College and university campuses are once again becoming the heart of protest and activism. With anger advancing to the forefront for many in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, recent campus events have even turned aggressive and violent. Of course, campuses have been hotbeds of activism and social change for decades. While university students did express collective concerns about various social and political issues prior to the 1960s, it wasn’t until the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement that we saw regular and significant campus activism. During that turbulent time, several student protests turned violent, such as the clash at Kent State University in 1970 resulting in the death of four students. After the significant spike in campus protests in the ’60s and ’70s, however, things seemed to die down. From the 1980s through the 2010s, some were wondering if campus activism was a thing of the past.
But in recent years, even before the 2016 election of Donald Trump prompted the largest protests since the Vietnam era, there seemed to be renewed enthusiasm for activism on college and university campuses. A 2015 article in The Atlantic took an in-depth look at this revitalized interest in protest. “There’s certainly something of a movement moment happening right now,” said Professor Angus Johnston of the City University of New York at the time. Johnson runs a blog, studentactivism.net, whose goal is to spotlight and advocate for activism on college campuses. “The campus environment right now has, for the past couple of years, reminded me a lot of the early- to mid-’60s moment, where there was a lot of stuff happening, a lot of energy – but also a tremendous amount of disillusionment and frustration with the way that things were going in the country as a whole and on the campuses themselves.”
This brings us to 2017 and the campus protests that are regularly making the news. Just in the last few weeks, events headlining the controversial Milo Yiannopoulis have resulted in protests, such as his talk at the University of Washington in January, as well as a speaking engagement at UC-Berkeley in February that was eventually canceled because of aggressive protests. Violence flared up at Berkeley again in early March as Trump supporters clashed with protesters.
Other recent campus events have also escalated. At Middlebury College, a lecture by Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, a book published in 1994 that argues black students are genetically inferior to white students, turned violent after the audience took exception with the speaker’s racist commentary. The protest at Middlebury left the school’s president Laurie Patton “disappointed,” and she explained in her statement, “We must find a path to establishing a climate of open discourse as a core Middlebury value, while also recognizing critical matters of race, inclusion, class, sexual and gender identity, and the other factors that too often divide us.” Not everyone, however, agreed with the decision to invite Murray in the first place, and hundreds of Middlebury alumni signed an open letter expressing their dissent. The letter states,
This is not an issue of freedom of speech. We think it is necessary to allow a diverse range of perspectives to be voiced at Middlebury. However, in this case we find the principle does not apply, due to not only the nature, but also the quality, of Dr. Murray’s scholarship. He paints arguments for the biological and intellectual superiority of white men with a thin veneer of quantitative rhetoric and academic authority.
Events like Murray’s talk, along with the Milo Yiannopoulis talks, seem designed to spark heated debate at the very least, and while in favor of free speech, students are protesting what they consider administrators’ willingness to give white nationalists a platform.
Ultimately, campuses are seemingly fitting places for organized action, as higher education both encourages a sense of community and empowers individual and collective action. Undoubtedly, millennial students are more likely to have engaged in significant community action and leadership activities prior to college, which may also translate to heightened activism on campuses today. Moreover, campuses are more digitally connected than ever before and students (and others in higher education) can easily engage with one another given the power of social media and hashtag campaigns and the ability to raise awareness about any issue of concern. Faculty in higher ed have also expressed interest in digital activism and how they might use it to enhance responsible teaching practices.
But tell us what you think about activism and protest on campus. Given the plethora of political, economic and social issues and controversies we face today, it seems unlikely that we will see the end of campus activism any time soon.