Why Are We Hearing From Faculty, Not Students, About Campus Activism?

As campus protest movements gain prominence in the national media, we’ve been hearing quite a bit from faculty and administrators about how we should perceive these younger activists and their demands. Naturally, many of these perspectives differ from each other and differ from student protesters’ position. For instance, this summer, Vox treated us to dueling pieces from adjuncts on the not-so-small matter of being terrified by students. The very viral “I’m a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me” was soon followed up by “I was a liberal adjunct professor. My liberal students didn’t scare me at all.

Similarly, this weekend, two major op-eds in major newspapers took divergent positions on whether the kids were, indeed, alright. Rather than coming from adjuncts, they came from university heavyweights. In the New York Times, Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia who was an early president of radical ’60s student group Students for a Democratic Society, urged this new generation of students to be less fearful, noting pointedly that “radical change is not for the narrow-minded or weak-hearted.” He wants today’s activists  to be more confident in their tactics, and less protective of their own safety.

This isn’t to say that Gitlin doesn’t express some sympathy for students, to whom he attributes a “bristling feeling of acute vulnerability.” To wit, they have reasons to feel vulnerable. “They may well resent the fact that, after decades of civil rights reform and feminism, they still have to argue against people who ‘don’t get it,'” he writes. And he cites debt, the economy, and global warming as legitimate outside threats that add to that vulnerability: “Moreover, students suffer under mountainous debt loads. Professional work is being destabilized. Careers dissolve into serial jobs, or the insecure ‘gig economy.'”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post featured Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, writing about how the same issues loom over campus protests: structural inequality, global warming, and the perilous, unstable economy.

These are not ‘minor’ or ‘micro’ issues, and our students know it. They are faced with a world beyond the university that is threatened ecologically, economically and culturally, and they are doing their best to prepare themselves for these challenges. They are studying physics and religion, design and economics, and sometimes they stand up and make themselves heard. Sometimes they are filled with rage, sometimes with fear. They will make mistakes, but they don’t need columnists to tell them that the main problem isn’t Halloween.

It felt refreshing to read Roth, an administrator, presumably the target of his share of protests, declare that he is “sick of hearing about pampered students with coddled minds.” Although he admits that he doesn’t always agree with the protesters on his own (very liberal) campus, Roth espouses a more optimistic and wide-ranging view of the protesters, whom he sees as more than a monolith. He also takes a shot at the category that includes Gitlin, noting that “liberal columnists, for their part, can’t understand why the particular struggles of their heroic youth aren’t simply taken up by their militant descendants.” To Roth, asking, “Why aren’t they protesting the way we protested?” ignores the fact that today’s problems and contexts are very much not the same problems faced in the ’60s, the ’90s, or even five years ago.

Clearly, then, there isn’t some sort of gargantuan generational divide, but a more complex ideological one. Some authority figures on campus support students in the main; others are wary or themselves frightened of protest movements. Not all faculty feel under siege by an army of PC warriors, while some feel that their classrooms have become unsafe — for them! Yet this back and forth between all the professors, valuable as it is, obscures a major issue with the media portrayal of the whole controversy: a distinct lack of student voices.

Gitlin writes that “one can only speculate about the forces that drive this crisis” — and that’s certainly true about vast social forces. But of course, we can do more than speculate. We can also do the basic work of asking students what motivates them, what their goals are, and how they hope to achieve them. Rather than blindly guessing as to what spurs various protests, using viral video clips and random news stories as overwhelming evidence of a trend, and asking teachers to weigh in, major media outlets should be soliciting op-eds from student leaders about their tactics, their goals — and even what they mean when they introduce hot-button concepts like “safe space,”  trigger warnings, and demands for administrative interference in various campus affairs.  And the rest of us should be paying as much attention to student voices as we do to the naysayers on the op-ed pages.

Taking a step back from the controversy over Halloween costumes at Yale, many onlookers, initially appalled, learned that  protests were not centered on a single issue, but rather addressed a deep history of racial exclusion and inequality at the university — including dozens of challenges and protests that had been met, protesters felt, with indifference.  Similarly, on the University of Missouri campus, the initial hunger striker, Jonathan Butler, didn’t just address a few incidents in his letter; he drew a connection between grad student healthcare, Planned Parenthood, homophobia, and endemic  racism, encircling all “marginalized/underrepresented” students in his cause. Because of the oblique way the media referenced “racial incidents” and “racial tensions,” I personally didn’t understand what the Mizzou protests were focused on until I read Butler’s letter and was deeply impressed.

So I wish that more student manifestos, rather than just being posted in Facebook, were being repurposed into major media pieces and seen by as many people as those who have read the endless op-eds by faculty, former faculty, and administrators . If anything, this imbalance is proof that faculty still have more power in the broader world than their students, which reinforces an understanding of why students might be inclined, at times, to take more defensive positions than we expect.