Public Universities Join Attack on Progressive Activism


As Republican attacks on public employees garner headlines, public universities are also driving to stamp out progressive activism. The University of California, Santa Cruz has abolished its Community Studies department, which allowed students to major in a curriculum focused on social change, and provided field studies placements with nonprofit groups.

The University of Oregon, whose campus is dominated by buildings funded by Nike founder Phil Knight, has seen the administration’s longtime hostility to OSPIRG (the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group) backed by conservative student representatives seeking to defund the campus’ leading activist and community service group.

Santa Monica College student Diana Hernandez speaks with activist/author Randy Shaw during a book signing and lecture by Shaw at Santa Monica College on the main campus in Santa Monica, California on Thursday, March 23, 2010. Shaw spoke about the link between the strategies of the United Farm Workers during the 1960’s and the recent Barack Obama presidential campaign.

Santa Monica is another progressive city where local college administrators seek to squelch student activism; in this case, a CALPIRG chapter at Santa Monica College. These attacks on student activism are less publicized, but involve the same strategy as the undermining of collective bargaining for public employees: eliminating organized resistance to corporate power.

Defunding Progressive Student Activism

I was in Eugene, Oregon last week when I came across the Oregon Commentator a self-proclaimed “Conservative Journal of Opinion.” Funded by the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, its agenda is clear from its Mission Statement on the inside cover: “We believe that the University is an important battleground in the ‘war of ideas’ and that the outcome of political battles of the future are, to a large degree, being determined on campuses today.”

Winning this war of ideas means killing campus funding for OSPIRG, whose students combine work in food banks, homeless shelters, and community gardens with aggressive advocacy against corporate polluters, big banks, and other financial backers of the conservative movement. The lead editorial in the magazine’s February 9, 2011 “Sex Issue” compares OSPIRG to “genital herpes, ” and claims that OSPIRG’s efforts to mobilize students for social justice are akin to spreading “gonorrhea of the throat.”

“I OPPOSE OSPIRG” takes up the entire back cover of the Commentator’s January 26, 2011 issue, which features interviews with the founder of the school’s anti-abortion “Students for Life” chapter and with a student senator who continually bashes OSPIRG.

This is the anti-progressive, anti-community service, anti-activist message that University of Oregon students are funding.

And they are funding this message instead of the activities of OSPIRG, which provides students with community service opportunities and has been a leading force for increased Pell grants and reduced textbook costs, both of which benefit U of O students far more than The Commentator.

Why is a publicly supported university in a progressive city backing right-wing interests over OSPIRG, the only campus group that provides a training ground in organizing and activism? Because student funding is allocated by a student senate (the ASUO) elected by a small number of student voters disproportionately affiliated with fraternities and sororities. These representatives have every incentive to align with a school administration that has been hostile to OSPIRG since its former campus president, Ben Unger, publicly attacked Nike sweatshops in the 1990’s.

Last week, the ASUO rejected OSPIRG funding for the third consecutive year, though student body president Amelie Rousseau is an OSPIRG ally and is expected to veto the budget. The state OSPIRG chapter is keeping the campus chapter going, but the combined opposition from school administrators and ambitious student politicians eager to do their bidding has forced the activist group to divert energy toward funding battles at a time when their importance to students has never been greater.

The Transformation of UC Santa Cruz

Just as Governor Walker is making headlines by attacking a liberal institution in a traditionally liberal state (you would not likely see nationwide protests over attacks on workers in Alabama or Georgia), school administrators in progressive cities like Santa Cruz and Santa Monica are also attacking progressive student activism.

UC Santa Cruz was created with the express purpose of providing an alternative educational experience to that offered by other UC’s. Yet school administrators have been trying to transform the school into Silicon Valley’s educational partner since at least the late 1990’s.

California’s fiscal crisis finally gave UC Santa Cruz administrators the crisis it needed to implement its version of what Naomi Klein has described as the “Shock Doctrine.” Although closing the Community Studies department has as much to do with the budget crisis as Governor Walker’s plan to eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin, UC administrators succeeded in using the crisis to kill its popular and widely heralded program.

UC’s action eliminates the department that has long been at the center of progressive student struggles both within the campus and in the larger community. It means fewer opportunities for students to make connections with nonprofits that help for post-college employment, and facilitates the transformation of the school from a progressive, activist bastion to an eager “partner” with high-tech companies seeking profit, not social change.


  1. Lauren Steiner says

    Thanks for publishing this. I was totally unaware of it. Well, cross these colleges off my son’s list. I’m not paying to support these tactics.

  2. Don Duitz says

    Wouldn’t it be nice if someone started spinning the truth. Progressives need someone with the charisma of a Kennedy, the gumption of a T. Roosevelt, and the character of a Lincoln to counter the lies imbedded in the gop strategy of fear.
    Why aren’t we hearing more from the opposition to the hateful and self serving immoral tactics described above?

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