started in 1998 as a response to the repressive university and media laws introduced by the regime at the time led by Slobodan Milošević. In 2000, Otpor organized a campaign “Gotov je” (“He is finished”), ultimately leading to Milošević’s defeat in elections. Organizations such as Kmara in Georgia, active in the Rose Revolution in 2003, KelKel in Kyrgystan in the 2005 Tulip Revolution, and Pora in Ukraine were all inspired and trained by Otpor. Students occupied the Taiwan legislature protesting a trade agreement with China for several weeks in March, 2014 — and spearheaded a protest rally of 100,000.
Although the era of student revolutions may have ended a half-century ago, students continue to be active in politics, and they are often a key force in political movements directed toward social change around the world. Students may no longer be at the center of political movements, but they are often indispensable participants, frequently helping to shape the messages, ideologies, and tactics of protest movements.
Students have also been engaged in university politics and policy. German students successfully pushed to have free higher education restored, convincing politicians and the public. Similarly, high school and university students in Chile demonstrated for extended periods to improve educational quality, end for-profit education, and eliminate tuition and fees. They finally succeeded when Michelle Bachelet won the presidency in 2013. In Canada, the “Maple Spring” protests in 2012 emerged from students’ opposition to the government’s announcement of increased tuition fees and led to the fall of Québec’s government.
In some parts of the world, student agitation, often relating to campus issues, cause governments to shut universities for extended periods. This has occurred in Nigeria, and universities in Myanmar were closed for several years after student protests against the military dictatorship. In many of these cases, student demands have combined local campus issues with broader political concerns. They seldom had success in social change, although sometimes university policies or conditions have altered.
Despite continuing activism and impressive but often-ignored success, student activism has not received the scholarly attention that it once did. This may be because movements that may originate on the campus often move quickly off the campus and to the streets and involve many other segments of society. Unlike the 1960s, when students were often both the originators and main participants in protest movements, more recent movements have involved a wider section of the population. Students often lost control over the protests, and in fact in some cases student leaders left the campus to run for public office or participate in a broader leadership coalition. Nonetheless, students have remained a key spearhead for oppositional movements and protests.
The 'Iron Law' of Student Activism
There is an iron law of student political activism. Students can often bring public attention to political issues and, when there is an undercurrent of discontent, may help to create political movements that may destabilize or even defeat regimes. As a social group, students tend to have the leisure of time to exchange and develop ideas and organize within the tightly knit university environment; and the public tends to be sympathetic to students’ concerns.
But students cannot control national politics once a regime is removed. They may infiltrate political parties; but, in the wider political arena, the typically adversary and uncompromising voices of student activists do not get far. Societal politics is generally about political power vested in economic and military resources, in ability to build alliances and forge compromises. While energetic and driven, if students enter the political arena, they may become only a marginal voice — since they seldom possess the substantial and procedural knowledge, experience, and networks required for the larger political stage.
Indeed, in most cases, politics after the end of the social movement moves in directions quite different than advocated by the students. Thus, students may be a precipitating force for social and political change, but never control the outcomes.
Events in both Egypt and Ukraine support the “iron law.” Students in general did not favor the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood to power following the Arab Spring, nor were students in general happy with some of the ultranationalist forces that became influential in the recent Ukrainian events.
Success on the Educational Front
Students have sometimes had better success with educational issues. Although massive student demonstrations — and the opposition of British academics — failed to keep high tuition fees from being imposed in England and Wales, students were successful in Germany in rolling back tuition charges so that all of the German states are now committed to free higher education. Protracted demonstrations by high school and university students in Chile resulted in major education reforms and the rollback of previously high student tuition fees.
The contemporary student protests on the educational front tend to be against cuts in public finding of higher education and increases in tuition fees, both of which are associated with neoliberal reforms in higher education. Austerity measures, following the global financial crisis, have accelerated the implementation of such reforms in countries where they previously did not exist. Although the differences between countries continue to be pronounced, a sense exists nevertheless that the national higher education systems are becoming more alike in the sense of being more market-oriented, even in countries with a strong social-welfare tradition.
The fight against tuition fees remains the single most powerful mobilizing force for student activism worldwide. Other social-welfare concerns — such as availability of student housing, subsidized food and transportation — occasionally lead to more localized types of protests initiated by the local student unions and typically also fairly quickly resolved. Quality assurance is almost never an issue salient enough to mobilize students to political action. These questions are handled by the elected student representatives, who consult the universities voicing student expectations and their satisfaction.
21st-Century Student Activism
Many argued that student activism would disappear in the era of higher education massification. Diverse student populations, part-time study for many, the non-elite social backgrounds of most students, the increasingly high cost of higher education in many countries, and other factors all argued against active political and social engagement. This clearly has not been the case. Students remain a potent political and social force, and only the modes of their involvement have been changing. Students are less likely to vote and less likely to join political parties.
But they ARE more likely take part in online petitions, join boycotts, express views in online forums, involve themselves in advocacy social networks, and participate in demonstrations and protest movements. The nature of student activism still very much depends on which part of the globe is being considered. As the World Values Surveys depict, in Western societies where entire value systems have shifted to postmodernism, students are becoming more individualistic and perhaps more interested in subjective well-being, self-expression, and quality of life. There are other societies where democratization, including minority rights, freeing political processes and institutions from corruption, and so forth, remain salient and compelling issues.
Even in postmodern postindustrial societies, some students remain politically engaged — as evidenced by student involvement in the Occupy movements and student participation demonstrations against tuition increases in England. The potential grievances that may mobilize students into student movements for social change are obviously very different, depending on which part of the world is being considered.
Philip G. Altbach is research professor and director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College. Manja Klemenčič is postdoctoral fellow in sociology at Harvard University.