to better understand student activism, read this document

This summer, I have often thought back to the past academic year of student protests. I felt, and feel, that the story was one of contrasts and contradictions. There was so much about them that was good and constructive, and so much that was frustrating and unhelpful, over and over. My opinion, ultimately, is irrelevant, and the students couldn’t care less about it, though as a leftist and as a college educator my interest is natural. I do think that we should recognize the degree to which Christmas vacation broke the momentum of activists at many colleges, a perpetual dynamic that, I’m sure, many administrators were counting on. But there’s always another semester, and always more problems to confront.

By chance, someone turned me on to this undergraduate honors thesis by Caroline Fox, Class of 2012, titled “An Adversarial Place: The 1989-1990 Academic Year at Wesleyan University.” It’s an oral history of a particularly contentious year of activism at a school famous for contentious activism, and a really brilliant piece of history. That it was an undergraduate document just makes it more impressive. If you are someone who follows student protests, whether a critic or supporter or (like me) both at once, I think it’s well worth a read. So much has stayed the same; some things have changed.

Inevitably, the story of the acts of political violence – two firebombings, shots fired at an administration building, and the drug-related murder of the prime suspect in that violence – takes up a good portion of that story. As many have said, the individual at the heart of that appears to have been disturbed, and I understand resistance to seeing those incidents as indicative of broader trends. But it’s essential to say that even absent that unfocused political violence, 1989-1990 was a year of extremity, with considerable anger, protest, even a hunger strike. Many things came together at once, in a way that would be echoes all these years later on college campuses in 2015-2016.

The first and, I think, most important lesson should be about the persistence of the injustice and inequality that students of color still face in the college system, and the shame that should inspire in all of us. The story told in this thesis is now more than a quarter century old, and yet many of the dynamics that compelled students to speak out in the first place endure. Consider this statement of the concerns of the African American student protesters:

the protestors ultimately demanded that the University upgrade the African-American Studies Program to a Department, increase the number of faculty members of color on campus, provide sensitivity training on issues of race for Public Safety officers, and complete a comprehensive study of race relations on campus.

Couldn’t this list of demands be applied quite easily to most colleges that have seen student protests in recent years? In the thesis, students of color talk about feeling alienated and alone; they argue that campus diversity efforts are insincere and insufficient; they claim that the administration is remote and uncaring; they express frustration with white peers who talk a good game but who clearly don’t understand what it’s like to be a student of color on a college campus. All of these problems persist. The sense you get, when reading this history, of how little has really been done to address the needs of this vulnerable population is palpable and enraging. That should be the first thing everyone understands about current campus protests: that they emerge from deep and legitimate grievances on the part of students who have been badly served by our system, and that these grievances are not new or secret. It’s a shame for all of us in the university system.

I also think that the document provides food for thought when it comes to how student activists should view and interact with administrators. The president at the time comes across as the perfect picture of a condescending, incurious white liberal, quick to reach for a platitude about inclusion and diversity but consistently patronizing and unfeeling towards the students and their needs. The students, naturally, responded with antagonism towards the administration. Take this snippet:

The five students upstairs – Sean Sharp ’92, David Payne ’92, Matt Nelson ’93, Chris Doyle ’93 and Conrad Powell ’93 – had been planning the inaugural protest since the summertime, and they had discussed kidnapping President Chace or handcuffing President Chace or knocking President Chace aside and handcuffing themselves to the podium.

This is about as adversarial as it gets! I am on record as saying that I think many current campus protesters have too much of a collaborationist model with administrators, petitioning them like customers rather than recognizing the inherent antagonism between the two groups. As a member of the peanut gallery, I think actions like that of the University of Missouri protesters – which deposed a president – are more likely to result in meaningful change than those student activists

There is also ample material here for those inclined to be critical of student activists, in ways that also speak to current conditions. Former protesters look back, frequently, and acknowledge that their actions were not well thought out or constructive. Many of those who supported the hunger strike, for example, express regret over how it played out, acknowledging that the action was poorly conceived and implemented. (They also express justifiable anger at an administration that, they convincingly argue, negotiated with them in bad faith.) A protest against a professor’s failure to get tenure seems misguided given that the professor refused to provide a CV for the tenure committee to evaluate. Many of the protesters look back at the past with a mixture of pride and embarrassment. None of these problems should undermine our sympathy and solidarity with student activists, and tactical mistakes are a fact of life for protesters of all kinds, particularly those who are young and still finding themselves as political minds and as people. But there’s nothing wrong with looking to the past and trying to draw some lessons for more effective work in the future.

Perhaps what I find most striking in the document is the tendency for student protesters to go on to lucrative professional careers, which complicates our understanding of protesters and their relationship to the socioeconomic realities of the contemporary United States. Some of the most active protesters involved went on to hold endowed professorships at major universities, to work in MIT’s prestigious D-Lab, to work as executives at major environmental consulting firms, to practice law, to orthopedic surgery…. One prominent protester, in fact, went on to become a trustee at Wesleyan!

