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The results of the midterm elections were revealing, in that young adults turned out in large numbers to prevent a “red wave” from occurring. What is sparking this engagement? And what is the role of higher education institutions in providing spaces that prepare young adults to vote and otherwise engage in civic life?

In a recently published article in the journal Educational Policy, J. Kyle Upchurch and I took a closer look at 11 colleges and universities that either had higher- or lower-than-predicted voting rates among their students. Along with the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education and affiliated researchers, we interviewed 502 faculty members, administrators and staffers at these colleges and universities. Our goal was to understand what aspects of the college campus were related to broader political engagement. We found that student activism was a key characteristic that not only further engaged students in democracy but also empowered them to reimagine democracy starting with the college campus.

Even though we often view college student activism as challenging and going against higher education institutions, we find there can actually be a more reciprocal relationship. These reciprocal relationships can create pathways for student activism that feed back into institutions and change them to be more democratic, equitable, diverse and just.

In our article, Upchurch and I refer to these pathways as “academic opportunity structures,” which determine to what extent college students are presented with subcultures that either support or deter activism. Not all colleges and universities promote activism. Some repress activism among students, and these decisions are noticeable in the unorganized activism that occurs there, the lack of democratic principles and culture on campus, and an avoidance of politics altogether among most of the student body.

The colleges and universities that do promote student activism are distinct. They facilitate what we call “democratic” and “equitable” academic opportunity structures for activism. While both structures motivate high instances of activism that influence institutional change, “equitable” structures work for everyone, especially the most disadvantaged and marginalized students on campus. There are five practices that colleges and universities can do today that open up these equitable structures on campus for activism.

1. Equalizing Decision-Making Power

Opportunities on campus for students to participate in decision-making are especially important for helping students understand power and develop efficacy in leading change. We find that on these campuses that equalize decision-making power, students sit on committees to develop institutional policies, they are part of meetings to determine student learning and curricular matters, and they have their own resources to manage programs and activities they are passionate about. Experiencing this power and voice makes them feel more invested in the campus community, and thus when they engage in activism it is as a specified tool to change the institution.

It’s not enough though to establish equal opportunity among students in decision-making, because we find that the most privileged and involved students then disproportionately experience power within these institutions. Colleges and universities that have equitable academic opportunity structures make intentional choices to invite, encourage and create space for the most marginalized students to lead and influence the institution. They do so by first creating an abundance of opportunities for students to participate in influencing the campus, and then actively recruit students from a variety of backgrounds and interests to take part in these activities.

2. Rethinking Bureaucratic Processes

At the college campuses that suppressed student activism, there were lots of instances of bureaucratic processes that made it difficult for students to access institutional leaders and report issues they thought were important on campus. These processes made students feel powerless, forgotten and neglected. Meanwhile, on campuses with equitable opportunity structures, faculty and students often praised the “lack of bureaucratic tape” that students had to go through to propose new departments, programs and policies. Making change feel easy and accessible to students helped inspire activism because students felt they had the power to pressure and push the institution to transform in ways they felt represented their needs. They also felt equipped with the tools to propose changes that were tangible and aligned with the broader goals of the college or university.

3. Activist Pipelines to Institutional Change

How college and university officials respond to activism also sets a precedent for how students engage in it. When administrators and faculty positively and productively respond to instances of protest, marches and sit-ins, they can open opportunities that invite students to shape institutional decision-making. For example, there was a sexual assault incident that occurred on one campus in the study that resulted in student protests. I was on campus interviewing students at the time and watched the president walk up to the protesters. Afterward, I heard cheering among the students. I learned that the president invited student leaders of this protest to work collaboratively with administrators and faculty on a committee to develop new policies that would reduce sexual violence on campus. It was then not surprising that I heard several stories of students engaging in both protests and institutional reform efforts on this campus.

4. Normalizing Contentious Politics

On campuses with an equitable opportunity structure, administrators, faculty, staff and students normalized challenging the status quo, which included critiquing the institution. Acknowledging the ways in which the university or college perpetuated inequities was not viewed as devaluing the institution. Instead, whenever students challenged the university or college in these ways, their activism was viewed as strengthening the mission and commitments of the institution to be more equitable, diverse, and just. Disrupting and interrogating higher education were normalized as opportunities to introduce new conversations, dialogues and actions to improve the college or university for all students, especially those with the least amount of power and representation.

5. Building Equity Into the Institutional Fabric

Finally, colleges and universities with an equitable opportunity structure were constantly building equity into their institutional fabric. They did so in many different ways. They had explicit statements of diversity and inclusion. They funded and supported cultural centers and cultural support programs for students across differences in sexuality, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship and class. But they also responded to negative events in ways that positively reinforced commitments to equity. Instead of shying away from diversity and equity issues, these campuses lean into them and try to work with students to improve them together, even if it means admitting the faults of the institution. For example, on one campus a hate crime occurred that resulted in the death of a Latinx student. After student protests, the university established an annual lecture about diversity that was named after the student, which everyone on campus now points to as “important to our culture.”

Why should colleges and universities strive to support student activism in these ways? Student activism is a distinct practice in that it can confront and disrupt widely accepted systems of power, oppression and inequities. These contentious politics when followed by these types of policies, programs and practices can transform higher education institutions to actualize their commitments to equity, diversity, inclusion and democratic principles.

Colleges and universities are constantly shaping opportunities for student activism, and they are places that are expected to educate for democracy. However, educating for democracy requires that students not only understand governance, civic duty and democratic principles, but they are also equipped to contest and reimagine these characteristics of democracy—starting with the campus. College student activism can be a vital tool for transforming postsecondary institutions to be more democratic, equitable and just—but only if there are opportunity structures for activism awaiting students when they arrive.

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