Campuses with a cause
Diverse issues inspire students
On Wednesday, Emerson College students rallied on Boston Common to support the school's embattled faculty union. Thursday, student activists at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst campaigned for a radical plan to make public colleges free to all students. And on Friday, hundreds of Boston College students wore T-shirts and boycotted classes to show their support for gay students and employees.
Last week's packed protest schedule offered evidence that college students, often thought to be disengaged, have found causes that inspire them to take up their bullhorns and march. Their causes are more diverse than the tightly focused agendas of past generations, specialists said, and their goals may be more modest: changing a campus or neighborhood instead of the world.
''This generation is perceived as not active, and that's wrong," said Liz Hollander, executive director of Campus Compact, a national nonprofit group that promotes civic and social responsibility among college students on more than 900 campuses.
Partly because of dramatic world events like the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq and also because more colleges now have staff and offices to support civic engagement, ''we're emerging from an era where students didn't think anything going on in the world would affect their lives," she said.
Student activists may be taking encouragement from some recent successes.
Harvard University announced plans this month to sell off a major investment in a company with ties to the Sudanese government, which has been accused of genocide, after students threatened to withhold contributions in protest.
Georgetown University announced new wages for janitors last month after students organized an eight-day hunger strike.
At UMass-Amherst last year, administrators stopped charging international students a new fee related to homeland security after students protested and challenged its legality.
''There are big victories, like a policy change, but the little victories also keep students going, like getting 400 people to show up for a rally," said Nick Salter, a student leader at Boston College, where 50 students went door-to-door in dorms Thursday night to urge their classmates to boycott classes.
Vietnam protests may be the standard against which current students are judged, but some specialists say that era's activism has been overstated.
Rob Rhoads, a higher-education professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said recent studies suggest that only one-quarter of college students participated in 1960s protests, and as many as 85 percent of campuses may have been largely inactive.
''Everyone thinks of the 1960s as the high-water mark of student activism, but it seems that's probably more myth than fact," he said. ''We've overestimated the involvement of students in the '60s and underestimated the involvement of students in the '80s and '90s. . . . A large percent of students may be apathetic, but there are significant groups that are heavily involved."
The Higher Education Research Center at UCLA has tracked the activism of high school seniors for years, finding declining interest in addressing environmental concerns and promoting racial understanding. Participation in volunteer work has increased, however, and the number of incoming college freshmen who said they participated in an organized demonstration as a high school senior increased from 35.4 percent in 1988 to 47.5 percent in 2001.
One reason recent students have been seen as less involved may be the changing nature of protest activities, said Rhoads. Because the Internet allows mobilization to happen more quickly and over large areas, product boycotts have become much more popular. Such movements have contributed to social changes, as they did in a University of Wisconsin campaign against the military takeover of Burma in the 1990s, he said, but students and others may not see ''not drinking Pepsi" as a form of protest.
Specialists said the rise in volunteerism on campuses, which regularly send students to tutor in urban schools or serve meals in soup kitchens, represents another kind of nontraditional activism.
''It's a different way to promote social change," said Rhoads. ''Today's students are more likely to work within social structures to create the same kind of change the students of the '60s tried to effect with demonstrations."
Last week's demonstrations around Boston, however, felt more like classic campus protests. Driven by specific campus issues, most also reflected larger causes, from gay rights to the right to higher education. At BC, students demanding that the school's antidiscrimination policy be changed to include sexual orientation have been motivated by concern for the reputation of the Catholic campus, which has appeared on
Student activists cite two main reasons for the focus on campus injustice: Campus change seems more manageable than global overhaul, and students tend to care most about the place where they live.
''It's easier to organize 1 square mile than the entire country," said Mishy Leiblum, a 20-year-old activist at UMass-Amherst who is leading the campaign for free higher education. ''And there are parallels -- you have the Patriot Act nationally, and here, you have changes in the picketing code."
Large, noisy protests on the Amherst campus last fall, over student fees and perceived racism, prompted administrators to tighten the school's picketing code to prevent disruptive gatherings in buildings. In a first draft of the new policy, the university said any indoor demonstration would be considered disruptive, but that sentence was struck in the face of widespread criticism.
Another reason for the recent campus focus may be students' increased involvement in campus governance, said Barbara Canyes, director of Massachusetts Campus Compact. As more students sit on committees with administrators, they learn about college policies -- and see more clearly how to go about changing them, she said.
Not every recent student action has been tied to one campus. About 300 students from 14 Boston area colleges and high schools attended an antiwar rally and march on Boston Common in December, organized by the new umbrella group Boston Student Mobilization to End the War. The event featured angry speeches, chanting, and a minor skirmish between students and police -- all the hallmarks of 1960s student protests against the Vietnam War.
Bruce Reitman, dean of students at Tufts University, said the sheer number of issues current students fight for probably lessens the overall impact.
''When I was a student at Tufts in the 1960s, reducing racism and stopping the war in Vietnam were the causes of choice," he said. ''The visibility of the activism was greater because the energy was focused on a few salient and identifiable areas. Now there are so many causes that the energy is spread out and not so visible."
Even when their debates and demonstrations go nowhere, students said they gain something valuable by trying.
Leiblum, the UMass junior, said she's learned more from campus organizing than from her most challenging classes. ''It's probably the most tremendous educational experience there is, to realize how much can be done with limited people and resources," she said.
Leafleting the campus last week to spread the word about a student strike planned for Thursday, she felt the same thrill.
''In one day we watched it go from something no one's heard of, to something where two-thirds of students know what it's about," she said.
Jenna Russell can be reached at email@example.com.