2015: The Year Student Activism Mattered (Again)

When I was in college, ricocheting between the poles of activism, journalism, and boozy apathy, students were furious at the school for the following reasons: crappy dining hall food; inadequate wages for janitors and food-service staff; sexist statements from our university president; the treatment of students with mental health problems; insufficient diversity in faculty and curriculum; unclear campus rape policies; lack of a women’s center; lack of a campus pub; the disproportionate social power wielded by male-only social clubs; a prominent faculty position being called “house master”; the honoring of famous bigots, racists, and anti-Semites via building names and wall portraits; and of course, the fact that The Verve Pipe headlined our Spring Fling.

The list went on, the profound juxtaposed with the mundane — and this was during a fairly “inactive” time on campus. Our major labor action movement had ended a victorious campaign and was now waning, massive anti-war protests had been futile, and our sexist president was immensely popular among students (though reviled by faculty). Yet all around me, students were pissed off. That feeling of impotence, rage, and a general awakening to the unfairness of the world was channeled in both selfish and selfless directions, for projects both wise and foolish, but it was ubiquitous. The experience echoes more faintly now after more than a decade of striving to make rent, but I clearly remember seeing that intensity on my fellow students’ faces, feeling it in the air, and in myself.

Students were angry then, and they are angry now, but today there’s a difference — and it’s not primarily that students today are coddled or wimpy. What’s changed is the pitch and breadth of the anger, the impact it’s having on campuses across the country, and the fact that, this year, the student activist movement had the mainstream media’s ear, and tugged on it.

In 2015, for the first time in at least a decade, campus activism became a major part of the national conversation. This ascendancy wasn’t just for one reason, or due to the dominance of one cause. The year was marked by major stories about protests against campus rape policy, most visibly recent Columbia graduate Emma Sulkowicz’s anti-rape “mattress protest,” performance art which spawned similar demonstrations nationwide. At the same time, the documentary The Hunting Ground made it clear that campus rape is widespread. Arguments about “triggering” materials and discussions in the classroom and “safe spaces” on several campuses preoccupied punditry. And an autumn wave of sit-ins, strikes, and demonstrations around racism on campuses like Yale and the University of Missouri (“Mizzou”) had a tremendously swift effect — after, in some cases, years of institutions shrugging about unchecked racism.

More often than expected, these protests extracted concessions from university administrations. New rape policies were codified, resignations and staff reshuffling ensued, age-old policies like using the phrase “house master” at Harvard and Princeton evaporated with hardly a fight. Schools are funneling funds into diversity. On curricular issues like trigger warnings, very few (if any) concrete changes were enforced, leaving academic control to faculty. That was good — and many conscientious professors took advantage of the opportunity to reconsider how they would handle potentially traumatized students in their classrooms, which was even better.

Now, as 2015 comes to an end, college administrators are telling students of color, “We hear you,” and the media is paying close attention.  Many of 2015’s campus activism efforts would have been considered a joke back in 2005 – including at my own alma mater, where single-sex social clubs are now on the defensive, “house master” is a phrase of the past, grad schools are embracing initiatives to combat racism, and thoughtful articles about sex and consent pepper the student paper. For my part, every impulse towards skepticism I had this year was tempered by witnessing these changes that felt unthinkable a decade ago.

But the media narrative rarely focused on that positive change. Forced to pay attention to the youngsters for once, writers were quick to be dismissive, labeling today’s activist cohort a group of mollycoddled kids, addicted to being victims. Maybe it was too tempting to mock certain moments that reeked of Ivory Tower naivety: demands that Ovid be stricken from the curriculum, bizarre investigations against professors for writing provocative op-eds, or the use of the ubiquitous phrase “safe space” — including as a way to block media coverage.

This sort of excessiven zeal  is nothing novel, though. In Maggie Nelson’s brilliant 2015 memoir, The Argonauts, she relays a years-old anecdote in which a group of women’s studies students take over a class from their popular professor whom they don’t deem militantly lesbian enough, and humiliate her. That tiny, almost throwaway part of the book stuck with me all year, because it provided an “it has ever been thus” epiphany. Colleges, like all institutions, foster power struggles. When students discover their collective power, much good and some ridiculousness can ensue.

Yet decrying “kids these days” is an easy position to take from the vantage point of even a few years out of college. What’s more complicated is to really consider the predicament of students, which is a strange one — but one that has always been particularly conducive to forging a protest movement. To be a residential college student in America, in many cases, is to be simultaneously privileged and disenfranchised. Students are placed in an environment that seems like a cocoon, away from parental authority as well as many demands of “adult life,” with freedom of movement and inquiry.

