A New Era of Student Protests (Forbes.com) November 14, 2015Posted by daviddavenport in Op/Eds, Politics.
After 40 years of declining college student interest in political matters, political engagement and protests have returned to campus. A so-called “Million Student March” was held on over 100 campuses around the country this week, and other colleges experienced protests in support of the unrest at the University of Missouri. As Bob Dylan, who provided the soundtrack for student protests of an earlier time, put it: “The times they are a-changin’.”
But let’s be clear, these are not your father’s student protests from the 1960s. Today’s students are not protesting wars and American foreign policy, but rather perceived slights and injustices in their college experience. In other words, the students are stirred up about their own lives and campus climates. The “Million Student March” was about demands for free college tuition and the cancellation of student debt. (Thank you Bernie Sanders for creating those pie in the sky expectations.) Colleges bear some responsibility for rising costs, but the increase in student debt is more about families shifting the burden of college forward to their children.
The protests about race are more complex. At one level, the very affirmative action programs designed to address racial imbalance on campuses are failing, with students feeling marginalized and unprepared. One demonstrator at Emory said, “They do not provide any type of resources for black students to thrive and succeed… They lump us in here and just expect us to swim.” Another common complaint is that there are simply not enough faculty and students of color on campus, resulting in a feeling of “alienation” among minority students. Doubtless there is truth in this, although lots of students apparently feel alienated these days. The annual survey of college freshman undertaken for decades by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute indicates that students’ feeling of good emotional health, self-reported at only 50%, is at an all-time low.
It’s a bit underwhelming when students protest their own conditions at luxurious campuses like Emory or Boston College, but the simplistic and selfish nature of their demands is even less impressive. The student protestors’ solution to high cost and debt is to make everything free. Their answer to problems in the campus climate is to fire the president. According to news reports, concern over statements by campus public safety officers and guest speakers at Ithaca made up the case for the president to resign. At Amherst, students merely called for the president to condemn an institutional legacy of racism, including the “inherent racist nature” of school mascot Lord Jeff.
But my biggest concern is that campus administrators are actually giving in to these intolerant and simplistic demands by resigning. The Chancellor of the University of Missouri apparently resigned even before a board meeting called to discuss matters, with the campus president offering his resignation hours later. At Claremont McKenna College, the dean of students resigned over charges of racial insensitivity “to gain closure of a controversy that has divided the student body and disrupted the mission of this fine institution.” An administrator resigning to avoid controversy is becoming like famous people with personal problems disappearing into rehabilitation—it’s the fastest and quietest escape route. And giving in to student demands so easily (which were disproportionate to the remedy of resignation in the first place) means nothing is learned, complex problems are not worked through; instead people just walk away.
Both students and administrators need to recall the fundamental premise of civil disobedience and protest. It is that the protestors find some policy or law so unjust that they are willing to violate it in order to challenge its legitimacy, but then also pay the consequences. Today’s students want to protest and disobey, but not pay any consequences—like the students at Missouri that were angry that a professor was actually going to give a scheduled test, rather than cancel it in favor of protesting. Fortunately some wise administrator refused to accept the professor’s tender of resignation over this incident.
Maybe we need some good, old-fashioned “teach-ins” from the ’60s about how to protest and, if you are in authority, how to respond.
To read the column at Forbes.com: