Student activism on college campuses has been happening for centuries. In 1638, the first students at Harvard College protested against their president, rendering him unqualified to lead their college — and a year later, they successfully had him dismissed. This was one of the first documented student protests in American history, but certainly not the last.
In 1960, four Black college students at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat at a “whites only” counter in Greensboro, North Carolina — and they went back to this same counter every day for six months to non-violently protest segregation, sparking nationwide student activism in the civil rights movement. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, college students across the country protested to keep the civil rights and antiwar movements alive in his memory, even resulting in police killing three student protestors in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
And student activism has only surged in recent years, with student activists raising their voices louder than ever and powerfully advocating for systemic change. Amid almost 200 school shootings over the past 10 years, student activists came out in record numbers to protest gun violence, urging policymakers to enact new laws and initiatives to protect both students and their communities. The Sunrise Movement, a climate change advocacy group primarily composed of college students, helped put out the proposal for the Green New Deal and has made numerous victories in working towards climate justice and raising awareness about the vast dangers of climate change.
The most recent student activism revolves around racial justice, with racial justice being the most common driver of student activism at universities. Although the Black Lives Matter movement has been active since 2013, the movement recently ignited more attention following the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Student activists began speaking up and demanding action from their universities, communities, and legislators — and even took action into their own hands. Amiri Nash, a student activist at Brown University, initiated a project with his friend called Sign of Justice, an organization that formulates signs with QR codes that link to resources in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Nash told NPR in June 2020, “Right now, I’m hopeful because I’ve seen so many people get involved. I’ve been seeing so many people go to protests and hang signs and spread awareness.”
Although college student activists have mobilized important social movements for centuries, college administrations, on the other hand, do not have a history of adequately supporting them. Universities tend to piggyback off of students and their activism, advocating themselves as institutions as “progressive” and “accepting” — but are these schools practicing what they preach? There are even lists of the best “activist” schools to entice prospective students, with schools like Columbia University and University of Washington often making the cut. But are these schools actually “activist” schools if only the students are truly advocating for social change, and not the actual institutions?
Student Activism And Race
In 2018, a study conducted by Ted Thornhill found that colleges were less likely to respond to applicants with seemingly “Black-sounding” names who were involved in matters of Black activism. There’s an undeniable hypocrisy in colleges actively encouraging students to get involved on campus but penalizing them for participating in activism by excluding them in the application process. This isn’t surprising — the college admissions process is historically racist, and little about that seems to have changed even as clamors for diversity on campuses have grown louder.
And though some colleges have responded to students’ concerns about their racist pasts, with some colleges such as University of Mississippi removing racist and Confederate monuments and statues in 2020, this is the very, very bare minimum. Students have protested racist monuments and statues on their campuses for decades, so why didn’t University of Mississippi take action sooner? We should not be giving colleges a gold star for doing something they should have done a long time ago.
Student Activism And Sustainability
Recently, there has also been push from student activists encouraging their colleges to divest from fossil fuels in an effort to diminish the human-induced effects of climate change and work toward a more sustainable future. However, many colleges have ignored student activists’ requests. Although some universities have recycling and composting programs available on campus and encourage their students to be more environmentally conscious, many of them have not pursued being more environmentally friendly on an institutional level — once again, simply not practicing what they preach.
Ilana, 20, is a student activist at Harvard University and an organizer for Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard, a grassroots student-led movement that works to divest Harvard from fossil fuels and reinvest that money into a more sustainable future. Although Ilana and her organization have made large strides in their cause, such as recently introducing a bill to divest Harvard in the Massachusetts state legislature, Ilana tells Her Campus that it has not been an easy feat largely due to Harvard’s intransigent administration. “Harvard governance is deeply and deliberately undemocratic and non-transparent about its institutional decision-making processes, making it difficult for student activists to influence institutional policy,” she says. “For example, the university has ignored overwhelming calls for it to divest its endowment from fossil fuels the university and broader community for nearly a decade now — refusing to seriously consider the powerful moral, financial, and most recently, the legal case for divestment.”
And that’s not the only way Harvard has ignored student voices. Ilana continues, “Harvard’s main governing board, the Harvard Corporation, has chosen to shut down dialogue with our campaign following our filing of a historical legal complaint with the state attorney general’s office, which argues that Harvard’s fossil fuel investments are not only immoral and financially untenable but also illegal given the Harvard Corporation’s duties as a non-profit investor.”
Rose, 22, has experienced similar problems as Ilana when dealing with her own university’s administration. Rose is a student activist and fellow for Herbicide Free at Loyola Marymount University. Herbicide Free is an organization dedicated to stopping the use of harmful herbicides and pesticides on campus, advocating for the health and safety of students, faculty, and the workers who spray these pesticides. Rose tells Her Campus, “Our whole goal is working with grounds crew and facilities management to transition away from using these chemicals and using more healthy alternatives that factor in the total ecosystem, rather than just using products that can be really hurtful in the end.”
Communication Issues For Student Activists
For Rose and Herbicide Free, the largest problem was communicating with the university in expressing their goals. “The biggest issue we’ve had is communicating with our administration,” Rose says. “They’re supportive of going herbicide-free, meaning stopping the use of synthetic herbicides, but getting to that point and communicating with them has been a huge issue. They were already on the path towards wanting to go herbicide-free [and] they weren’t opposed to it; I think if they were opposed to it, we would have a much harder time if that wasn’t already their goal.”
But simply acting supportive isn’t enough. Rose continues, “We got passed around to so many different people trying to get in contact with the right person. We had so many emails left [unanswered], so many phone calls that they didn’t call us back, because if they don’t have an incentive to work with you, then they won’t.”
Student Activists Still Have Hope
However, despite their university’s unyielding administrations, both Ilana and Rose stay optimistic.
“Our campaign remains open to dialogue anytime,” Ilana says. “We know that the way forward is difficult but we are determined and well-prepared to advance our cause, with the support of much of the campus and surrounding communities and the public.”
And maybe that is why student activists are actually able to make positive change — because they have hope. Ultimately, universities’ priorities are not to help students with their activism; their bottom line typically lies in whatever makes them a profit. Many times, there is no real monetary incentive for universities when students come to them with issues, which means that they are less likely to work with students. Responding to students’ demands, whether they be divesting from fossil fuels, stopping the use of toxic pesticides, or taking down racist monuments, is time-consuming and costly for universities. And frankly, these institutions don’t care enough about the important issues that students are bringing up — and they’re powerful enough to suffer minimal consequences for it.
In order for schools to justify boasting about their “activist” reputations on admissions brochures and at college fairs, they must actually listen to students’ needs and think bigger than just a paycheck. They need to practice what they preach and simplify the process for students to have their demands met. “Streamline the process for student activism on campus,” Rose suggests. “There [needs] to be a more streamlined process for engaging [with] student activism on campus.”
With numbers of student activists steadily rising and their demands even making their way to state and nationwide legislation, students are not going to back down, and they shouldn’t — so shouldn’t their universities join the fight and help enact positive change, too?
Thornhill, T. (2018). We Want Black Students, Just Not You: How White Admissions Counselors Screen Black Prospective Students. Racism, Policing, and the Black Experience.