New Student Activism: Stops on the Road to New Solidarities

Steve Volk, April 24, 2017

protest-silsIt has been an unsettled period at the Claremont colleges in California. On April 6, about 250 protesters at Claremont McKenna College blocked the entrance to the building where Heather MacDonald was scheduled to speak. MacDonald, a critic of the #Black Lives Matter movement, authored The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe. She ultimately gave her talk for live streaming before a largely empty hall.

Students at Harvey Mudd staged an 8- hour sit-in demanding greater support for mental health issues on campus following the placement of an associate dean for Mental Health and Wellness on administrative leave. The president then closed the college for two days of campus-wide conversations on April 17-18 to discuss those protests and a series of other issues, including the leaking of what some characterized as “stinging remarks from professors” about students.

Following the death of a student at Scripps on April 6, the Residential Advisors at that college announced that they would go on strike on April 20 unless their demands, including the resignation of that college’s Dean of Students, were met.

Students at Pomona also responded negatively to a campus-wide letter sent by Pomona College president, David Oxtoby voicing his opposition to students who blocked MacDonald’s talk.

By coincidence, or perhaps less-than-divine intervention, I had been invited many months ago to speak at the colleges on April 18 as the 2017 Claremont Colleges Center for Teaching and Learning Distinguished Lecturer. My announced topic: “New Student Activism: Challenges and Possibilities.” This week’s “Article of the Week,” is the talk that I gave, with some edits, additions, and links to sources. Your comments, as always, are quite welcome.

Oberlin students march in favor of the rights of undocumented students. November 16, 2016. Photo Steve Manheim, Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria)

Oberlin students march in favor of the rights of undocumented students. November 16, 2016. Photo Steve Manheim, Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria)

What can we say about the moment we’re living in terms of student activism on campuses since the inauguration of Mr. Trump? On the one hand, students from Oregon State to San Diego State and from Auburn to Wichita State have staged powerful actions in support of undocumented students, DACA registrants, immigrants and refugees from around the world. On the other, events at Middlebury, Claremont McKenna, Canada’s McMaster University and elsewhere have attracted the media’s attention when students either shouted down speakers or refused to allow audiences access to hear them. Concerns over the erosion of civil rights under Attorney General Sessions have competed for airtime with protests over the cultural appropriation of hoop earrings (Pitzer College) or hair braiding (Hampshire College). That there are about 6,400 institutions of higher education in the United States and yet the actions of students at a handful of selective liberal arts colleges seems to set the tone for what the public thinks about this generation of students, activist or not, is probably par for the course. It nods to both the influence that a certain tier of private colleges and flagship universities has always exercised, and the (wearisome) pleasure that many in the media take in ridiculing students who protest at very expensive, elite colleges and who, in their opinion, should be thanking their lucky stars (or their wealthy parents) for being where they are rather than carrying on.

If it’s been an agitated semester at some of the Claremont Colleges, in contrast it’s been a relatively quiet year on my campus. Oberlin, situated by the New Yorker’s Nathan Heller at the center of the radical-irrational-illiberal vortex a year ago, has been, well, kind of calm. Reporters aching for stories of Oberlin’s nuttiness have been forced to return to protests from a few years back over the cultural appropriation of bahn mi sandwiches and sushi in the dining halls. (Google “Bahn mi,” and there, right behind the Wikipedia entry, is an article which leaves no doubt at all: “Lena Dunham Says the Oberlin College Food Court Serving Sushi and Banh Mi Is Cultural Appropriation.” How can you argue with that!)

I’m not teaching this year, but faculty and students I’ve talked to are not clear why it’s been so quiet. Some say that students are still a bit shell-shocked from the election results; that they are looking to have an impact without dividing the campus; that they are keeping their heads in their books as a defense mechanism. Or perhaps, it’s been quiet because our president announced at the start of the school year that he would be resigning on the completion of his tenth year at the college, and with that he removed a lighting rod for student protest.

And then again, and much more interesting, is the fact that there has been a lot of activism on campus. Students, faculty and staff have run numerous workshops on “undocu-Rights,” brought in speaker after speaker to discuss how to protect civil rights, sanctuary cities, “fake news,” and Syria and other countries  in crisis. Students have raised the issue of how to increase their access to the trustees, find more support in the budget for counseling services, and, most recently, challenge changes in housing and dining policies. But these aren’t (or haven’t been) headline grabbing types of activism.

The Illiberal Moment

Middlebury College protest against by guest speaker Charles Murray, seen in the background. March 2, 2017, Photo, Trent Campbell, Addison County Independent (March 6, 2017)

Middlebury College protest against by guest speaker Charles Murray, seen in the background. March 2, 2017, Photo, Trent Campbell, Addison County Independent (March 6, 2017)

My interest in student activism is a bit broader than the latest protest, although I’m quite interested in what Cornel West and Robert George have called an “illiberal” turn in activism that we have seen at Middlebury, Berkeley, Claremont McKenna, Hampshire, Smith, and elsewhere, campuses where students have blocked or disrupted invited speakers.  I’m interested in what such protests say about the moment in which we live, and, fundamentally, what these protests in both their “illiberal” and their progressive aspects say about the role of the faculty and the tasks of teaching and learning at this moment.

