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.