But it’s not actually insulated. In fact, Internet-savvy students surely understand that when they step out of whatever hallowed gates they step out of, the world will be far from “safe.” They are saddled with soaring tuition bills and often unmanageable debt, and when oppression inevitably arises within that would-be cocoon, whether it’s an assault, or racial harassment, or an unfair situation in class, it becomes a trap. There’s very little recourse, very little chance for escape. If the administration won’t listen to your concerns, where else can you turn? That’s why calls to fire administrators, which may seem extreme to onlookers, are so common: they arise from a sense of powerlessness.

So, when homophobic or racist incidents seep into dorms, when serial sexual harassers can still sit next to their victims in class, and so forth, the furor that inspires may feel disproportionate to those of us who don’t remember what those intense four years are like. Yet by demanding “safer” campuses, activists are counterintuitively rejecting the idea that campuses are a world apart. Instead, they’re reminding us that they’re part of a broader moment.

In fact, campus activists are in dialogue with the broader Black Lives Matter and feminist movements, and with the Internet’s endless noise amplifier, making their ivy-walled quadrangles seem more a part of the fabric of our country than they have ever been before – and hardly the insulated bubble that the media likes to describe. That fabric includes the worst elements of this country, like patriarchy and particularly white supremacy. “I have spent most of my adult life on college campuses in one role or another, as both student and instructor; regardless of campus, the racial climates were always tense, at best,” wrote Roxane Gay. “I am not surprised by what is happening at Yale. I am not surprised by the Mizzou protesters, or by the fervor of their commitment.”

Students’ actions make quite a bit sense in that context. In college, as Wesleyan President Michael Roth noted in a recent op-ed, students get an up-close look at how outside forces affect their lives and will keep affecting them forever: “On many campuses, students from different social classes live in close proximity with one another. Given the tendencies toward economic segregation in this country, they may not have had this experience before, and may not have it again,” he writes. “So many of the tensions on campus stem from the close up recognition – intellectual and visceral – of unequal economic opportunity and its intersection with traditional forms of discrimination and prejudice.”

Gay’s explanation for why students are taking to the quads, or the streets, is similar to Roth’s. Campuses are unique places where worlds collide, whether those worlds are different social strata or simply the worlds of “home” and “not home.” “They understand that this may very well be the last moment in their lives when they can confront real issues in an environment where they are forced to encounter people who don’t look like them, who don’t think like them, environments where change is still possible,” she writes.

This distinct set of circumstances explains why student activism is the heartbeat of wider social change, everywhere, and has been for centuries — from the famous University of Paris student strike in the 13th century to worldwide student protests in the 1960s, Tiananmen Square, the global anti-apartheid movement, and the nuclear freeze movement. And racism has long been a target of protesters: “Deploying strikes, demonstrations, and sit-ins as tools of protest, black student activists of the 1960s demanded greater numbers of students and faculty of color on college campuses,” writes Tomiko Brown-Nagin at Slate. “Students of the current generation are drilling down on the qualitative aspects of diversity. Their critique of campus life poses a profound challenge to those who have never seriously contemplated how inclusion might or should change institutional practices.”

Mizzou was the most potent example of this push to change institutions in an intrinsic way. After a series of students shared their stories about experiencing racism and homophobia, the protests began to grow. When hunger striker Jonathan Butler, who kicked off the later, more intense stage of protest, issued his manifesto, he cited several issues beyond racism that he felt prevented students from being able to “achieve their full academic potential… incidents of black students being called racist slurs, the sudden removal of graduate student health insurance subsidies in August, MU’s cancellation of Planned Parenthood contracts and the swastika drawn with human feces found in an MU residence hall.”

The student voices at Yale and Mizzou were clearer and more cogent than media coverage made them out to be. Clearly, they were effective enough to bring about their desired goals at Mizzou: eventually, Jewish and black students banded together with faculty and grad students, but it was the football team’s participation that seemingly ensured the chancellor’s and president’s resignation and a sincere-seeming promise of a renewed diversity effort.

If this action and its outcome represent the potential future of activism — on campus and beyond — I want desperately for that potential to be realized. Can these newly minted activists, upon graduation into the very unsafe space of the wider world, find a focus beyond the concessions that universities are willing to offer, and begin making structural changes in different sectors of society? I hope so. We certainly could use their voices.

This piece is the first in Flavorwire’s series of essays on 2015 in culture. Click here to follow our end-of-year coverage.