Does the student campaign spread?

Activists copy things that seem to work, but the recipe for success in one place doesn’t always translate elsewhere.

Of course, students around the United States found inspiration and encouragement from the Missouri students’ successful blitz of their university president.  There were student protests, a hunger strike, a clear statement of a central demand, and the support of the football team–and its coach and athletic director.

Some of this translated to Occidental College in Los Angeles, where student activists were also concerned about the racial climate on campus and the under-representation of Blacks and Latinos in the student body and on the faculty. Student activists unified behind a first step by demanding the ouster of their own president, Jonathan Veitch.

Activist students, clear demand, but that’s not always enough. President Veitch isn’t as vulnerable a target. He has a long record of academic scholarship and administration. This means that he’s quick to call a meeting. The  Occidental Tigers haven’t lined up against him, and Division III football teams can’t throw around as much weight anyway. Most important, Occidental is a private school, and Veitch answers to a Board of Trustees who don’t have to answer to any elected officials.

President Veitch announced that he’s not resigning, and that he’s eager to talk with the students to start working things out. The Trustees announced that they would stand behind their president.

Now the students are holed up in an occupation of an administration building, maintaining their call for resignation and publicizing other demands as well (the list and responses here): more Black faculty and students; more funding for Black student organizations; a Black Studies major; demilitarizing campus police and taking bullet proof vests from them; and new training and new staff to support diversity.

Each demand starts its own conversation, with committed supporters and skeptical opponents (except for the vests: the campus police are more than skeptical). It’s tougher to get the rest of the world to focus, and easier for opponents to pick away at the details.

It’s not over, but university presidents are harder for students to dismiss than the Missouri events would have us believe.  This administration is responding, creating new administrative positions, moving some money around, and stepping up efforts to diversify the faculty. But scoring responsiveness to student demands is tricky, especially when Occidental promises efforts and commitments to consider.

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking that the campus reforms of the past twenty years, where administrators have been encouraged to treat their students as customers rather than charges, creates a circumstance in which administrators have to take every demand seriously.


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The Mizzou moment: Student activism beyond Missouri


Protest at Ithaca College

When activists see a tactic that seems to be producing results, they’ll imitate it. Innovation spreads ideas that seem to work. The ousting of University of Missouri Timothy Wolfe signaled student activists across the country about new possibilities. We’ve seen a run of discussions of race, protests, hunger strikes, and targeting administrators in the last few days, and I don’t think anyone knows just what happens next.

In all cases, neither the grievances nor the activism is new. But there is more energy and far more attention in the wake of Mizzou.

At Ithaca College, POC at IC (People of Color at Ithaca College) has called for President Tom Rochon’s*  resignation. The students are angry about the racial climate on campus, including the small number of Black and Latino faculty, but they cite many other grievances, often tied to his management style (he doesn’t consult, they say), the school’s ties to business interests, and budget priorities. A large group of faculty has endorsed the call for a no confidence vote, amplifying those concerns and adding their own (read the “open letter.“) The Trustees have endorsed Rochon, who has named a new administrator charged with diversity issues, and announced curricular and training reforms. The students (and faculty) aren’t close to backing down.

former Dean Mary Spellman at Claremont-McKenna College

At Claremont-McKenna College, Dean of Students Mary Spellman resigned her position yesterday, responding to student protests and hunger strikes calling for her ouster. The straw that stirred this drink was an unfortunately phrased email Dean Spellman sent to a student, offering to talk, and pledging her commitment to help students who don’t fit the “CMC mold.”

But the students had long-brewing grievances about the racial climate on campus, noting insensitive and offensive comments from classmates, as well as vandalism of the offices of minority student organizations. Students complained about the lack of alternative perspectives in some of their courses and about hurtful comments from professors. Before Mizzou, the activists had already provoked the resignation of their Junior Class president. The students asked for a space to organize and broader attention to their concerns. President Hiram Chodosh announced new administrative positions to address issues of diversity. Expect the new Dean of Students to vet emails more carefully; maybe proofing the correspondence will be a new administrative job.

Amherst College protest

Meanwhile, at Amherst College the Mizzou fallout intensified a campaign not only against an administrator, but also targeting the school’s mascot, Lord Jeff. He’s a stupid mascot, and a ready target. (Lord Jeffrey Amherst was known for promoting the distribution of blankets from small pox patients to Indians.) Students have demanded that President Biddy Martin denounce Lord Jeff by 5:00 tonight, and purge his image from the campus and all associated paraphernalia. Or else?

