The New Wave of Student Activism

One of the interesting aspects of what’s being happening at some colleges and universities recently in social activism, and that I think bodes ill for the system maintaining the status quo is that not since the 1960s have we seen a student population more conscious of its own social, economic, and political power. Now admittedly, sometimes this power is misused or channeled into non-productive avenues, but when brought to bear on social justice issues it is extremely difficult for the system to deal with. Students are a unique group of youth. Youth in general have more energy and more time to bring to bear on activism. Students are even more unique in that often they are economically more secure than typical youth, and they are uncommitted socially and personally (often unmarried, not a parent, not tied yet to permanent employment or social status). In the 70s and 80s particularly there was a systemic attempt to buy off students with material things. Fast food on campus, arenas, student centers, plush dorms and other things all design to focus students specifically on the campus and campus life and to eliminate any need they might have (beyond sanctioned, official “service learning” ventures) to wander off campus and particularly into communities of color and so forth. There were many myths disseminated at the institutions about the safety of wandering into such “strange” places. This was to counteract the 60s which began with students sitting in at lunch counters and going to jail. The trade the system offered was a promise of the benefits of the empire and some sneak peeks in college to buy off students into passivity and apathy. Universities moved to restrict free speech into tiny zones and small windows of time and extended their authority to punish off campus behavior. What has changed is that it looks like the Faustian bargain is no longer as attractive. Increasingly students are being forced to see, even on their own campuses, the incongruities between the rhetoric and the reality. As long as the wall of discrimination and violence and sexual assault and other things were outside, the ruse worked. Now that campus police are beating on students, now that on campus various organizations are known to be running institutions of prejudice and sexual misconduct, now that students see the bifurcation of punishment to and concern for some as opposed to others, now that campuses are becoming the place for acts of terrorism and gun fanatics who think even more guns is he solution, now that the lessons of the classroom have come to campus itself, students are beginning to arise and the system is absolutely not prepared since repression, as in the 60s, only makes it worse and negotiation threatens to spin into a larger, undesired negotiation of relationships in the society as a whole (the way campus “bled” into the whole antiwar, pro-love, antidiscrimination move of the 60s). I watched youth apathy really take hold in the 90s as thousands took the bargain. But I am watching it gradually collapse and as a student activist myself I for one, say good riddance.

Case in point. apparently some administrators were running around at my own institution trying to put together some dialogue concerning Greek organizations and discrimination. Now to my knowledge, we have not had any overt incidents or allegations driving this concern. This is little more than a directed pre-emptive strike. My understanding is that of particular concern was getting Afrikan organizations to participate in this activity. The funny part was that at the end you were supposed to make a list of thing you could do to make the campus more open to inclusion and then that letter would be mailed to you later, I guess so you could give yourself a self-check. Really? What happened at the University of Oklahoma was not really sociologically surprising or new or unusual and this kind of behavior is endemic to the system as a whole. Administrators know this because many of them are card carrying members of these organizations and so are their children. The purpose of the panic and the meetings is connected to the fact that one of the “family secrets” of the system on campuses is now out unexpectedly and so the system does what it does. It tries first to pretend this is some unusual case. Not so. When that fails it goes into crisis mode and everyone needs to have a discussion about discrimination in their Greek organizations. You know how Obama invited the officer to the White House for a beer? A chat is not systemic change and nobody is really being fooled by what is a thinly veiled crises management strategy. I have a simpler idea. How about a permanent no-tolerance policy?. Your organization gets caught engaging as an organization in encouraging prejudice and discrimination and/or sexual assault, you are permanently banned from campus, your members expelled, period. Not much to talk about. The conversations now being forcibly staged across the country are designed to preclude real punitive measures being taken. This is why I found the action of President Boren so bold. He will likely get sued and lose, but sometimes you lose when you do the right thing. It’s like what police chiefs need to do for runaway officers. Fire them. Even if you lose on appeal. You teach the lesson that you will stand for what’s right. Universities are due for a crude and rude awakening in the US, because they tend to be agents of the status quo while teaching the ideology of change. At some point, the center will not hold. And they are beginning to recognize that not all of their charges see themselves as children or sheep. Thank the Lord for that.


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