Even if the surprising electoral results have caused come recalibration in student protest, we are witnessing a level of student protest that has not been seen since the late 1980s, and perhaps not since its apex in the late 1960s and early 1970s. At Oberlin, we have been enmeshed in a cycle of protest since 2012. The current wave of student activism nation-wide has brought down presidents and chancellors, advanced reforms, generated criticism, and certainly captured headlines.

In sync with student activism since the 1960s, this generation of protesters has called for the redistribution of power and rule-making authority in colleges and universities, demanded changes that often rest beyond the institution’s grasp, pushed administrators into uncomfortable, if not untenable, positions, and, questioned the essential purpose and meaning of higher education itself.  After a lifetime in teaching, I must say that not only am I not disturbed by this, but that I would be more concerned if students grew complacent and only focused on getting their degrees, only focused on getting “value for money” without ever questioning what “value” means in the context of their education. After all, over the years it has often been student protesters who have reminded us of how far from many of our loftier goals for social betterment we have drifted.

And yet, if contemporary student protests can be seen as a continuation of earlier generations of activism, some aspects are different, both because of almost a half-century of neoliberal consolidation (which has done its work to turn students – and the rest of us – into a primary identity as consumers), and because we seem to be living in that distressingly “illiberal” moment that West and George referenced, one somewhat prophetically forecast by Fareed Zakaria back in 1997. In the context of rightist regimes — Hungary and Poland come to mind —  “illiberal” refers to governments that have reached power democratically (at least in the formal sense of receiving a majority of the votes), but that have turned their backs on minority rights that have long been a part of the democratic contract. Certainly, there are disturbing echos of this in Trump’s America.

When I use the framework of “illiberalism” to describe some student activists, I use it in the opposite manner. If student activists are jettisoning classical Millsian liberalism, particularly Mills’ view on the essential value of absolute free speech rights, regardless of content and regardless of how many may hold such views (“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind”), they do this because the “democratic contract” often will not, unless forced, even consider, let alone protect, minority rights. While there may be some activists who conform to the media’s view that protesters are “precious snowflakes” who seek protection from opposing views, more accurate would be to characterize their challenge to Liberalism as one based on a realization that the “marketplace of ideas” has quite successfully excluded many minority views from the conversation for an awfully long time. More accurate would be to say that many students are asking that we see that the academy’s devotion to open discussion, which of course we seek to promote, is often tied to privileges that not everyone has access to, including many in our own institutions.

And yet, even as this may be the case, I worry deeply that the act of shouting down speakers, by some, or inviting speakers whose primary purpose is not actually to educate but to provoke one’s opponents, by others, will not only leave hard-won academic freedoms exposed and vulnerable, but can challenge what it is we do in our colleges and universities:  teaching and learning. In this talk (and now, article), while recognizing the importance, indeed the urgency of student activism, I will examine some of the “illiberal” characteristics of current student movements that seem problematic to the extent that they undermine their own ability to get desired changes; problematic in that they can undermine the ability of faculty and students to pursue common goals, particularly as regards the social justice mission of many U.S. colleges and universities. I’ll suggest why I think this is the case, and lay out some ways forward that foreground the role of faculty as critical (if often absent) mediators of student activism, and finally argue that the classroom must be a central space of democratic praxis, one that can positively impact not just how student demands are formulated, but how change can come about.

Student Protest: Through-Lines and Differences

Historians of student activism have observed that protests have been here “from the literal beginning.” Harvard students in 1638 protested their house master’s over-generous use of the rod, as well as his wife’s partiality for serving them moldy bread, spoiled beef and sour beer. Half the student body at Princeton was suspended in 1807 for engaging in a violent rebellion in favor of what they considered to be their natural rights.

Image courtesy of Carol Smith

Image courtesy of Carol Smith

A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education reminds us of a protest at City College of New York that greeted a delegation of Italian students in 1934 who were representing Benito Mussolini. Not only did the president of CCNY refuse the students’ request to disinvite the fascist delegation, but he made attendance mandatory for freshmen. When the Italians were  introduced, most of the 2,000 students in the auditorium began to kick up a ruckus. The student body president, who quieted the crowd by stepping to the podium to introduce the event, instead called the Italian students “dupes” and said they were “enslaved” by Mussolini. When a professor of Italian tried to grab the mic from him, fights broke out and the assembly was cancelled. President Robinson expelled 21 students, suspended the student government, and called more than 100 students in front of disciplinary committees, all for having stifled the free-speech rights of the Italian students. It makes Middlebury look like a garden party at Downton Abby.

When I think of the contemporary era of student activism, I foreground the activism of the late 1960s, protests that were ignited by the civil rights movement (student activists from Berkeley to Brandeis had been educated by Mississippi Summer in 1964), the war in Vietnam, demands to allow political speech on campus, and, to a lesser extent, women’s rights. Student protest was often tediously ideological (Oh, the hours spent parsing Lenin and Luxemburg!) and frequently militant (building takeovers, student strikes). Non-violence began to give way to some violent actions in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s as the Weather Underground gained ground in SDS, although the majority of student protests remained peaceful. Student demands ranged from those linked to the anti-war movement (including critiques of the “military- industrial-university complex”), the closely related anti-draft movement, concerns for institutional reform, free speech rights, and demands for new curriculum.

