Student Activism Isn’t Enough

Eight reasons why universities can’t be the primary site of left organizing.

Fast-food workers rally in Milwaukee in May 2014. Joe Brusky / Flickr

Amber A’Lee Frost is correct that the university can’t be the key site of left-wing (or any other) organizing. (If you think that idea’s a straw man, I invite you to read the Port Huron Statement.)

Please note that this is a series of empirical claims, not normative ones. I’m not saying it would be good or bad for campus to be the key site of a given movement’s organizing strategy. I’m saying that it’s not going to work, for good or bad.

1. There’s not a lot of people on campus.

There’s a lot of universities out there, and you could be forgiven for overestimating the size of the student population. But NCES says there’s only about 20 million students, grad and undergrad, enrolled in degree-granting post-secondary institutions. There’s also about 4 million people who work in those institutions.

Back of the envelope, that means that there’s about 7.5 percent of the American population regularly on campus in one capacity or another, setting aside questions of online-only education.

Is 7.5 percent nothing? Not at all. It’s a meaningful chunk of people. But even if all of them were capable of being politically organized — which of course is far from the truth — you’re still leaving out the vast majority of the adult population.

2. Campus activism is seasonal.

You aren’t going to hear a lot about campus protests for a few months. Why? Because of summer break. Vacation is notoriously hard on student protest groups. Why did the “campus uprising” of a few years ago fizzle out? In large measure because of Christmas break — the spring semester wasn’t nearly as active as the fall — and then summer break.

Activism requires momentum and continuity of practice, and the regularity of vacation makes that quite difficult. Organizations that are careful and have strong leadership in place can take steps to adjust for this seasonal nature, but there’s just always going to be major lulls in campus organizing according to the calendar. And politics happens year-round.

3. College students are an itinerant population.

Speaking of continuity of practice, campus political groups constantly have to replace membership and leadership because students (we hope) will eventually graduate. Again, that problem can be ameliorated with hard work and forethought by these groups, but it’s very difficult to have consistent strength of numbers and a coherent political vision when you’re seeing 100 percent turnover in a five- to six-year span.

4. Town and gown conflicts can make local organizing difficult.

Sadly, many university towns are sites of tension and mutual distrust between the campus community and the locals. The degree of these tensions varies widely from campus to campus, and they can be ameliorated. In fact, making attempts to heal those divides can be the best form of campus activism.

But it’s the case that the complex conflicts between colleges and the towns in which they’re housed will often make it difficult to build meaningful solidarity across the campus borders, which often serve as an invisible wall of attention and community.

5. Students are too busy to devote too much time to organizing.

Seventy percent of college students work. A quarter have dependent children. These students must also do all of the necessary work of being students. We should be realistic and fair with their time and recognize that a majority of students will not be able to engage politically for many hours out of the week.

6. College students have a natural and justifiable first-order priority of getting employed.

Everyone who works is of course at risk of having professional repercussions for their political engagement, but college students perhaps have a unique set of worries about being publicly politically active, particularly in the era of the internet.

Nowadays, we’re all constantly building an easily searchable, publicly accessible archive of the things we once thought and did. This is particularly troublesome for those who have not yet gotten their first jobs and have yet to build the kind of social capital necessary to feel secure in their ability to get work with a controversial political past.

It’s my impression that a lot of college students are inclined to be political but feel that they simply can’t risk it, and that’s a fear that we should respect given the modern job market.

7. College activism can either be a low-stakes place where students learn and grow safely, or an essential site of organizing — but it can’t be both.

Oftentimes, when campus activists make mistakes (such as forcing a free yoga class for disabled students to be shut down because yoga is “cultural appropriation”), defenders will say, hey, they’re just college kids — they need a chance to screw up, to make mistakes, to be free to fail. And there’s some real truth to that.

The problem is that this attitude cannot coexist with the idea that campus has to be a central site or the central site of left-wing political organizing. If what happens on campus is crucial to the broader left movement, it can’t then be called not worth worrying about; if campus organizing is a space that is largely free of consequences for young activists, then it can’t be a space where essential political work gets done. These ideas are not compatible.

8. Organize the campus’s workforce according to labor principles.

None of this means that organizing shouldn’t take place on campus; it absolutely should. But like Frost I think that the Left is far too fixated on what happens in campus spaces, likely because these spaces are some of the only areas where the Left appears to hold any meaningful power. Student activists should be encouraged to engage politically in order to learn and grow, but we should not imagine that they are the necessary vanguard of the young left, given that only a third of Americans ever gets a college degree.

Meanwhile, we absolutely must continue to organize the campus as a workplace. (For the record, Frost is a member of a campus union, as am I.) But that organization takes place according to labor principles, not according to any special dictates of academic culture. And this returns to Frost’s basic thesis: it is the organization of labor, not of students, that must be the primary focus and goal of the American left.