This is one of the dynamics of college protest that makes it unlike other kinds of activism: the regularity with which anti-establishment protesters go on to become a part of the establishment. Any protest movement features people who will go on to be part of “respectable society,” of course. But few members of the Fight for $15 movement, say, will become executives at the corporations they now protest. College students, in contrast, are significantly more likely than the national average to go on to becoming members of the economic and social upper classes. That’s just a fact. Most protesters will eventually graduate, and college graduates enjoy persistent and significant economic advantages over those without a college degree. And this has to color our understanding of how campus protests play out — and how they lose steam.

I do not, at all, begrudge young activists who go on to earn lucrative, socially-desirable careers. For many of them, the ability to gain entrance into the upper rungs of the American striving class is a central part of social justice. There is no ethical living in capitalism and I am, after all, attempting to climb the ladder in my own ways myself. The eventual career choices of student activists don’t undermine the legitimacy of their work on campus. But we should understand that the ally of today often becomes the adversary of tomorrow, that the machinery of meritocracy has a habit of sucking up into its maw even those who most loudly oppose it at an earlier age. I have noted before the odd dynamics that are frequently at play – say, the student who moves on from many hours of activism in Fall semester to an unpaid internship at an investment bank in Spring semester, how students work simultaneously to attack our social hierarchy and to advance themselves upwards within it. If I am sometimes more skeptical of college activists than some of my lefty peers, it is often because I watched committed radical activists become, in time, the very uninterested moderates who through inaction perpetuate the unjust systems they once railed against. This is not a universal dynamic by any means. But often enough, the activist who shouts loudest today will go on to privileged quiescence tomorrow.

None of this changes the fact that students of color did and do live in a society with entrenched and vicious racism. Nor, again, does it mean their demands are any less legitimate. And there is no doubt meaningful differences between different colleges, and between public and private schools, when it comes to the eventual lives of student activists. I simply mean to say that class matters, that it has real, material effects on the world around us, including for college students, including for women and people of color. Today, mainstream liberalism seems poised to abandon any commitment to economic equality at all, opting instead for a program merely of diversifying the meritocratic elite, a program which necessarily leaves most people behind, white and black, man or woman. Right now, there is deep confusion along the broad left-of-center about what our political project is for. Liberals express themselves in the radical idiom of intersectionality while embracing tepid reformist politics. And everywhere the relationship to meritocracy is muddied and confused. Is the point to tear down meritocracy and “equality of opportunity,” capitalist shibboleths that would be unjust even if they were possible? Then I’m with you. Is the point to simply improve the superficial diversity of the elite, to leave the world with more top-down domination, but with that elite looking more like the country as a whole, proportionally, then it does now? Then I’m not with you. Those are not the same project – in fact they are directly antithetical projects – and college activists, and the left-wing in general, must know the difference and say the difference. For me to ask that question is not to insult student activists. It’s to take their project seriously. It’s to care about who and what they are.

You can feel free to disregard all my commentary here, but if you are interested in these topics, please give the thesis a read, and come to your own conclusions. I understand why so many people are resistant to critiques like mine. I get it. Even if you acknowledge that my critiques come from a space of genuine and deep investment in the need to address the perfectly legitimate complaints of the student protesters. And perhaps those people are right, and it’s just not my place to judge. But look at it from my perspective: if you grew up where I grew up, and you saw all these things, and you spent most of the rest of your life on one college campus or another, and you saw the same cycles and the same dynamics play out over and over again, and you saw movement after movement succumb to the same old self-inflicted wounds… wouldn’t you ask if it perhaps was time to try something new?


  1. One of the problems is that the social justice narratives are defined through identity, but fail to take into consideration that there are major class differences within the identity groups. So you have feminists who fight for the interests of upper/middle class (white) women while claiming to fight for all women and black activists who fight for upper/middle class black people while claiming to fight for all black people. Because they personalize the grievances, rather than have solid theory, the narratives that result no longer match reality/science.

    For example, a dominant social justice narrative is that sexual assault is an epidemic on campus. It is so dominant among the American left that Hillary made ‘campus sexual assault’ an issue (see, rather than sexual assault in general. Yet (scientific) reality is that sexual assault is slightly more common off campus. So why does the mainstream feminist narrative limit itself to campuses so often? Because that’s where the elite are that define mainstream feminism. Their reality becomes social justice reality, which then ends up promoting the concerns of an elite.

    And because these activists have no perspective or understanding beyond personal grievances, once they leave the university and manage to become part of the elite, they lose their grievances and thus their activism. This is not a change or flip, it’s perfectly consistent for narcissists to change their opinion when what is good for themselves changes.

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