Cover of the 2nd Edition of The Port Huron Statement. Public domain.

Cover of the 2nd Edition of The Port Huron Statement. Public domain.

Re-reading the 1962 “Port Huron” statement, SDS’s “founding” document, one can get a sense both of some through-lines of protest from the 1960s to the present, as well as some differences. Even in the early 1960s, students were raising concerns that universities had become assembly lines intent on mass producing ideologically conforming bureaucrats who would graduate to take their places in the corporate hierarchy. Long before MOOCs made their way into the higher education environment, SDS warned that “Colleges [were] develop[ing] teaching machines, mass-class techniques, and TV education to replace teachers, to cut costs in education and make the academic community more efficient and less wasteful.”

But SDS also argued for the importance of making the university a center of debate and argumentation: “The ideal university,” the document reasoned, “is a community of controversy, within itself and in its effects on communities beyond…” And far from seeing administrators as agents of or for student demands, SDS advocated for students to “wrest control of the educational process from the administrative bureaucracy,” and to do this by forming “an alliance of students and faculty… mak[ing] fraternal and functional contact with allies in labor, civil rights, and other liberal forces outside the campus…[and] mak[ing] debate and controversy, not dull pedantic cant, the common style for educational life.” [For more on this, see Angus Johnston, “Student Protest Then and Now” (2015) and Gerard J. Degroot, Student Protest: The Sixties and After (Routledge, 1998), among many others.]

As with many of the protests in the 1960s and 1970s, the current wave of student protest has been generated by, and is entwined with, national concerns, particularly racism, sexual violence, and growing inequality. Since Trump’s inauguration, students have brought attention to issues of immigration, the growing climate of xenophobia and the resurgence of white nationalism in the U.S. As well, campus protests have targeted college admissions practices, curricular inclusion, access to culturally relevant counseling services, and more equitable campus labor policies, among others. Much like earlier protests, student activism around these issues has developed autonomously on many campuses, although the Internet now allows local groups to remain intensely aware of events occurring elsewhere. Demands that were put forward at Amherst, for example, were independent of, but inevitably linked to, those penned at Missouri, Dartmouth, Kennesaw State and elsewhere.

Of the primary concerns prior to 2017, persistent racism on campus and in the nation, ignited by the #Black Lives Matter movement, attracted the most sustained attention of student activists. Regardless of the fact that colleges and universities are demonstrably more racially diverse than they were in the 1960s (and perhaps because of that fact), and that they are fundamentally transformed from the (mostly) all-white, elite institutions of the 19th century, as Harvard Law Professor Tomiko Brown-Nagin wrote recently, the critique of campus life put forward by the current generation of students “poses a profound challenge to those who have never seriously contemplated how inclusion might or should change institutional practices inside the classroom and outside of it.” If attempts to improve “compositional” (or quantitative) diversity have been difficult, the demands for “interactional” (or qualitative) diversity have met even less success, leading to the students’ insistent questioning of issues of representation and accountability. (For more on this, see Tia Brown McNair, Susan Albertine, Michelle Asha Cooper and Thomas Major, Jr., Becoming a Student-Ready College: A New Culture of Leadership for Student Success (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2016).

Mario Savio on Sproul Hall steps at UC Berkeley in 1966. Photo by Mjlovas at the English language Wikipedia.

Mario Savio on Sproul Hall steps at UC Berkeley in 1966. Photo by Mjlovas at the English language Wikipedia.

And yet, if the current generation of student protesters carry some of the same oppositional DNA from earlier generations, they also differ in important ways, some of which lend themselves to easy caricature, others which are a product of the technological age in which we live, and still others which can raise concerns. Among these differences, I would note five aspects in particular:

1) The interiorization of the language of protest. If some forms of contemporary student activism look familiar, the language of protest is often quite distinct, being less ideological than it was in the 1960s-1970s, and often highly psychologized, emphasizing issues of personal trauma and individual safety. This might have to do with the fact that, with the demise of socialist states in the world, the Left has edged away from “grand narrative” ideologies and is at a theoretical (and often practical) loss as to how to confront the current moment. Whatever the cause, the turn toward a language of “interiority,” with an emphasis on personal pain and feelings, quickly conjures up an eager media’s image of the “coddled” student who seeks safe spaces, avoids vexatious ideas, and sees college as a place to “practice activism.” This is even more the case when such language arises among privileged, sometimes very wealthy students at elite coleges. Student protests on individual campuses (especially when magnified by the media’s attention) often foregrounds personal and psychological over structural issues, or, as George Lipsitz, a professor of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, once put it, “the cultivation of sympathy over the creation of social justice.”

I am not prepared to argue what has given rise to this linguistic-political turn, but one can justifiably ask if it is one with a larger trend that has seen the number of students seeking mental health services at college and university counseling centers increase by nearly 30% between 2009 and 2015 (Center for Collegiate Mental Health); or a product of the fact that more than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015-16 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety (Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors).

At the same time, I hasten to point out that issues of safety carry a very different valence for black students (not to mention faculty and staff – as Raina Leon’s painful and poignant recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Don’t Let Them Steal Your Joy” reminds us), as well as for Muslims, immigrants, undocumented, trans and other marginalized communities, all of whom are at greater risk in an age when more people feel emboldened to act out their racism.  Recently released findings from the National Survey of Student Engagement notes that one in seven black students feels physically unsafe on college campuses.