There are 10 other demands, starting with a call for apologies from the president and the Chair of the Board of Trustees to

students, alumni and former students, faculty, administration and staff who have been victims of several injustices including but not limited to our institutional legacy of white supremacy, colonialism, anti-black racism, anti-Latinx racism, anti-Native American racism, anti-Native/ indigenous racism, anti-Asian racism, anti-Middle Eastern racism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, ableism, mental health stigma, and classism. Also include that marginalized communities and their allies should feel safe at Amherst College.

Meanwhile, here at the University of California, Irvine, two groups of students seized the moment to protest high tuition–and tuition altogether. Attending the University of California was once just about free, and now students commonly go deep into debt to finance an undergraduate degree. (I’d add, many many students work many many hours while in school, seeking to minimize that debt; they work enough to make getting through school and learning something much more difficult.) The Black Student Union used the Mizzou moment to stage a protest reiterating its demands for more academic and psychological support on campus, and calling for a zero-tolerance policy for racism.

The point: the apparent success of the student movement at the University of Missouri inspired campus-based activists who shared similar concerns to seize the moment, adding local issues, targets, and approaches. (Thankfully, hunger strikes are far from universal.) And college students have plenty of reasons to feel aggrieved, although replacing a campus leader and creating new administrative positions can’t come close to addressing most of those complaints.

Indeed, the proliferation of administrative positions is one of the factors driving high tuition. (But faltering state support is far more significant.)

There will be plenty of discussion about the justice and wisdom of each of these demands, about the obstacles students from underrepresented minorities face on college campuses, and the difficulties universities have in navigating academic, social, and financial pressures.

Right now, we can thank the student protesters for raising those questions.

*Full disclosure: Tom Rochon and I edited a book together a long time ago. Although we haven’t stayed in touch, I think of him as a great scholar (irony alert: of social movements), a decent man, and a friend.

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How student activists win: Update on APUSH in Colorado

Remember when high school students walked out of the public schools in Jefferson County Colorado earlier this year? They were protesting a number of administrative and curricular changes underway that threatened their educations. (We discussed it here.) A newly elected school board had hired a new superintendent who was determined to make a difference.

I was most interested in the students’ concern with the Advanced Placement Course in United States History (APUSH). They were riled up about a proposed focus on promoting patriotism, rather than telling a fuller, sometimes critical, story of American history.

But the story drifted out of the national news when the student walk-out ended. The action didn’t. Students and their allies (including many parents and the teachers union) spent the ensuing months organizing.  Voters recalled three conservative members of the school board; in conjunction with two members choosing not to seek reelection, Jefferson County will see a completely new school board. Grassroots mobilization at the polls meant engaging citizens in an election that’s normally not very visible, and it also meant fighting Americans for Prosperity, which invested time and money in keeping the conservative board in power.

The point, again, is that effective movement work starts before the cameras turn on, and continues long after attention passes. We’d also note that there isn’t such a sharp distinction between protest and electoral politics.

I suspect the students will learn that.

And I won’t count on Colorado’s high school students to line up reliably with the College Board in the future.

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Mizzou, part II: Lead-up and legacies

Most of us tuned into the story about the ouster of University of Missouri president Timothy Wolfe last weekend, when the football team weighed in to support a hunger University of Missouri turmoilstriker, and saw a sudden and conclusive end when Wolfe stepped down and Jonathan Butler started eating.

It’s a nice short story with well-defined sides and a convincing resolution. That story emphasizes the power of collective action–for good or ill, depending upon your sympathies.

Real life, of course, is more complicated, and even extending the tale a little ways backward and forward gives us a better sense of how social movements really work.

To start, hunger striker Jonathan Butler says that he began to tune into the politics of race on campus during the protests in Ferguson, about a hundred miles from the university. He shuttled back and forth between his academic studies and what was then the front lines in a political battle, describing the effect as transformative (See Matt Pearce’s profile in the LA Times). With others similarly inspired, he organized a campaign to draw attention to the racial climate at the University of Missouri, which included letters, requests for meetings, protests, and the tent city on the quad. The fast was slow in coming, and many of his classmates were already paying attention. Like a career in the arts, overnight success took a long time and a lot of effort.

And after the splashy victory, it’s hard to think that the departure of two administrators could fix the broader concerns about the racial climate that spurred the protests in the first place. Concerned Student 1950, the small group of activists that launched the campaign, has demanded further action on curriculum and faculty hiring, demanding a meeting with Missouri governor Jay Nixon, and representation on the committee that picks a successor.

Next steps are always more difficult, and maintaining the breadth of the active coalition, including support from athletes and academics, is far from automatic.

Effective activists start long before anyone’s paying attention, and they have to continue long afterward.


By the way, a student protest toppling a university president by threatening intercollegiate sports does not generate universal support. Clay Travis’s take-down at Fox Sports’s College Football Blog is worth a look to see the rhetorical battle unfolding.  Travis questions whether any of the racist incidents actually took place, and whether the administration could have–or should have–done anything about them if they had. He also charges Butler with concealing his very affluent background and questions his long tenure at Mizzou–if things were really this bad. Aristotle would call the questions about veracity challenges on logos, and those of Butler’s character, questions of ethos. The final concern, that college football might actually be threatened, could boil the blood of College Football readers: pathos.

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How movements work: Activists sack a president at Mizzou

University of Missouri president Timothy Wolfe, a one-time championship high school quarterback, took a knee to avoid being sacked.  Once the football team lined up against him, it was clear Wolfe’s time was running out, and he resigned today to avoid additional damage–to himself, certainly, but also, he said, to the university.  Wolfe said that he hoped his resignation would speed healing and progress on combating racism on campus.

But there was obvious regret: “This is not the way change should come about,” he said, resignedly.

Thirty-two black football players came relatively late to this game, when they announced that they would not participate in any football activities until Wolfe was gone, but they weren’t the last. Their teammates endorsed the strike, as did their coach and the university’s athletic director. Hundreds of black alumni signed a statement of support. Even the faculty followed, endorsing a student strike that would have started this morning.

The charge against President Wolfe that stuck was insensitivity and failed leadership in addressing the racial climate on campus. The student body president had subjected to racist insults, and someone drew a swastika in feces on a dorm bathroom–and this wasn’t the first time. Wolfe’s responses to events were slow and awkward at best.

Last week, Jonathan Butler, a graduate student in educational leadership and policy, announced that he was going on a hunger strike until Wolfe was gone. The effort generated more attention, and a growing pressure on students, faculty, and administrators to take a stance. The football players lined up prepared. The post-it decoration of a statue of Thomas Jefferson (at right) was another response.

The focus of the protests, however, was always on Timothy Wolfe. Indeed, an activist group’s demands called on him not only to resign, but first to hand-write a letter of apology acknowledging his “white male privilege,” and hold a press conference to read the letter. (Thankfully, Jonathan Butler has announced that the resignation is enough for him to start eating again.)

But to understand the last week, we need to pay attention to the larger context.  President

Jonathan Butler

Wolfe’s political skills and academic support were substantially weaker than we’d expect for the leader of a major research university. After getting his undergraduate degree at Mizzou, he forged a career in the computer industry. He was unemployed when he took the job, promising to deliver higher education at lower costs, after he’d learned about the university.

Wolfe had generated opposition through a number of unpopular reforms, including cutting health insurance for graduate students and kicking a Planned Parenthood office off campus. When he faltered in managing the fallout from racist incidents, he lacked a loyal basis of support for anything else elsewhere on campus. The football coach didn’t threaten the players’ scholarships; the faculty didn’t call for patience and dialogue with the administration. Like the Egyptian army responding to the protests at Tahrir Square, once the football team had lined up, there was little support left on the other side.

The apparently sudden emergence of opposition to President Wolfe’s tenure had been brewing for a long time, with student activists engaged in a number of less successful campaigns that set up this victory.

Trust that his successor will be far more committed to addressing the racial climate on campus–at least rhetorically.

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The Tea Party falters

I took this Gallup poll result from the New York Times  “Taking Note” column, just because I wanted to take note.  Support for the Tea Party in surveys peaked at the end of 2010 at less than 30 percent, and then has declined fairly steadily, now down to about 17 percent.  What’s this mean anyway?

The Tea Party was a vigorous and volatile social movement starting with that name just after Barack Obama took office.  It was visible during the 2010 election, and claimed responsibility for the very large Republican gains in the House of Representatives.

