The Rising American Student Movement Is Part of a Battle for the Soul of Higher Education

Keep an eye on college campuses. The battles fought there are going to matter for the wider world tomorrow.

Aviva Chomsky May 23, 2016

(Chris Beckett / Flickr).

This post first appeared at TomDispatch.

Allowing the prevailing culture to define the parameters of their protest has left the burgeoning Millennial Movement in a precarious position.

Dur­ing the past aca­d­e­m­ic year, an upsurge of stu­dent activism, a move­ment of mil­len­ni­als, has swept cam­pus­es across the coun­try and attract­ed the atten­tion of the media. From coast to coast, from the Ivy League to state uni­ver­si­ties to small lib­er­al arts col­leges, a wave of stu­dent activism has focused on stop­ping cli­mate change, pro­mot­ing a liv­ing wage, fight­ing mass incar­cer­a­tion prac­tices, sup­port­ing immi­grant rights and of course cam­paign­ing for Bernie Sanders.

Both the media and the schools that have been the tar­gets of some of these protests have seized upon cer­tain aspects of the upsurge for crit­i­cism or praise, while ignor­ing oth­ers. Com­men­ta­tors, pun­dits and reporters have fre­quent­ly triv­i­al­ized and mocked the pas­sion of the stu­dents and the ways in which it has been direct­ed, even as uni­ver­si­ties have tried to appro­pri­ate it by pro­mot­ing what some have called “ neolib­er­al mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism.” Think of this as a way, in par­tic­u­lar, of tam­ing the pow­er of the present demands for racial jus­tice and absorb­ing them into an increas­ing­ly mar­ket-ori­ent­ed sys­tem of high­er education.

In some of their most dra­mat­ic actions, stu­dents of col­or, inspired in part by the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, have chal­lenged the racial cli­mate at their schools. In the process, they have launched a wave of cam­pus activism, includ­ing sit-ins, hunger strikes, demon­stra­tions and peti­tions, as well as emo­tion­al, in-your-face demands of var­i­ous sorts. One nation­al coali­tion of stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions, the Black Lib­er­a­tion Col­lec­tive, has called for the per­cent­age of black stu­dents and fac­ul­ty on cam­pus to approx­i­mate that of blacks in the soci­ety. It has also called for free tuition for black and Native Amer­i­can stu­dents, and demand­ed that schools divest from pri­vate prison cor­po­ra­tions. Oth­er stu­dent demands for racial jus­tice have includ­ed pro­mot­ing a liv­ing wage for col­lege employ­ees, reduc­ing admin­is­tra­tive salaries, low­er­ing tuitions and fees, increas­ing finan­cial aid and reform­ing the prac­tices of cam­pus police. These are not, how­ev­er, the issues that have gen­er­al­ly attract­ed the atten­tion either of media com­men­ta­tors or the col­leges themselves.

Instead, the spot­light has been on stu­dent demands for cul­tur­al changes at their insti­tu­tions that focus on deep-seat­ed assump­tions about white­ness, sex­u­al­i­ty, and abil­i­ty. At some uni­ver­si­ties, stu­dents have per­son­al­ized these demands, insist­ing on the removal of spe­cif­ic fac­ul­ty mem­bers and admin­is­tra­tors. Empha­siz­ing a pol­i­tics of what they call recog­ni­tion,” they have also demand­ed that sig­nif­i­cant on-cam­pus fig­ures issue pub­lic apolo­gies or acknowl­edge that black lives mat­ter.” Some want uni­ver­si­ties to imple­ment in-class trig­ger warn­ings” when dif­fi­cult mate­r­i­al is being pre­sent­ed and to cre­ate safe spaces” for mar­gin­al­ized stu­dents as a sanc­tu­ary from the dai­ly strug­gle with the main­stream cul­ture. By seiz­ing upon and respond­ing to these (and only these) stu­dent demands, uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors around the coun­try are attempt­ing to domes­ti­cate and appro­pri­ate this new wave of activism.

In the mean­time, right-wing com­men­ta­tors have depict­ed stu­dents as cod­dled, enti­tled, and ene­mies of free speech. The lib­er­tar­i­an right has launched a broad media cri­tique of the cur­rent wave of stu­dent activism. Com­men­ta­tors have been quick to dis­miss stu­dent pro­test­ers as over-sen­si­tive and enti­tled pur­vey­ors of aca­d­e­m­ic vic­ti­mol­o­gy.” They lament the cod­dling of the Amer­i­can mind.” The Atlantic’s Conor Frieder­s­dorf has termed stu­dents mis­guid­ed” in their protests against racist lan­guage, ideas, and assump­tions, their tar­get­ing of microag­gres­sion” (that is, uncon­scious offen­sive com­ments) and insen­si­tiv­i­ty, and their some­times high­ly per­son­al attacks against those they accuse. One of the most vocal crit­ics of the new cam­pus pol­i­tics, the Foun­da­tion for Indi­vid­ual Rights in Edu­ca­tion, argues that such ram­pant lib­er­al­ism” and polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” vio­late aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom and free­dom of speech. (In this, they are in accord with the lib­er­al Amer­i­can Civ­il Lib­er­ties Union. Free speech advo­cates Daphne Patai and the ACLU’s Har­vey Sil­ver­gate, for exam­ple, bemoan a new diver­si­ty require­ment at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts for its politi­ciza­tion of education.”)