Protester at the University of Missouri, November 11, 2015. Photo by Mark Schierbecker. Creative Commons.

Protester at the University of Missouri, November 11, 2015. Photo by Mark Schierbecker. Creative Commons.

2) The internet: Everything looks closer and bigger: The internet has helped to shape contemporary student activism in both positive and negative ways. Its democratizing impact has made it harder to keep repressive and hateful actions under wraps. News spreads quickly, and students at hundreds of universities are soon made aware of events happening next door, across the country, or around the world.  But there are negative consequences of this information-saturated moment, as well. “While every generation of black Americans has experienced unrelenting violence,” Robin D.G. Kelley recently observed, “this is the first one compelled to witness virtually all of it, to endure the snuffing out of black lives in real time, looped over and over again, until the next murder knocks it off the news.”

The internet has the clout to make distant events seem threatening, and to allow events unfolding half-way around the world feel as if they are unfolding in the middle of one’s own campus. The internet’s ability to “relocate” remote events can make it harder to hide police violence, but it can also lead some students to feel that they need to respond to every injustice, all the time, removing both proportionality and immediacy. And its relentless nature can cause others to become increasingly desensitized and disengaged. (And here we need to circle back to the question of why student language tends to foreground issues of safety and personal trauma. I hesitate to raise this, but if horrific images from chemical attacks in Syria can cause – yes, cause – Mr. Trump to launch his missiles, our students (who I can say without hesitation, are orders of magnitude more empathetic than the man with his finger on the launch button), often only have the tools of their language by which they can respond, and that language will often express itself in traumatized forms.)

Furthermore, the internet’s restless intrusiveness and the outrage machine that feeds off it can easily explode minor events into national scandals. Oberlin has been at the receiving end of this internet bullhorn as student gripes (back to bahn mi) more than once ended up being picked up by the Washington Post or the New York Times.


New York Times headline. December 21, 2015

There is something to recommend about less important campus protests unfolding in quieter ways that allow both students and administrators to attend to student demands  without having to perform before a national audience of irate critics. At the very least, less attention can help students further explore issues which, like cultural appropriation, are complex and involve more history than casual readers have time or patience for, particularly if they’d just rather be angry.

3) The “call-out” culture. The internet also can claim some of the credit or blame for what has been referred to as a “call-out” culture.  “Call-outs” emerged in an online context as feminists and other progressive activists drew attention to what they saw as oppressive or discriminatory behavior or language. The spread of call-out culture from virtual contexts to campus activism can raise attention to acts of explicit or implicit bias; but it can also stifle discussion and silence legitimate questions. Students, often those who have taken courses that theorize identity, might decide to “call out” their peers’ language, swooping in on words, and sometimes behaviors, they see as offensive, uninformed, or culturally appropriative for the purpose of shaming, rather than educating, them. In one of my classes, for example, discussion ground to a halt when one student argued that we should be more “tolerant of others on campus only to be “called out” as racist by a second. The issue – the difference between “tolerance” (i.e. accepting others, albeit grudgingly) versus a positive impulse for diversity and inclusion– could have sparked a thoughtful exchange. But the intent of the first student, it seemed to me, was not to encourage further discussion but to humiliate. (For a useful discussion of “tolerance,” see Omid Safi’s “The Trouble with Tolerance.”) Deployed in such a fashion, the call-out is a silencing mechanism that makes it harder to discuss difficult issues, including ones that are often at its very heart, such as implicit bias. That these guardians of proper discourse are very limited in number doesn’t lessen their negative impact as stories of call-out shaming in classroom discussions, at student meetings, or when aimed directed at faculty, circulate quickly, increasing the reluctance of those who have legitimate questions or different viewpoints from talking, and everyone from learning. It also heightens faculty concern that students are laying discursive tripwires for them. While I know of only a few cases where this seems to have happened at my own college, I also know that many faculty, particular those most vulnerable, fear that they will be on the receiving end of such an encounter. Needless to say, it’s incredibly difficult to teach effectively when walking on eggshells.

4) Responsibility for change: Students at colleges and universities across the country have demanded wide-ranging changes on their campuses. Oberlin’s administrators and Board of Trustees, for example, were presented with 14-pages of demands in late 2015. It is not new that students see universities and colleges as some kind of late-medieval or early-modern institution where one can ignore layers of modern administrative bureaucracy and go straight upstairs to the “monarch’s” office to lay one’s demands on his or her desk. Yet while contemporary student activists want change every bit as much as previous generations, they don’t always seem interested in making change. Their demands often call for their college president to transform the institution, rather than either calling into question the legitimacy of administrative power (which would be a more radical move), or demanding the creation of structures whereby students can work with others to initiate at least some of the changes for which they are advocating. This is a more reformist move, but one which can expand student agency in what is, at the end of the day, a liberal, not a revolutionary, institution. Yet, to the extent that student protesters have made the president or chancellor both the receptacle and the agent of their demands, the sacking of those leaders often becomes the easiest way for trustees to “resolve” campus protest that have reached a critical level. Remove the president and you remove the problem.

