Students around the country are in revolt. So the pundits are pontificating. Much of it is hogwash, but there have been a few thoughtful analyses of what’s happening on American campuses. One of the best is a column in Sunday’s New York Times, “Why Are Student Protesters So Fearful?” by Todd Gitlin, a sociology professor at Columbia University, a one-time president of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the 1960s, and the author of outstanding books about that rebellious decade (The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage), the anti-Vietnam war movement (The Whole World Is Watching), Occupy Wall Street (Occupy Nation), community organizing (Uptown), and other movements.
I agree with much of what Gitlin says about the current student protests on campuses around the country. His analysis of students' wariness about their futures as the nation and the world faces economic and environmental turmoil seems accurate.
Also see, "Students Are Saying: Black Lives Matter on Campus, Too," by Oxy student Olivia Davis
In recent years, college students around the country have been mobilizing around a variety of issues. They’ve pushed their institutions to divest from energy corporations that are destroying the environment, demanded that colleges stop doing business with companies that make their clothing in global sweatshops, insisted that colleges address the problem of sexual assaults on campus, and rallied behind campus workers fighting for a living wage.
The current wave of protests—primarily around issues of racial inequality—is both a part of that broader movement and also something different.
The killing of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ongoing clashes between black communities and local police forces, led to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. That set the stage for the recent student protest at the University of Missouri (an hour from Ferguson), which led to the ouster of the university president and a spate of new programs and initiatives to address Black students’ demands for a more inclusive campus. The protest at Mizzou, in turn, inspired students at many other colleges and universities to express their solidarity and to demand reforms at their own institutions.
Many first-generation college students, including students of color, arrive on college campuses expecting a tolerant and welcoming atmosphere. When they confront the reality that college campuses aren’t immune to racism, stereotypes, and bigotry—among fellow students, faculty, and staff alike—they respond with shock, anger, frustration, and a sense of alienation (“do I belong here?”). When low-income students go to the same classes and live in the same dorms with affluent students who drive expensive cars and spend more on beer money than they have for books and supplies, they realize that despite how hard they’ve worked to get here, the playing field isn’t level. Although many low-income, and even middle-class, students have significant amounts of financial aid, most of them know that they will graduate with a huge burden of debt, which is why the recent calls by politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders to reduce the cost of higher education resonate so well with today’s students.
My sense of the 400 students who occupied Occidental College's administration building over five days last week, and who won almost all of their demands, is that believe they can be responsible change agents.
But despite all these experiences and burdens, I think that Gitlin's concern about students' feelings of vulnerability is a bit misleading. Vulnerable, perhaps, but hardly cowed or intimidated.
Students in general, students of color in particular, and Black students even more so, are rightfully angry and upset about many aspects of our society in general and their colleges and universities in particular. But these students don't feel like helpless victims.
My sense of the 400 students who occupied Occidental College's administration building over five days last week, and who won almost all of their demands, is that believe they can be responsible change agents. They quickly turned their "hot" anger into "cold" anger. They gained considerable confidence as their protest gained more and more support among fellow students. I was particularly impressed how Oxy's Latino, Asian, and white students rallied as allies with the Black students who led the protest.
The Oxy students demanded the creation of a long-delayed Black studies program (to parallel existing Asian studies and Latino studies programs), more faculty of color, more funding for student of color organizations (comparable to what other student groups receive), programs to educate faculty, staff, and students about cultural diversity, a vice president responsible for monitoring and initiating diversity programs, changes in the practices of the campus police force, and a first-year seminar program that focuses on writing and other skills but also gives faculty in a variety of science, humanities, and social science disciplines an opportunity to discuss social justice matters.
On its part, the college administration made it clear that it would not seek to arrest the occupiers and would respect their freedom of expression. After some fumbles and missteps, it gradually responded to the protesters' concerns that reflected a desire to find common ground, although often with language that some students found patronizing. President Jonathan Veitch acknowledged their frustrations and acknowledge that he had learned a great deal about students’ feelings and experiences as a result of the protest. Except for the students’ call for him to resign, Veitch agreed to their demands—some with specific timetables and others with a willingness to figure out a gameplan.
Logistically, the protest and occupation was incredibly well-organized. The protest leaders were constantly reassessing their strategy in light of new information. There was constant communication among the students. They quickly set up a Facebook page, Oxy United for Black Liberation, and a website to communicate with each other, the broader student body, Oxy alums, and the college administration. Students asked professors to hold their classes in or near the administration building and many did so. They invited speakers from Black Lives Matter and UFW icon Dolores Huerta to talk with them. Many students did their homework while occupying the building; they were very self-aware about getting sleep, eating healthy, and making sure that students who felt sick went to the health center. When the occupation was over, the students cleaned up the administration building in order not to make more work for the college cleaning staff.
In his New York Times column, Gitlin worried that the current student protesters have tried to shut out the mainstream media because they don't trust it. At Oxy, that wasn't quite true. Yes, the student protesters were skeptical about the media, and for good reason, since much of the reporting (including the Los Angeles Times) trivialized their concerns. In reaction to that, the students had a pretty sophisticated desire to "control the narrative," as they put it. They did speak to reporters, despite their wariness.
Any protest movement is filled with drama and theatrics. The media likes the drama and the personalities. But the stakeholders have to follow the advice of the old civil rights song: keep your eye on the prize. They have to focus on the issues.
The student activists know that Oxy has sometimes been on the cutting edge of diversity issues, but their protest reflects their concern that even if Oxy compared well in some respects with other institutions, it isn't sufficient. So they also understand that the victories they've just won are not the end. These victories are steppingstones to further reforms to change both the practices and the culture of the institution. "The occupation is over but the movement has just begun" they said, as they ended the five-day occupation on Friday.
Oxy can become a better institution as a result of these events. The faculty wants to see the kinds of changes the students asked for. Many alums agree. It would be a good idea to invite a few younger alums (in their 30s and 40s) to serve on the board of trustees—people who can relate to current students and their experiences.
My only real concern is whether students—at Oxy and elsewhere—can "seal the deal." They are so skeptical of people in power (including the college's administrators) that they sometimes can't take "yes" for an answer. In the worlds of community, union, and civil rights organizing, the goal of protests, confrontations, civil disobedience, boycotts, and strikes is to pressure opponents to negotiate a binding written agreement—or in some cases a change in the law. That requires that the movement delegate a small group of folks to constitute a "negotiating team" to work out the details, costs and timetable; report back to the larger group what they've accomplished; and to monitor the agreement over time to make sure that people in authority do what they promised to do. It doesn't mean that they've been co-opted or that there's no need for further change. It means that they've consolidated their victory, given folks a sense of their own power, and changed the relations of power. They celebrate their victories, but acknowledge that more needs to be done.
The Civil Rights Movement recognized that while getting LBJ and Congress to pass the Civil Right Act, Voting Rights Act, and Fair Housing Act were incredible victories, and made life better for African Americans, these laws did not end racism. There was still much more work to do. As the great civil rights organizer Ella Baker said, "We who believe in freedom cannot rest."
Photos from Oxy United photo archive