In a response that, under the cir­cum­stances, might at first seem sur­pris­ing, col­lege admin­is­tra­tors have been been remark­ably open to some of these stu­dent demands — often the very ones derid­ed by the right. In this way, the com­men­ta­tors and the admin­is­tra­tors have tend­ed to shine a bright light on what is both per­son­al and sym­bol­ic in the new pol­i­tics of the stu­dent pro­test­ers, while ignor­ing or down­play­ing their more struc­tur­al and eco­nom­i­cal­ly chal­leng­ing desires and demands.

The Neolib­er­al University

Uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors have been par­tic­u­lar­ly amenable to stu­dent demands that fit with cur­rent trends in high­er edu­ca­tion. Today’s neolib­er­al uni­ver­si­ty is increas­ing­ly fac­ing mar­ket pres­sures like loss of state fund­ing, pri­va­ti­za­tion, ris­ing tuition, and stu­dent debt, while pro­mot­ing a busi­ness mod­el that empha­sizes the man­age­r­i­al con­trol of fac­ul­ty through con­stant assess­ment,” empha­sis on account­abil­i­ty,” and rewards for effi­cien­cy.” Mean­while, in a soci­ety in which labor unions are con­stant­ly being weak­ened, the high­er edu­ca­tion labor force is sim­i­lar­ly being — in the term of the moment — flex­i­bi­lized” through the weak­en­ing of tenure, that once iron­clad guar­an­tee of pro­fes­so­r­i­al life­time employ­ment, and the increased use of tem­po­rary adjunct faculty.

In this con­text, uni­ver­si­ties are scram­bling to accom­mo­date stu­dent activism for racial jus­tice by incor­po­rat­ing the more indi­vid­u­al­ized and per­son­al side of it into increas­ing­ly depoliti­cized cul­tur­al stud­ies pro­grams and busi­ness-friend­ly, mar­ket-ori­ent­ed aca­d­e­m­ic ways of think­ing. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, how today’s stu­dents frame their demands often reflects the envi­ron­ment in which they are being raised and edu­cat­ed. Post­mod­ern the­o­ry, an approach which still reigns in so many lib­er­al arts pro­grams, encour­ages tex­tu­al analy­sis that reveals hid­den assump­tions encod­ed in words; psy­chol­o­gy has pop­u­lar­ized the impor­tance of indi­vid­ual trau­ma; and the neolib­er­al ide­ol­o­gy that has come to per­me­ate so many schools empha­sizes indi­vid­ual behav­ior as the most impor­tant agent for social change. Add togeth­er these three strands of thought, now deeply embed­ded in a col­lege edu­ca­tion, and injus­tice becomes a mat­ter of the wrongs indi­vid­u­als inflict on oth­ers at a deeply per­son­al lev­el. Deem­pha­sized are the poli­cies and struc­tures that are built into how soci­ety (and the uni­ver­si­ty) works.

For this rea­son, while schools have down­played or ignored stu­dent demands for changes in admis­sions, tuition, union rights, pay scales, and man­age­ment pre­rog­a­tives, they have jumped into the heat­ed debate the stu­dent move­ment has launched over microag­gres­sions” — per­va­sive, stereo­typ­i­cal remarks that assume white­ness as a norm and exoti­cize peo­ple of col­or, while tak­ing for grant­ed the white nature of insti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing. As part of the present wave of protest, stu­dents of col­or have, for instance, high­light­ed their dai­ly expe­ri­ences of casu­al and every­day racism — state­ments or ques­tions like where are you from?” (when the answer is: the same place you’re from) or as a [fill in the blank], how do you feel about…” Stu­dent protests against such com­ments, espe­cial­ly when they are made by pro­fes­sors or school admin­is­tra­tors, and the mind­sets that go with them are pre­cise­ly what the right is apt to dis­miss as polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness run wild and uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions are embrac­ing as the essence of the present on-cam­pus movement.