Consumer-grad5) The student as customer: As market forces continue to drive many aspects of higher education, above all the cost of entry, it was perhaps inevitable that student protesters would come to embody those features of neoliberal capitalist culture they most dislike. If neoliberalism’s tendency is to turn all relationships into market transactions, then it should not be surprising that student demands themselves appear as consumerist entitlements, not only when presented by parents on behalf of their children (why didn’t Liz get into the photography class she wanted?), but in student complaints about everything from course workloads, to those who argue that they should only have to take the classes they want because they are paying customers. As one Oberlin protester told The New Yorkers Nathan Heller, “Like, the way the courses are set up. You know, we’re paying for a service. We’re paying for our attendance here. We need to be able to get what we need in a way that we can actually consume it.” The language of the demand is instructive: an important argument can be put forward for expanding the curriculum to include courses in Africana history, or the Latin influence on jazz, or many other topics, on the basis of addressing hitherto ignored cultural experiences. But those demands would be framed in ways other than as consumer entitlements.

Enter the Faculty

As I suggested earlier, many contemporary student demands, like those of previous generations of activists, are intended to push administrators into uncomfortable corners by insisting that they resolve problems that are often out of their control (e.g., ending racism), pit campus groups against one another (who controls the curriculum?), or for which they lack the resources (creating new faculty lines, hiring additional counselors, expanding library support services).  At the same time, student protests serve to remind us of things that can and should be done (e.g., increasing pay for custodial staff; moving to innovate the curriculum; improving communications), and of the more fundamental ways that higher education has not only fallen short of its declared goal of laying the foundations for a more equitable and just society but is actually magnifying the problem. As Suzanne Mettler observed in Degrees of Inequality (Basic, 2014), between 1970 and 2013, for families in the top income quartile, the percentage of U.S. students achieving a degree rose from 40 to 77%. For those in the bottom quartile, the percentage rose from 6 to 9%. Student protests will not in and of themselves eliminate the gap between the goals we share and our ability to obtain them, but by demanding that we “mind the gap,” they remind us that steps still need to be taken by all parts of the academic community. (See, as well, the Chronicle of Higher Education’s special report, “Does Higher Education Perpetuate Inequality?” June 7, 2016).

In that regard, my hope is not that student protests end. If higher education is to remain an institution that holds to the promise of admitting all who desire to enter, have a transformative impact on those who come through its gates, and help to shape a democratic citizenry, I would hope that our students continue to hold our feet to the fire. In that sense, and I truly hope that this is not seen to be patronizing, our aim should be to work as partners with students to make them both more effective and more responsible agents of change (and for change) in higher education. I don’t believe our colleges and universities will ever become “post-racial havens, enlightened islands free of prejudice,” as Robin D.G. Kelley once put it, particularly “when they are surrounded by a sea of bias.” But they can better serve the aims of a democratic society, and including a more focused student voice in the mix is critical for how this can come about. Let me set out a few steps that can help get us closer to this goal.

Truth in Advertising (or, as the Beach Boys would put it: Be true to your school):

As Jeff Chang details in We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (Picador, 2016), we live in a nation (re)segregated by income, race, cultural sensibilities, and political orientation. Distressingly, Beverly Tatum recently pointed out that more students now attend racially segregated K-12 schools than before Brown v. Board of Education was decided in 1954. Yet colleges and universities, particularly residential liberal arts campuses, stake their legitimacy on claims of bringing together an (increasingly unnaturally occurring) diversity: geographic, religious, racial, economic, and ideological. For that reason, as Corey Robin has argued, we are seen as “laboratories for social transformations,” experimental geographies where we can try to resolve issues that can’t be pursued in “society at large.” And while the actual diversity of our campus communities is usually more aspirational than actual, it is no less true that neither do they resemble the “real” world, which, in terms of residential and economic (and, hence, educational) geography, is increasingly homogeneous.

Ironically, this leaves our campuses open to censure from both ends of the ideological spectrum. Conservative populists, who distrust universities for any number of reasons, mock their imagined insularity. There is a disturbing cruelty expressed by those who ridicule student activists they imagine to be more concerned about gender pronouns than getting a job.  “Just wait until you get to the real world,” students are warned, “then you’ll get a well-deserved kick in the teeth.” It is no less ironic when progressive student activists, who do not see their own streets reflected on our campuses, complain that college “does not reflect the real world,” and declare, as did one Oberlin student interviewed by Heller for his New Yorker article, that they want to go “home, back to the ’hood of Chicago, to be exactly who I was before I came to Oberlin.”

The problem here is that we invite students into our uncommon communities based precisely on a promise of diversity, inclusion and equity. Oberlin’s mission statement, just one of many similar statements, proclaims its dedication “to recruiting a culturally, economically, geographically, and racially diverse group of students. Interaction with others of widely different backgrounds and experiences,” we promise, “fosters the effective, concerned participation in the larger society so characteristic of Oberlin graduates.” And yet neither Oberlin nor most other selective colleges and universities actually delivers a truly diverse student body or takes on board how institutional practices must change to reflect the new diversity that they do manage to deliver.

