Diversity and Democracy

Students as Moral Teachers: A Survey of Student Activism and Institutional Responses

Young people in the United States and across the globe have challenged and changed the world again and again: from Little Rock to Birmingham, Soweto to Tiananmen, Palestine to Chiapas, Wounded Knee to Cairo. In the past decade alone, college and university students have been a pivotal force in political movements for social change, including the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the immigrant justice movement, the movement to address climate change, and Black Lives Matter. These students have tackled issues their elders avoided, imagined new possibilities that previous generations had deemed unrealizable, and demanded redress for injustices that otherwise would have been ignored. In moments of sometimes uncomfortable tension and confrontation, our students become our teachers—and if we are wise enough to listen, they become our partners and allies in challenging injustice and democratizing the culture of the academy.

Student activism takes many forms. Sometimes students use the campus to blur the boundaries between higher education and the larger society, confronting national and international issues ranging from the war in Vietnam in the 1960s and the early 1970s to the racist apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s to sweatshop labor in other parts of the Global South today. At other times, students target the policies, practices, and culture of the university itself—for example, by campaigning for desegregation or by advocating for diverse representation in curricula and canons. In all these cases, students have challenged colleges and universities to reckon and wrestle with their morals and their missions.

US student campaigns in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have revolved around a core set of demands and ideals: justice, access, equity, and peace. Campuses are fertile grounds for the impulse toward greater justice in the world. After all, at a time when students are exploring their own identities and deciding who they want to be, college can expose them to new ideas, points of view, histories, literary traditions, and theories of justice. If we as educators are doing our jobs, certainly in the humanities and social sciences but also in the hard sciences and professional schools, we will help our students become critical thinkers and committed agents of change in the world.

Student Activism in the Twentieth Century

When vibrant social movements are raging in the larger society, they invariably spill over onto our campuses. Thus it is not surprising that during the 1960s and early 1970s students and faculty were immersed in activities and debates surrounding the Civil Rights (Black Freedom) Movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and what is often termed the Second Wave Women’s Movement.

In February of 1960, black students led a desegregation sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina, sparking similar protests across the South. They later formed a regional organization of activists called the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which mobilized against southern racism and quickly put its members at the forefront of the growing protest movement—and sometimes also at odds with elite black educators who viewed the protests and ensuing arrests as an affront to the politics of respectability (Cohen and Snyder 2013, 3–4). Alabama State University in Montgomery, Southern University in Baton Rouge, and Georgia’s Albany State were among a number of historically black colleges and universities that took harsh action, sometimes under pressure from donors and patrons, against students who engaged in civil rights activity off campus (Bynum 2013, 102–3, 176). Spelman College fired the young Howard Zinn from a teaching position because of his support of civil rights agitation and organizing (Joyce 2003, 71). Predominately white schools like Vanderbilt took similarly punitive measures against student and faculty activists in this period (Daniel 2000, 286).

The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), founded in 1962 and inspired by the actions of civil rights activists, took aim at US military involvement in Vietnam. Like SNCC, SDS organized protests off campus; but ultimately, the campus itself became a scene of antiwar activities, from teach-ins and draft-card burnings to demonstrations against pro-war speakers and Reserve Officers Training Corp (ROTC) offices. Students demanded various changes, ranging from an end to military research to the closing of ROTC programs (Sale 1974). The University of California–Berkeley became an epicenter of 1960s protests with its Free Speech Movement, led by Mario Savio, which, in the shadows of Cold War censorship, insisted on the right of students to protest and to dissent (Cohen 2009). In the 1960s and early 1970s, many campuses witnessed antiwar mobilizations, some of which turned violent. Members of the Ohio State National Guard opened fire on unarmed demonstrators at Kent State University in 1970, killing one and wounding several others (Michener 1982). Less than two weeks later, two black students were killed by the police on the campus of Mississippi’s Jackson State University after racial confrontations there (Spofford 1998).

The 1970s was also a time of social upheaval over traditional gender roles and the oppression of women. Before 1970, female students were underrepresented at most major colleges (with the exception of traditional women’s colleges), and full-time tenured women faculty were few. Student activists and faculty allies took aim at sexism in the academy. Agitation, petitions, rallies, and experimental courses set the stage for the introduction of women’s studies programs and departments in the early 1970s and also led to the establishment of campus women’s centers that provide counseling, advocacy, and educational programming related to sexual assault, harassment, and homophobia (Howe and Buhle 2000).

Around the same time, a militant five-month student strike (supported by faculty and community members) prompted San Francisco State University to establish the first black studies program in 1968. As documented by historian Martha Biondi in The Black Revolution on Campus (2012), the San Francisco struggle caused ripple effects across US higher education. Chicano studies, Native American and indigenous studies, Asian American studies, and disability studies were later established at American universities in response to demands for inclusion in the classroom and the curriculum. These protests collectively changed the intellectual landscape of American higher education. Although frequently underfunded and under attack (see Brooks 2015; EurPublisher 2013; Powers 2008), interdisciplinary programs that originated in student-led protests and initiatives are fixtures on most campuses today.

One of the largest movements on college campuses in the 1980s and 1990s was the anti-apartheid movement. Students from Brown to Berkeley built symbolic shanties to draw attention to the dire conditions under which black South Africans lived and demanded that their institutions divest from companies doing business with the whites-only government there. In 1985, Columbia University’s Coalition for a Free South Africa, a group that I co-chaired in 1983–84, staged a three-week blockade of Hamilton Hall, resulting in the university’s eventual change of policy. Similar actions took place around the country, with activists disciplined by their institutions and in some cases arrested. Divestment was won in the context of a larger global movement against the brutal system of apartheid. While the whole world now seems to agree that apartheid was unjust, this was not the case at the time (Rhoads 1998).

