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A new generation of student activists

Two years ago I published a column, “Where are the student activists?,” exploring the decline of protest and activism on a campus whose very architecture and academic calendar were products of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Imagine how surprised I was this fall, then, when occupations of Nassau Hall brought rapid change to the University’s handling of racial issues and forced a fundamental re-evaluation of how Princeton should memorialize its history. Protest at Princeton is, apparently, not as dead as I thought.

What is clear is that campus protests this fall are no flash in the pan – American students who have witnessed these protests expect them to become the norm and to drive their future. According to a survey released last week by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, “The entering freshman class of 2015 ranks among the most ambitious in these areas [of politics and protest] compared to their counterparts” in 50 years. This is not just an increased focus on protest as a tactic – though no doubt college freshmen witnessing 2015’s upheavals now see protest as far more effective than my cohort and I did three years ago – the survey also shows a dramatic upward tick in the proportion of students who value keeping up-to-date with political affairs, and a continued leftward shift in the political identities of entering freshman, who are more liberal now than at any point since 1973.

The demographic breakdown of the results – black and Hispanic students were far more likely to anticipate protesting than their White and Asian counterparts – suggests that the campus climate and identity politics will continue to be a focus of the protests. This represents a shift from previous waves of protests, whether the globally-minded anti-Vietnam and anti-Apartheid activism of decades past or the national but truncated Occupy movements a half decade ago. So it remains to be seen whether the new wave of activism will reach beyond identity politics, expanding the reach of already present groups or catalyzing the creation of new ones. Indeed, protests have been focused both in goals and in scope – in terms of both national attention and of goals achieved, the most successful have been those aimed at changing policies or practices on single campuses.

The protesters have been mocked for supposed myopia – why focus on the “insignificant” injustices on-campus when there are so many issues in the larger world? I’d argue, though, that the focus is a product of pragmatism, and perhaps of a sort of selective pressure. The model of focused action – with inter-campus coordination mainly drawing attention to particular events and particular types of grievances (honored racists, misogynistic parties, affinity spaces) – allows rapid, individual successes to build momentum across a network of campuses precisely because the demands are specific and immediately actionable. This suggests a model for student-driven change which plays to the strengths of today’s hyper-connected students. Expanding this model to other realms is challenging: divestment campaigns, for example, have been largely unsuccessful (universities apparently trust students on student affairs far more than on financial decisions), but everything from corporate and government partnerships to labor actions presents an opening for student critique.

Of course, focusing only on increasingly-liberal political activists ignores the diversity of thought at Princeton and other schools. While confrontational protests have brought much-needed attention to long-festering issues, it has resulted in an oft-ugly backlash (see Yik-Yak, or the comment section of the ‘Prince’). Princeton’s Open Campus Coalition and its allies at other schools present the opportunity to air legitimate disagreements with protesters’ demands and tactics while providing a framework for increased understanding. Representing a diversity of opinions is only a start – if organizations become confrontational (as in the encounter between Princeton Committee on Palestine and Tigers for Israel last week), all sides suffer.

For a university system 300 years in the making, the reaction among faculty and administrators has been surprisingly swift – not only in discussing how to meet the demands of protesters, but also in anticipating future protests. In an email to all students at the beginning of the spring semester, Deans Deignan and Schreyer re-emphasized the sections on student dissent in “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities” and announced that the University has prepared a written statement to warn student protesters when they are in violation of “RRR.” But the changes in practices are perhaps more telling, and more indicative. After administrators across the country drew flack for their slow response to protests, President Eisgruber quickly responded to Professor Perry’s arrest last week with a thoughtful letter which acknowledged the political context of the events but did not make specific accusations. This increased care is not unique to Princeton – a senior administrator at a private school which did not see high-profile upheaval this year told me that, after events at Claremont-McKenna, Yale and Missouri, he and his colleagues go over emails with a fine-toothed comb, nonetheless fully aware that any statement can be misconstrued.

The beauty of college is that, as a senior, I am already in the old guard – it is the new freshman, coming of age a “generation” after me and after dramatic upheaval, who will shape the future of student activism. I hope they take the burden wisely… but they’re freshmen, of course they won’t.

Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at