But assessing membership in a movement is always tricky, no less so for a movement that mostly abandoned demonstrations after winning a firm institutionalization in both Congress and in the world of Washington-oriented advocacy organizations. Most supporters were never going to demonstrations or even meetings, much less donning the tricorner hats that make for such good photos.

Still, it’s easy to find numerous organizations with Tea Party in their names, pushing for conservative causes, and an even larger group of groups that have been pushing conservative positions on a range of issues.

In the House, a Tea Party caucus in the Republican Party, initially led by Michele Bachmann, came and went, and has largely been replaced by the Freedom Caucus, which claimed the career of Speaker John Boehner and promises to bedevil his successor.

For many reasons, this institutional version of the Tea Party commands less popularity than the one focused on stopping health care reform in 2009 or President Obama more generally in 2010.

But what does “Tea Party” mean anymore anyway?  The acronym, “Taxed Enough Already” remains, and the Freedom Caucus is firmly opposed to taxes. It’s also stillImage result for tea party protest stalwart in opposing the Affordable Care Act, but that ship has sailed.  Its members are vigorous in opposing immigration reform, ostensibly because Obama is president, but I can’t imagine a program that will pass muster with this group. The groups behind the Tea Party (FreedomWorks; Americans for Prosperity) in the early days were absolutely not in this rejectionist camp on immigration.

More than anything, Tea Party has become shorthand for an attitude of strong commitment and vigorous opposition. And that seems to sound better as ideal and as strategy when government is actually getting things done.

Establishment Republican figures continue to struggle with finding a way to manage their own radical flank.

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Jailing Kim Davis and creating a cause

I’ll still stand by yesterday’s guess, that the rally round imprisoned county clerk Kim Davis Joe Davis speaks in support of his wife Kim Davis, who is being held in contempt of court for defying a federal judge's order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, outside the Carter County Detention Center in Grayson, Kentucky.will be relatively small and relatively brief.  But today, The Daily News reports that roughly 200 supporters rallied in Grayson, Kentucky to protest her imprisonment.  And to pray. Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has promised to meet with Davis to show his support.  (Gay marriage supporters demonstrated as well!)

You see, Judge David Bunning’s decision to jail Davis shifted the balance of suffering.  Up until yesterday, only people who wanted to get married in Rowan County were suffering for Kim Davis’s religious beliefs.  The County clerk had defied a Federal Court order to allow her office to issue marriage licenses, and worked the legal system to try to protect her choice.  Davis got no support from the legal system. Judge Bunning gave her the chance to prove her commitment by suffering for the cause; she took it.  Meanwhile, her staff commenced issuing licenses.  (Davis’s lawyers say they aren’t valid, by the way.) Insulted, demeaned, and delayed, the betrothed no longer had a grievance.  Meanwhile, Kim Davis’s willingness to suffer for her beliefs inspires her supporters.

Does it last?  If you want to work in government, you have to play by its rules.  Long ago, Alabama Governor George Wallace honored his campaign promise to stand in the school house door to block racial integration.  It was quite a show, but Governor Wallace stood aside when ordered by the federal government–backed with the force of the National Guard.  He remained in office, and he continued to campaign against integration, even running for president on a state’s rights platform in 1968.  Later, there was a change of heart, but at this point, we see that he wanted to keep his job and acceded to the law.

More than a decade ago, another committed Christian was removed from office in Alabama.  Roy Moore, then Chief Justice of the state’s supreme court, was removed from office by Alabama’s judicial ethics panel for defying a federal court order and refusing to remove a massive granite monument to the 10 commandments that he’d had installed in the court house.  (The Constitution prohibits government from endorsing any religion–even if it’s the most popular one in the country, state, or county…)

This was not the end of Judge Moore’s career, not by a long shot.  Apparently, defying the federal judiciary is still good politics in some parts of America.  After a failed campaign for governor, and a flirtation with his own presidential campaign, Moore ran for Chief Justice again in 2012–and won.

By the way, you might not be surprised to hear that CJ Moore also opposes same sex marriage, and has advised probate judges in the state to disregard the Supreme Court, sticking instead with Alabama law which restricts marriage to mixed sex couples.  The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed an ethics complaint against the Chief Justice….resolution pending.

Standing up against the federal government sometimes makes for good politics–locally–at least for a while.  But a government payroll won’t provide a foundation for that defiance–at least not for very long.


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