Millennial Movements for Justice

In the 2000s, millennials continue the tradition of student activism, often serving as the conscience of the university as they voice their concerns about the status of undocumented students, university investments, and rising tuition in addition to ongoing issues of racial disparities, sexual harassment and violence, and homophobia on college campuses. “Undocumented and unafraid” was the bold declaration of student activists in Chicago several years ago as they linked with the larger immigration rights movement. Their peers across the country suffered arrests in acts of civil disobedience from Arizona to Georgia, where campaigns against state legislation that denied higher education access to undocumented youth garnered national attention.

The ethics of college and university investment policies have been a target for student activists who argue that mission-driven institutions should put principles before profits. In spring 2015, student climate change activists engaged in protests during “heat week,” demanding disinvestment from fossil fuels with demonstrations and sit-ins at Dartmouth, Tulane, Harvard, and Yale, where nineteen students were arrested. A student-led campaign demanding divestment from private prisons won an unprecedented victory at Columbia University, where the Columbia Divest coalition carried out a yearlong effort that included distributing leaflets outside a classroom where the university’s president, Lee Bollinger, was teaching. Perhaps most controversial and hotly debated is the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) campaign, led by Students for Justice in Palestine, that targets the State of Israel and critiques its policies and practices in Palestine as a violation of human rights and international law (Redden 2014). Jewish students have found themselves on both sides of the issue and sometimes in the middle, as when students at Swarthmore broke with the Hillel International organization last year over hosting speakers critical of Israeli policy and supportive of BDS, a practice Hillel forbids. Swarthmore students have joined the “Open Hillel” movement (Younger and StudentNation 2014).

Finally, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement against police violence, triggered by the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, has touched the hearts and minds of college students who have participated in symbolic solidarity demonstrations, “die-ins,” and acts of civil disobedience across the country, on campuses and in adjacent communities. Since most black victims of police shootings are not middle-class college students but their working-class peers, the BLM movement is as much an example of class solidarity as a protest against state violence and institutionalized racism. Concerns about police violence resonate for students of color, especially on predominately white campuses, where these students routinely experience racial profiling by campus police (Blow 2015; Schmidt 2014).

Implications for Educators

The survey above, while not exhaustive, gives a glimpse of how the actions of students consistently provoke, cajole, and sometimes jolt professors and administrators into debates, dialogues, and deliberations that challenge us and, in many cases, make us better people within more just institutions. Our task as educators should always be to listen carefully, engage honestly, and respond with openness and willingness to change when appropriate. Some campus protests actually represent a backlash against social justice campaigns. Even these cases present learning opportunities on which faculty and administrators can capitalize.

To be sensitive to and appreciative of the leadership of student activists, college administrators should resist the impulse to see themselves as CEOs and our students as customers and consumers. We are not peddling gadgets. At our best, we are educating young people who will become not only skilled and knowledgeable engineers, teachers, scientists, and poets, but also engaged, compassionate, and culturally literate world citizens, critical thinkers, and lifelong learners, active in serving the public good and making the world a more just place. We have to set our sights much higher than the crude business model of education that is becoming increasingly popular in academe. That is one of the lessons our very brightest students have always been trying to teach us.


Biondi, Martha. 2012. The Black Revolution on Campus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Blow, Charles M. 2015. “Library Visit, Then Held at Gunpoint.” New York Times, January 26. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/26/opinion/charles-blow-at-yale-the-police-detained-my-son.html.

Brooks, Taylor. 2015. “NC State to Drop Africana and Gender Studies Major Options.” Technician, August 27. http://www.technicianonline.com/news/article_51240024-c236-11e4-b06a-678223ddb90f.html.

Bynum, Thomas. 2013. NAACP Youth and the Fight for Black Freedom, 1936–1965. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press.

Cohen, Robert. 2009. Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, Robert, and David J. Snyder, eds. 2013. Rebellion in Black and White: Student Activism in the 1960s. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Daniel, Pete. 2000. Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

EurPublisher. 2013. “Cal State Long Beach (CSULB): Students Rally against Cuts to Black Studies.” Eurweb.com, May 6. http://www.eurweb.com/2013/05/cal-state-long-beach-csulb-students-rally-against-cuts-to-black-studies/.

Howe, Florence, and Mari Jo Buhle, eds. 2000. The Politics of Women’s Studies: Testimony from the 30 Founding Mothers. New York: Feminist Press.

Joyce, Davis D. 2003. Howard Zinn: A Radical American Vision. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Michener, James A. 1982. Kent State: What Happened and Why. New York: Fawcett.

Powers, Elia. 2008. “Women’s Studies on the Chopping Block.” Inside Higher Ed, March 21. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/ 03/21/usf.

Redden, Elizabeth. 2014. “Middle East Conflict, US Campuses.” Inside Higher Ed, June 17. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/ 06/17/pro-palestinian-student-activism-heats-causing-campus-tensions.

Rhoads, Robert A. 1998. Freedom’s Web: Student Activism in the Age of Cultural Diversity. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. 1974. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society). New York: Vintage Books.

Schmidt, Peter. 2014. “Tasked to Protect All on Campus, but Accused of Racial Bias.” New York Times, December 28. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/29/us/tasked-to-protect-all-on-campus-but-accused-of-racial-bias.html?_r=0.

Spofford, Tim. 1998. Lynch Street: The May 1970 Slayings at Jackson State. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

Younger, Aryeh, and StudentNation. 2014. “Swarthmore’s Hillel Opens up Voices on Israel – Palestine,” February 27. http://www.thenation.com/article/swarthmores-hillel-opens-voices-israel-palestine/.

Barbara Ransby is professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies, and history; and director of the Social Justice Initiative at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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