There are many reasons, often outside the control of college administrators, that determine this reality, so to say that our promises are more aspirational than actual is both a critique and a recognition of real (usually financial) limitations.  But to expect that many students wouldn’t react when our institutions fall short, when “dedication to” isn’t the same as “achievement of,” is short-sighted. A student at Yale writing about protests there in 2015 observed, “For starters: the protests are not really about Halloween costumes or a frat party. They’re about a mismatch between the Yale we find in admissions brochures and the Yale we experience every day…The university sells itself as a welcoming and inclusive place for people of all backgrounds. Unfortunately, it often isn’t.”

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo

Yale’s “March of Resilience” held Nov. 9, 2015. Photo

The first way forward, then, is a simple one: truth in advertising. If we truly believe in diversity as an outcome, qualitative diversity, then we should be welcoming students into a shared struggle that can move us closer towards the creation of the community we desire but haven’t realized. Rather than promising a “post-racial haven” free from discrimination, we would do better by truthfully reflecting both our limitations and the challenges of living in a country where promises of “liberty and justice for all” remain painfully unfulfilled. Our invitation to students is not to join the perfect community, but to enter a community that accepts these challenges and will work damn hard to provide students with the knowledge, skills and dispositions needed to advance towards these goals. We need to invite students to be responsible partners who will help us move closer to the community of diversity, equity, justice, and inclusion that finds an expression in so many of our institutional mission statements.

Focus on the Faculty

Colleges and universities have become much more complex than when Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California in 1963 who was later chewed up by the “Free Speech” movement, coined the phrase “multiversity” to suggest a new institution that joined undergraduate and graduate work, liberal arts and professional training, the arts and the sciences. But contemporary institutions of higher education have been forced to be much more than even what Kerr had in mind. Besides their core educational and extracurricular functions, colleges and universities are increasingly required, among many other services, to provide 24/7 student mental health counseling (refer back to the data on the mental health needs of the current student population), to staff complex legal aid services (particularly as colleges and universities have finally begun to pay attention to issues of sexual harassment and violence, thanks in part to Title IX), and to offer sophisticated career guidance and support before and after graduation. At many levels, these are indicators of success: we are actually enrolling more students from diverse backgrounds than before; we are actually paying attention to issues that previously were ignored or swept under the rug; we are actually concerned with student lives after graduation. But this has also meant that resources have migrated from teaching and learning to these new functions. And this has happened at the same time that the professoriate finds itself severely fractured, with a declining portion of full-time, tenured or tenure track positions and a mushrooming number of instructors trying to make ends meet as part-time, contingent faculty. And if the latter have little time to attend to student lives as they rush from campus to campus without an office to call their own, the former find themselves pressured to focus on securing grants, conducting research, and generating publications.

One result of these and other structural alterations (two-income earning households; the move by many faculty at liberal arts colleges away from campus towns and to nearby urban areas; etc.) is that oversight of students’ complex lives has drifted from the faculty towards an ever-increasing number of administrators and professional staff. And yet I would argue that while colleges and universities, necessarily and appropriately, have come to rely on skilled counselors when issues of student mental health or issues of sexual violence arise, and while our institutions benefit from professionally trained staff, institutions of higher learning have come to see student “life,” including student protest, as a matter for administrative, not faculty, concern. That should not be the case.

Don’t get me wrong: the faculty aren’t, by virtue of our education, training, or experience, more skilled or more patient with students than administrators or staff. In fact, often we aren’t. But of all campus constituencies, faculty remain in place the longest, have the most direct and regular contact with students, and, because of our location at the heart of the institution’s core mission, teaching and learning, we can often act as role models for students more so than other constituencies. Perhaps more critically than the above, many faculty are still afforded the protections of tenure, which means that, once achieved, we can more easily step out of our comfort zones and cope with difficult issues of student protest without fearing for our jobs.

Educational Opportunity Program, Berkeley

Educational Opportunity Program, Berkeley

To the extent that it is easier to shift the burden of contentious student behavior to the administration (to the president above all), the faculty absolves itself of any responsibility to help our students become active and responsible members of a democratic and just society. Faculty need to engage the challenges of student activism, supporting appropriate student desires to create the more inclusive, diverse, and equitable institutions that are envisioned in our mission statements, while critiquing demands or behaviors that undercut what we stand for as communities engaged in teaching and learning. Faculty, regardless of our own political orientation, need to be prepared to confront and challenge attitudes that would silence discussion in class, to help students think about and address difficult or ambiguous issues, and to model what effective participation, inclusive discussion, and a strengthened democratic culture can look like.

We can do this in many different spaces around the campus, from the athletic fields, to residence halls, to local coffee houses.  But it is in the classroom where we will best cultivate the potential of student activism.

Focus on the classroom

The Political Classroom

In The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education, Diana E. Hess and Paula McAvoy argue that schools “are, and ought to be, political sites.” Schools are being political, they contend, when they are “democratically making decisions about questions that ask, ‘How should we live together?’” (italics in original). I would argue that the classroom is one crucial space where students develop “their ability to deliberate political questions.”

