Introduction to Campus Activism in the 21st Century

Introduction to Campus Activism in the 21st Century

DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-2173-0.ch001
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The chapter provides an overview of what activism is currently taking place on college campuses and the formats of this engagement. Activism as protest and technological engagement are introduced, noting that activism can be more than traditional protests and demonstrations aimed at making immediate change. Different perspectives on activism are also presented, including the concept that activism is a way to help students grow and mature while in college, is a way to engage students in democratic ideology, and can also be viewed as a tool in the free-market enterprise system. The chapter concludes by introducing the alignment of activism with different elements of the study of public policy.
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The evolution of higher education includes references to changing societal expectations, whether those be intentional revisions to curricula or gradual responses to student behaviors. This evolution has at its very heart the responsiveness of what society expects from a ‘college experience,’ and this expectation has evolved repeatedly embracing job training to education for the sake of learning (Jones, 1999). The difficulty institutions have experienced, however, is in their ability to respond to different constituents, namely, those who provide the base or foundation of funding for an institution’s operation (Sporn, 1999).

Of the approximate 5000 colleges and universities at work in the United States, the majority are private enterprises that respond to some specific constituent, namely some form of proprietary partnership working to ensure a profitable business model. These institutions mostly focus on specific job training programs, and rarely make headlines for student unrest or behavior. The majority of publicity and emphasis in the public sphere is on how traditional higher education institutions respond to student needs, how they ensure student safety, and how these mostly public colleges and universities assure a better quality of life for their graduates.

Student activism has been at the very heart of the history of higher education, as students at the very first universities in Italy joined forces to protest the quality of their education and their life at the institution (Cobban, 1980). Student protests have commonly appeared over matters of institutional life, such as the quality of food in the famous butter wars at Harvard, and in more recent years have taken on social issues. These demonstrations, sit-ins, protests, letter writing campaigns, and other collective actions all have a common element: they seek change and recognition of something that the combined group has a belief in.

Activism can take on many forms, ranging from physical activities such as taking over a space by sitting or standing, chanting, singing, carry signs, all in an effort to raise awareness or force those in power to change some action. The advent of technology further enables students to coalesce and coordinate their activities, making it easy for those coordinating actions to communicate with large numbers of students about where to go, what to say, or caution them in real time. Similarly, technology itself has become a mechanism for activism, as letter writing campaigns, blogging, and posting messages, images, and videos can be in themselves a form of demonstration.

The use of technology illustrates the changes in activism on contemporary campuses, as it reflects the generational shifting of beliefs, values, and mores of college students. Students are enrolling in higher education for different kinds of experiences with different expectations than in previous generations. Some have suggested (Hersh & Merrow, 2005) that students in the 1980s, for example, had a strong career focus and expected higher education to provide basic career training. That expectation may have changed, as students in the 2010s have a less singular vision of higher education, both expecting some occupational training, but also an experience that meets their demands and responds to the ‘student as consumer’ mentality.

Generational discussions have broadly predicted technology-driven activism, meaning that the research and critical dialogue about Millenial college students reinforces the individualism that grew out of the 1980s, but that it also sees involvement as important. The demonstration of this involvement, however, has largely been relegated to low-risk, low-reward behaviors, such as boycotting certain websites or indicating support or non-support in social media. Comments posted on blogs, for example, generally can carry little consequence to the individual who posts them, and the words used and ideas expressed can be presented by usernames that do not fully reflect who the author is. Similarly, the physical distance of users can minimize risk as confrontations can be non-existent among those with differing points of view.

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