At Yale, the Inter­cul­tur­al Affairs Com­mit­tee advised stu­dents to avoid racial­ly offen­sive Hal­loween cos­tumes. When a fac­ul­ty mem­ber and res­i­dent house advis­er cir­cu­lat­ed an email cri­tiquing the pater­nal­ism of such an admin­is­tra­tive man­date, stu­dent protests erupt­ed call­ing for her removal. While Yale declined to remove her from her post as a house advis­er, she stepped down from her teach­ing posi­tion. At Emory, stu­dents protest­ed the pain” they expe­ri­enced at see­ing Trump 2016” graf­fi­ti on cam­pus, and the uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dent assured them that he heard [their] mes­sage… about val­ues regard­ing diver­si­ty and respect that clash with Emory’s own.” Admin­is­tra­tors are scram­bling to imple­ment new diver­si­ty ini­tia­tives and on-cam­pus train­ing pro­grams — and hir­ing expen­sive pri­vate con­sult­ing firms to help them do so.

At the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri, the pres­i­dent and chan­cel­lor both resigned in the face of stu­dent protests includ­ing a hunger strike and a foot­ball team game boy­cott in the wake of racial inci­dents on cam­pus includ­ing pub­lic racist slurs and sym­bols. So did the dean of stu­dents at Clare­mont McKen­na Col­lege (CMC), when protest erupt­ed over her ref­er­ence to stu­dents (implic­it­ly of col­or) who don’t fit our CMC mold.”

His­to­ri­an and activist Robin Kel­ley sug­gests that today’s protests, even as they push for mea­sures that would make cam­pus­es more hos­pitable to stu­dents of col­or: greater diver­si­ty, inclu­sion, safe­ty, and afford­abil­i­ty,” oper­ate under a con­tra­dic­to­ry log­ic that is sel­dom artic­u­lat­ed. To what extent, he won­ders, does the stu­dent goal of lean­ing in” and cre­at­ing more spaces for peo­ple of col­or at the top of an unequal and unjust social order clash with the urge of the same pro­test­ers to chal­lenge that unjust social order?

Kel­ley argues that the lan­guage of trau­ma” and men­tal health that has come to dom­i­nate cam­pus­es also works to indi­vid­u­al­ize and depoliti­cize the very idea of racial oppres­sion. The words trau­ma, PTSD, micro-aggres­sion, and trig­gers,” he points out, have vir­tu­al­ly replaced oppres­sion, repres­sion, and sub­ju­ga­tion.” He explains that, while trau­ma can be an entrance into activism, it is not in itself a des­ti­na­tion and may even trick activists into adopt­ing the lan­guage of the neolib­er­al insti­tu­tions they are at pains to reject.” This is why, he adds, for uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors, diver­si­ty and cul­tur­al com­pe­ten­cy ini­tia­tives have become go-to solu­tions that shift race from the pub­lic sphere into the psy­che” and strip the present round of demon­stra­tions of some of their power.

Cul­tur­al Pol­i­tics and Inequality

In recent years, cul­tur­al, or iden­ti­ty, pol­i­tics has cer­tain­ly chal­lenged the ways that Marx­ist and oth­er old and new left orga­ni­za­tions of the past man­aged to ignore, or even help repro­duce, racial and gen­der inequal­i­ties. It has ques­tioned the val­ue of class-only or class-first analy­sis on sub­jects as wide-rang­ing as the Cuban Rev­o­lu­tion — did it suc­cess­ful­ly address racial inequal­i­ty as it redis­trib­uted resources to the poor, or did it repress black iden­ti­ty by priv­i­leg­ing class analy­sis? — and the Bernie Sanders cam­paign — will his social pro­grams aimed at reduc­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty alle­vi­ate racial inequal­i­ty by help­ing the poor, or will his class-based project leave the issue of racial inequal­i­ty in the lurch? In oth­er words, the ques­tion of whether a polit­i­cal project aimed at attack­ing the struc­tures of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty can also advance racial and gen­der equal­i­ty is cru­cial to today’s cam­pus politics.

Put anoth­er way, the ques­tion is: How polit­i­cal is the per­son­al? Polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Adolph Reed argues that if class is left out, race pol­i­tics on cam­pus becomes the pol­i­tics of the left-wing of neolib­er­al­ism.” As he puts it, race-first pol­i­tics of the sort being pushed today by uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors pro­motes a moral econ­o­my… in which 1% of the pop­u­la­tion con­trolled 90% of the resources could be just, pro­vid­ed that rough­ly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Lati­no, 50% were women, and what­ev­er the appro­pri­ate pro­por­tions were LGBT people.”

The stu­dent move­ment that has swept across the nation has chal­lenged col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties on the basics of their way of (quite lit­er­al­ly) doing busi­ness. The ques­tion for these insti­tu­tions now is: Can stu­dent demands large­ly be tamed and embed­ded inside an admin­is­tra­tion-sanc­tioned agen­da that in no way under­mines how schools now oper­ate in the world?