Many faculty would assert that only in a few disciplines are instructors prepared to deliberate “political questions.” Yet, as John Dewey maintained when advocating for instruction in the sciences, teachers should think of these subjects not as bodies of “ready-made knowledge,” but as products of a method that would enhance moral reasoning. “If ever we are to be governed by intelligence, not by things and by words,” he wrote, “science must have something to say about what we do, and not merely about how we may do it most easily and economically.” [Robert B. Westbrook, John Dewey and American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell, 1991), p 170]

Further, to the extent that politics is about power, access to resources, and representation, then all our classrooms, calculus as well as constitutional law, are in an important sense “political.” In all our classrooms, we teach not just our subjects, but how to “live together.” And regardless of the subjects we teach, faculty are continually faced with the question not just of  who is in the room, but, more importantly, who isn’t, and why? We need to be asking: Who is more likely to succeed and who less? How does the way we teach impact the lives of our students, and how do (or how should) their lives inform the ways we teach? The answers to these questions are often shaped, if not determined, by understanding who has access to resources, both economic and human, and doesn’t; who will find support and representation both on campus and after graduation, and who won’t. These are questions for all our classrooms, and in that context all our classrooms are “political” even if the subjects we teach aren’t.

The Democratic Classroom

But, in an even more profound sense, classrooms are political in that they can and should be spaces of democratic praxis, spaces that embody the ideals of empathy, responsibility, community, equity, and critical consciousness. Democratic classrooms can enable students not just to learn the subject matter but to learn how to question, listen, speak up, critique, and participate meaningfully. Or not.  But we, as faculty, do have input here. Our classrooms will not prepare students for the practice of deliberative democracy unless they themselves embody democratic practices and are open to student voices, histories, and concerns. If student protesters are demanding agency and relevance, the classroom should be a place where they practice what these mean concretely.

ListenSo, do we turn our classrooms over to the students while absolving ourselves of any responsibility to teach the subjects that we are best prepared (and paid) to teach? Do we acquiesce to consumerist demands that we should only teach what they want to study? Not at all. Here are three points to engage what it means to construct a democratic classroom. [Much more could be added as the literature on this topic is deep. If you wanted to construct a genealogy of the theme, start with John Dewey (Experience and Education), move to a disciple of sorts, Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed), then on to his disciple, Ira Shore (When Students Have Power).]

Transparency and student voice: Of the many issues raised by student activists, the demand for “transparency” is one heard frequently. Whether this demand expresses a concern that decisions that impact student lives are being made behind their backs or is simply a call for better communications, the demand for transparency often feels incomplete; I’m always left waiting for the other shoe to drop. What is supposed to happen through greater transparency, when decision-making processes are brought to the light of day, when financial accounts are shared, when communication is more purposeful? This is not to argue against, transparency, just the opposite: transparency must come with the responsibility of using information in productive ways.

Transparency in the classroom entails both faculty disclosure and student responsibility; it requires, in a sense, that the other shoe drop. A central challenge for the democratic classroom lies in the instructor’s openness to disclosing the course’s architecture, the foundation on which it’s built and the structures which rise on that foundation: What theory of learning informs the pedagogy? How are its learning goals determined? How will the weekly readings and assignments build skills and knowledge? Why are specific readings chosen and how do assignments scaffold learning? How will students be responsible for their learning? Providing transparency about the architecture of pedagogical decisions opens one’s teaching approaches to examination (including self-examination) and invites students into the co-construction of learning in the classroom. Faculty don’t give up their expertise when they are forthcoming about the pedagogical choices they make. Rather, they signal that student input is critical for the conversation to advance, and that student voices need to be informed and their arguments well considered if the class is to be a democratic space of learning.

Respect, the process of inquiry, and the issue of free speech on campus: Student activists often question the basis on which arguments will be evaluated. As teachers and learners, we need to be able to construct arguments and arrive at conclusions that are based on evidence, open to examination, and subject to moral and ethical assessment. We need equally to help our students be aware of the ways that authority itself is both constructed and contextual, subject to revision and reevaluation. We need to be awake to the circumstances that encourage or dissuade participation in the conversations that take place in our classrooms.

When students enter the academic community, we hope they come with a desire to engage in a process whose goal is greater understanding and deeper reflection, not just the gaining of skills and a degree that can be leveraged into a higher salary. How, where, when, and in what form this learning happens should always be open for discussion, but not the community-defining goal of learning itself.  Greater comprehension, insight, and the capacity for deeper reflection takes place through a process that allows all manner of ideas to be raised, discussed and evaluated…and dismissed if need be.

The process of teaching and learning requires respect if it is to succeed. Student activists often bridle at this, suggesting certain views are not deserving of respect, those which spew racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic invective, for example. I agree. But what we require as an educational community is respect for the process through which learning takes place, not necessarily for the views that are expressed. This is why, in a fundamental way, the discussion of free speech within a campus community is different than the issue of free speech outside the academic community.

This is probably one of the few places where I agree – at least partially and to my surprise — with Stanley Fish who recently argued that “the university’s normative commitment is to freedom of inquiry,” not to freedom of speech. “Freedom of speech,” he writes “is not an academic value. Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value.” (I would just note that neither he nor I address the question of whether specific speakers should be allowed to speak on campus, a decision that can revolve around a set of different factors including whether the institution is public or private, and whether safety issues are involved.)  Fish’s argument is that academic communities, by virtue of their essential missions of teaching and research, value training and hard-won expertise. And while one should always be aware of the academy’s (and one’s own) blind spots, we are not the “University of Google” or the (highly-regarded) “Sizzler University.” We have no responsibility to teach (or to let be taught) that the Holocaust didn’t happen or that enslaved Africans were immigrants looking for a better life in America.  To these arguments, I would add that most academic communities are united by the values their members share, including the right of those who are part of that community to occupy that space without being denigrated or attacked. Outside the walls of the academy, I’m a free-speech absolutist. Within its walls, the values established by that community, including the right to exclude ideas that have been shown to be not just fundamentally wrong, but whose primary purpose is to demean members of that community, can be excluded.

