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Student Activism Today
Diana Alvarado, Research Associate, Office of Education and Diversity Initiatives, AAC&U

In recent years the media has reported distressing news about how today's students are politically apathetic and civically disengaged. Most reports cite findings from a national freshmen survey conducted annually by the University of California--Los Angeles.1 According to the data in 1997, college freshmen's commitment to political causes was at its lowest in the survey's 32 year history. Only 26.7% of today's students reported that keeping abreast with political affairs was an important goal, compared to 57.8% of students answering the survey in 1966. Several other survey indicators confirm this decline in civic engagement among students. Compared to 1992 figures, there has also been a 10% decrease in the number of students committed to promoting racial understanding and nearly a 6% decrease in the number of students committed to influencing social values.

These statistics about entering freshmen would seem to indicate that the social conscience of today's students is declining. But a closer look at what students actually do once they're in college--beyond the first two weeks--reveals that American undergraduates engage in a high level of activism and are active in ways quite different from previous generations.

Campus activism today spans a much broader range of causes, with students organizing around international solidarity and human rights; diversity in higher education and attacks on affirmative action; labor issues and the growing corporate influence on higher education; and a series of environmental concerns. Unlike the civil rights movement and Vietnam War activism of the sixties, no single compelling issue today mobilizes students. Student activism has become more dispersed, but no less influential.

Even with a more fragmented set of issues, students have successfully affected change at local, national, and international levels. One recent topic receiving much media attention involved a coalition of students, primarily from Duke, Georgetown, and the University of Wisconsin, who organized against sweatshop labor. In each case, students successfully pressured their institutions to push for tougher licensing codes for apparel manufacturers producing merchandise bearing the universities' names.

Students at the University of California--Berkeley also recently organized a hunger strike to protest what they saw as the dismantling of the Ethnic Studies department there. After a month-long protest marked by six hunger strikers and 129 arrests, the administration agreed to nearly all of the students' demands. The administration agreed to hire eight tenure-track faculty in the Ethnic Studies department over the next five years, reopen a multicultural student center, and spend $100,000 to start an Ethnic Studies research center.

While headlines about hunger strikes and arrests recall tactics of an earlier generation, today's campus activism also includes new strategies. Students are using a larger repertoire of methods including litigation, e-mail campaigns, and press conferences. In the case of the anti-sweatshop campaign, some students won support by conciliation and cooperation. Georgetown students planned protests in consultation with campus administrators and university security to ensure minimal disruption. They worked to comply with university rules as much as possible.

On another issue galvanizing today's students--affirmative action--they are proving to be very media savvy. At Smith College, students raised funds to sponsor an advertising campaign to support diversity in higher education. A broad coalition of students collected 1,000 signatures to appear in an advertisement in the Springfield Union-Daily reaching 100,000 readers. Students borrowed this tactic from organizations attacking diversity in higher education, such as the Center for Individual Rights (CIR). They conveyed their message to the public that, "Smith College Students Support Diversity in Higher Education." As one Smith senior stated in a press release, "Groups like the CIR are not representing what is in the best interest of students. We are publicly stating that students support racial, ethnic, and socioecomonic diversity in higher education."

Technology has also added a new dimension to today's student activism. Through e-mail networks, listservs, and discussion groups, students are more informed than ever and can very quickly discuss, debate, and organize nationally around a variety of issues. In February of 1998, students, professors, and workers used discussion groups on the Internet to transform "words" of protest into "action" as they organized a demonstration at President Clinton's town hall meeting at Ohio State University. They conveyed their opposition to proposed U.S. military attacks on Iraq. Some considered the heckling by protesters rude. Nonetheless, one student did get an opportunity to speak at the microphone as a result of the protest. Organizers saw their activism in this case as a clear success. Millions of viewers watching the town hall meeting were supposed to see a united U.S. front against Hussein, but what they saw instead was that not every U.S. citizen supported U.S. military actions in Iraq.

Studies do suggest that students are highly skeptical of politics, politicians, and government, but cynicism about organized politics does not necessarily equal apathy. In fact such cynicism has caused many students to focus on local problems and community issues, seeing them as more manageable and subject to real intervention. Students often work on issues outside the two-party political arena and at multiple levels. Yet the national media tends not to cover this level of student involvement in civic life.

The reality is that students are as activist as ever. In fact, a study conducted by Arthur Levine and Jeannette S. Cureton suggests that today's students may be the most socially active generation since the late 1930s.1 In addition, today's activism involves a generation of students more diverse racially and economically than ever before. The demographics of this generation and the political context in which they grew up influences what matters to them.

We need to see today's student activism in the context of our current political and educational climate and understand its multiplicity and enormous power. While the issues around which students are mobilizing and the strategies they are using differ from earlier generations, a core idealism about creating a better society unites them. As a student activist from Occidental College puts it, "Under the surface there's a lot of idealism. We just have to find concrete ways to help students express it. That's what activists do. That's why I'm an activist."3


1 Alexander Astin, Sarah A. Parrott, William S. Korn and Linda J. Sex, The American Freshman: Thirty Year Trends, Higher Education Research Institute (UCLA, 1997).

2 Arthur Levine, "A New Generation of Student Protesters Arises," Chronicle of Higher Education, (February 26, 1999).

3 Peter Drier, "The Myth of Student Apathy," The Nation (April 13, 1999).

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University of California-Berkeley

University of California-Berkeley

Communication tips

News stories that challenge stereotypes tend to generate coverage. But the stories that break through and make national news generally focus on compelling issues, have articulate spokespeople, and contain visual components. The sweatshop protests generated significant news coverage because they did all that, as well as tapping into an issue about which high-level Federal government officials had already publicly expressed concern.

There are many ways to challenge the myth of student apathy. Students can plan events that demonstrate their activism, offering journalists background material, data or statistics about the issue, and interviews with those affected by it. Faculty members can make themselves available to comment on radio or television talk shows, comparing the activism of students today to the activism of students in the past or write op/ed pieces (or guest editorials) that make those comparisons.