This month’s presidential inauguration received unprecedented protests, and student campuses were no exception.
Ohio State students staged a class walkout, Austin students left campus to protest downtown, and according to one report, the whole of Berkeley’s campus… left.
— Esther Honig (@estherhonig) January 20, 2017
— catherine marfin (@catherinemarfin) January 20, 2017
— Kumars Salehi (@KumarsSalehi) January 20, 2017
Campuses are almost certainly going to be flashpoints in the next four years. One subject they are likely to focus on is ‘DREAM’ers, the children of undocumented immigrants. For instance, Cornell University students have petitioned authorities to declare the campus a sanctuary zone for students with no papers.
And this week, Howard University students left campus to stage a sit-in protesting Senator Jeff Session’s nomination for Attorney-General.
Student protest has a long and storied tradition. It grew at the same rate as higher education in the U.S., and to understand what issues are important to students, we have to return to the very beginning.
The very first student walkout, before the American Revolution, was about a subject that personally affected students, and involved a large, cohesive group—a trend that would continue.
Harvard University students staged a mass walkout in the first recorded campus protest in American history: not over unjust taxation or lack of representation, but about putrid butter.
(CC BY-ND 2.0, maira.gall)
The “Great Butter Rebellion,” as it became known, began in September 1766 with a mealtime dining room walkout after ringleader Asa Dunbar jumped on his chair and declared, “Behold, our butter stinketh!”
A handwritten account (likely from Dunbar), The Book of Harvard, explains that Harvard tutors and the President threatened to expel the students involved. After a month stand-off, Dunbar only received a slight reprimand and the students were promised better butter. It’s not recorded whether they got it.1
What’s striking about the history of student protest in the U.S. is the consistency in who the protesters are, and how action often takes place when a large enough group gathers.
Shaping the climate
While there were campus protests against conscription during the Civil War and later during the First and Second World wars, student numbers weren’t significant enough to leverage actual policy through protest until the 1960s, Philip G. Altback and Patti Peterson explain in a 1971 journal article2: Only 355,000 students were on U.S. campuses in 1910, and 3,580,000 in 1960. However, that doesn’t mean the activism was ineffectual. Early socialist groups set a tone that continued to the 1960s and to this day. “The student political movement—mostly of a radical nature—helped to shape the political and intellectual climate of the campus and particularly of the prestigious universities.”
A study in the Journal of Politics around the same time found that students who took part in campus protests in the U.S. were more likely to be liberal and take non-vocational subjects,3 a demographic that continues to this day. Radical students were not as widely represented in protests as liberal or middle-of-the-road students, and conservatives hardly at all. With regards to the prestige, those who took part in protest had higher overall grades than those who self-identified as “apathetic.”
(CC-BY-SA 2.0, Roger W)
And when enough students acted together, they got reaction, if not always results. The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley (above) from 1964–5 guaranteed rules for political activism on campus, and like Harvard’s absurd butter protest, one point of negotiation was that the leaders should not be punished. The Student Democratic Society became a national leader in efforts against the Vietnam War, including anti-draft movements on campus. People publicly burned their own draft cards, linking the personal and the political again. In October 1965, the SDS organized protests of nearly 100,000 students in 90 American cities.
After the incursion into Cambodia, four students at Kent State and two at Jackson State were shot by authorities, and died. The shootings resulted in a student strike across the U.S., and the site of the Kent State shootings became a National Historic Landmark earlier this month.
There are two things we can learn from this history. First, campus watchers would do well to keep an eye on movements such as the recently-announced Scientists March on Washington, for instance. While not a student-led movement in itself, it’s strongly non-vocational and fits the demographic pattern of student protest. The participation requirement is “Anyone who values empirical science. That’s it.”
Secondly, if historical precedent is anything to go by, any student movement against the Trump administration is bound to get stronger.
1 “Manuscript copy of the book of Harvard, 1767,” Colonial North American Project at Harvard, accessed January 25, 2017, http://colonialnorthamerican.library.harvard.edu/items/show/9103
2 Altbach, Philip G., Peterson, Patti (1971). Before Berkeley: Historical Perspectives on American Student Activism. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. 395(1), 1-14. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/000271627139500102
3 Clarke, J., & Egan, J. (1972). Social and Political Dimensions of Campus Protest Activity. The Journal of Politics, 34(2), 500-523. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2129365
Featured photo: Marchers at the University of Minnesota on October 6, 2016, protesting against then presidential candidate Donald Trump. By Fibonacci Blue.