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Taking It to the Streets

May 18, 2017
We met in the basement of our organizer’s parents’ home to plan our protests. I’m not sure what we were thinking, as his father was a member of the faculty at the university where we were students, but we were young and it was 1968 and that’s what students did: protest. 

Both Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy had been on campus that spring, in the days leading up to the Indiana presidential primary. It was only weeks since RFK had announced the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. while campaigning in Indianapolis. The war in Vietnam was not going well. The Tet Offensive in January had shocked even America’s most trusted news anchor, Walter Cronkite, who traveled to the war zone and declared the conflict unwinnable. 

America was restless in the 1960s and so were its campuses. The private, church-related university I attended was hardly immune. While the student activism that staged sit-ins on larger campuses like Columbia and Berkeley had no parallel on our campus, the model of activism so central to the civil rights struggle provided strong inspiration to my generation. Sorority parties and union board activities may have been valuable extracurriculars, but neither satisfied our desire to speak up and act out.

To be honest, I can’t recall that our furtive meetings ever came to anything. Current events and finals got in the way. As we were packing to return home for the summer, Robert Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary. We left stunned. To say we spent the summer dispirited and worried is understatement, especially as we saw peers fill the Chicago streets protesting the Democratic convention that August. I would learn later of friends who had been in that melee. 

Fast forward to campuses today, where student protests are once again in the headlines. Students this year protested over buildings named for slaveholders, the free speech of speakers representing challenging viewpoints, social injustice, escalating college costs, administrative handling of sexual assault cases, racial inequity, refugee bans, religious prejudice, the curriculum, and more.

A February 2016 report from the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA found today’s college freshmen more likely to participate in student protests than any time in the five decades since the ’60s. Nearly one in ten freshmen expects to protest during their years on campus. “Student activism seems to be experiencing a revival,” the report’s project director concluded, noting rising levels of student interest in civic and political engagement.

Faculty are often uneasy when their students take their protests public, according to Seattle University law professor Dean Spade, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Feb. 10, 2017). Worried about damage to the reputation of their institutions as a result of the negativity of protestors, professors miss the lessons their students are acting out when they ask their institutions to walk the talk they hear from faculty, administrators, and staff about being critical thinkers and leaders. Does civic engagement, an important focus on many campuses, draw the line at civil disobedience? 

Many Americans have taken to the streets this year. Protest is a hallmark of our history, beginning with the Boston Tea Party. Yet we would hope it leads to understanding, rather than confrontation or violence. In its most fundamental forum, protest is a plea to be heard, to engage in discourse, not something to be feared or banned. Protests on campus raise important questions regarding the purpose of higher education. In these challenging times, higher education’s claims to be inclusive and diverse and transformative are being tested by a generation eager to engage the academy to be true to its mission. We could all stand to listen … and to learn.

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