Let’s not fool ourselves: This argument places a huge responsibility on those who would exclude certain voices to be clear why they are off limits for an academic community and, just as importantly, why other speakers who will make community members uneasy and uncomfortable and probably unhappy, nevertheless present arguments that need to be heard and debated within an academic setting. I’m not saying this is easy; I’m just arguing that neither absolutist free speech nor the exclusion of all unpopular positions will help us find the proper way for academic communities to proceed just because they make decisions easier. What always hangs in the balance is the learning that can be gained, not the ease of making decisions. To paraphrase Dewey, as educators, “we must have something to say about what we do, and not merely about how we may do it most easily and economically.”

Ambiguity and humility: José Antonio Bowen, now the president of Goucher College, recently argued that “Pedagogy is about moving from comfort to discomfort and eventually finding comfort in discomfort.” An essential part of that journey will transport students through zones of ambiguity before they come to a realization that some questions don’t have straightforward answers even if their moral and ethical foundations are clear. Racism is vile and destructive; how it came about and how one roots it out are much more complex. In that sense, understanding ambiguity and complexity doesn’t mean abandoning moral convictions. How we make our institutions more inclusive and equitable is a challenge of immense complexity; but the fact that we might not find easy remedies doesn’t make the goal of creating just, inclusive and equitable institutions any less desirable. These are lessons best learned in the classroom.

By Way of Conclusion: No, It’s Not Easy

A few weeks ago, I heard a truly transformational discussion between the Reverend Traci Blackmon, the Senior Pastor at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Missouri, and Rabbi Susan Talve, of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. Their conversation, about the work they engaged in after the police killed Michael Brown in nearby Ferguson, was titled “Solidarities in Difference and Faith.” I was struck by many aspects of the conversation, but above all by the “solidarities” that existed between these two women, both faith-based community leaders. As they talked, it became clear that their relationship was rooted in trust, and that the trust they shared, and which was brilliantly on display, was the product of years of dedicated work in their respective communities around common issues of racial justice and healing. It was beautiful to behold.

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

Rev. Traci Blackmon (l); Rabbi Susan Talve (r)

Towards the end of the conversation, one student asked their advice about the challenge of repairing the fractures that divide various communities on campus. To begin, Reverend Traci began, “You don’t enter a community to change it; you enter to be changed.” Important advice which should probably be the headline for all our new students’ orientation programs. And then Rabbi Susan, in concluding, said something that I have said many times and that you have undoubtedly both heard and said yourselves: “If you can’t do this [work of community building] at Oberlin, you can’t do it anywhere.” Slot in the name of any liberal arts college – Harvey Mudd, Pomona, Swarthmore – and you know what I’m saying.

But that’s when I realized that no, that’s not actually true. That, in fact, our small and “unnatural” communities might be the hardest places to reach the kind of trust that allows students to grow closer through the mistakes, missteps, and misunderstandings that they will inevitably produce. And it’s not because our students aren’t willing or are somehow incapable of generating the trust that allows community and deeper understanding to truly develop. It’s because students neither have the time nor the opportunity to engage in the long-term, difficult but ultimately rewarding labor that lays the foundation in which all true “solidarities” are anchored. The work we do as faculty and staff, I firmly believe, is amazingly important; it is capable of changing lives and even saving lives. It is in many cases what allows our students to do such incredible things once they graduate.

And so, here’s the thing: while I’m often frustrated by how students can act in ways that damage alliances rather than strengthen them; and how they often seem unwilling to take the first step if it doesn’t guarantee them that they will win the war; or how they can be harder on those who seemingly agree with them than on those who disagree with them; or how they often seem ready to bite the hands that are trying to nourish them, nevertheless I am rarely disappointed with what they become once they head out into the world. And I thank Reverend Traci and Rabbi Susan for helping me understand why: we may prepare our students but cannot provide the actual context in which the hard work of community building happens. This long-term work will only happen when they leave here (wherever that may be), lay down roots in their own communities, and engage in the hard work of building trust, alliances, solidarities. That’s where they take what we (hopefully) have taught them and put it to work. There, not here.

This doesn’t make me sad or value any less what we do in our own colleges; if anything, it makes me even more convinced that what we do is critical. But it does give me a clearer understanding of our limitations as well as our possibilities. We will not solve the “problem” of student “illiberalism,” but, if we put our minds to it, we can do the work of democracy one classroom at a time; we can nurture democratic culture by keeping in focus what we do, not how to do it more easily and economically. It is work that requires engaging our students in discussions which may make them uncomfortable and uncertain, and which will challenge them to think in more complex and less certain ways, but which ultimately will prepare them to build the solidarities they will need if they are to confront the world that awaits them.

One thought on “New Student Activism: Stops on the Road to New Solidarities

  1. Pingback: After the Gibson’s Verdict: What Is at Stake | After Class

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