Fem­i­nist the­o­rist Nan­cy Fras­er has shown how fem­i­nist ideas of a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion were suc­cess­ful­ly recu­per­at­ed by neolib­er­al­ism” — that is, how they were repur­posed as ratio­nales for greater inequal­i­ty. Fem­i­nist ideas that once formed part of a rad­i­cal world­view,” she argues, are now increas­ing­ly expressed in indi­vid­u­al­ist terms.” Fem­i­nist demands for work­place access and equal pay have, for exam­ple, been used to under­mine work­er gains for a fam­i­ly wage,” while a fem­i­nist empha­sis on gen­der equal­i­ty has sim­i­lar­ly been used on cam­pus to divert atten­tion from grow­ing class inequality.

Stu­dent demands for racial jus­tice risk being absorbed into a com­pa­ra­ble frame­work. Uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors have found many ways to use stu­dent demands for racial jus­tice to strength­en their busi­ness mod­el and so the micro-man­age­ment of fac­ul­ty. In one case seized upon by free-speech lib­er­tar­i­ans, the Bran­deis admin­is­tra­tion placed an assis­tant provost in a class­room to mon­i­tor a pro­fes­sor after stu­dents accused him of using the word wet­back” in a Latin Amer­i­can pol­i­tics class. More com­mon­ly, uni­ver­si­ties employ a pletho­ra of con­sult­ing firms and cre­ate new admin­is­tra­tive posi­tions to man­age diver­si­ty” and inclu­sion.” Work­shops and train­ing ses­sions pro­lif­er­ate, as do safe spaces” and trig­ger warn­ings.” Such a vision of diver­si­ty” is then pro­mot­ed as a means to pre­pare stu­dents to com­pete in the glob­al marketplace.”

There are even deep­er ways in which a diver­si­ty agen­da aligns with neolib­er­al pol­i­tics. Lit­er­ary the­o­rist Wal­ter Benn Michaels argues, for exam­ple, that diver­si­ty can give a veneer of social jus­tice to ideas about mar­ket com­pe­ti­tion and mer­i­toc­ra­cy that in real­i­ty pro­mote inequal­i­ty. The rule in neolib­er­al economies is that the dif­fer­ence between the rich and the poor gets wider rather than shrinks — but that no cul­ture should be treat­ed invid­i­ous­ly,” he explains. It’s basi­cal­ly OK if eco­nom­ic dif­fer­ences widen as long as the increas­ing­ly suc­cess­ful elites come to look like the increas­ing­ly unsuc­cess­ful non-elites. So the mod­el of social jus­tice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the mod­el of social jus­tice is that the rich make what­ev­er they make, but an appro­pri­ate per­cent­age of them are minori­ties or women.” Or as Forbes Mag­a­zine put it, Busi­ness­es need to vast­ly increase their abil­i­ty to sense new oppor­tu­ni­ties, devel­op cre­ative solu­tions, and move on them with much greater speed. The only way to accom­plish these changes is through a revamped work­place cul­ture that embraces diver­si­ty so that sens­ing, cre­ativ­i­ty, and speed are all vast­ly improved.”

Clear­ly, uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors pre­fer stu­dent demands that can be coopt­ed or absorbed into their cur­rent busi­ness mod­el. Allow­ing the pre­vail­ing cul­ture to define the para­me­ters of their protest has left the bur­geon­ing Mil­len­ni­al Move­ment in a pre­car­i­ous posi­tion. The more that stu­dents — with the sup­port of col­lege and uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tions — accept the indi­vid­u­al­ized cul­tur­al path to social change while for­go­ing the pos­si­bil­i­ty of any­thing greater than cos­met­ic changes to pre­vail­ing hier­ar­chies, on cam­pus and beyond, the more they face ridicule from those on the right who present them as frag­ile, cod­dled, priv­i­leged whiners.

Still, this young, vibrant move­ment has momen­tum and will con­tin­ue to evolve. In this time of great social and polit­i­cal flux, it’s pos­si­ble that its many con­stituen­cies — fight­ing for racial jus­tice, eco­nom­ic jus­tice, and cli­mate jus­tice — will use their grow­ing clout to build on recent vic­to­ries, no mat­ter how limited.

Keep an eye on col­lege cam­pus­es. The bat­tle for the soul of Amer­i­can high­er edu­ca­tion being fought there today is going to mat­ter for the wider world tomor­row. Whether that future will be defined by a cul­ture of trig­ger warn­ings and safe spaces or by democ­ra­tized edu­ca­tion and rad­i­cal efforts to fight inequal­i­ty may be won or lost in the shad­ow of the Ivory Tow­er. The Mil­len­ni­al Move­ment mat­ters. Our future is in their hands.

Avi­va Chom­sky is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry and coor­di­na­tor of Latin Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Salem State Col­lege. The author of sev­er­al books, Chom­sky has been active in Latin Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­i­ty and immi­grants’ rights issues for over twen­ty-five years. She lives in Salem, Massachusetts.
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