OPINION: The limits of college activism

(Ella Lehavi • The Student Life)

All political action is about power. When it succeeds, it does so because protesters have something to withdraw. In the case of labor strikes, that leverage translates to employees’ labor and the benefits it provides for those who extract it. For example, when sanitation workers strike, their employers listen because trash piles up and toilets begin to clog. It simply becomes too uncomfortable or costly to continue without acquiescing to the demands of organized labor. 

Student strikes often fail for the same reason labor strikes succeed: students, as opposed to workers, have nothing substantial to withdraw. Similar problems inhibit student activism in the local community. The most effective point of contact for student activism is the institution itself, using subversive action to disrupt its present and future cash flow.

Although some students work as teaching assistants, tutors or have campus jobs, they’re ancillary to the academic institution’s central functioning. Refusing to attend classes en masse means little when you or your parents are still paying tuition; faculty, staff and administrators still receive paychecks and the institution continues to profit. Additionally, first-generation and low-income students often cannot easily participate due to financial precarity and reliance on GPA or athletics-based scholarships. 

Outside the institution, the contemporary student’s structural position also makes for poor activism. When integrating oneself into community or regional organizing, it takes time to build trust and rapport. Four-year bachelor’s degree programs function like a revolving door. They make establishing these roots close to impossible, especially with the student experience also divided between studies and social life. Impactful activism requires a level of longer-term material grounding — being a stakeholder — that most college students simply don’t possess.

To maximize impact, college activist efforts should be prioritized inwards, on issues where students do have tangible leverage: the institution itself. As such, the institution’s financial bottom line is the most effective point of leverage. Students’ best point of access to that bottom line is through disrupting its future cash flow. This could mean organized heckling of prospective families and disrupting tour groups. It would be a program of nonviolent agitation, accompanied by a predetermined list of concrete demands. 

Parents won’t shell out $56,000 a year to a college whose students hurl insults at them from the quad. They won’t dare send their little treasure to a college whose agitating students are forcibly removed by campus security in front of their eyes. Similarly, no college could tolerate indefinitely suspending campus tours due to the threat of student sabotage. 

Crucially, the linchpin of any such strategy is collective action. The institution can expel or place six students on probation, but doing so with 60 becomes harder and 600 nigh impossible. This can be coupled with culture-jamming online promotional material and institutional communiqués. 

For those who would object to such methods under the aegis of propriety — decorum should be encouraged for its own sake only when the involved parties are on relatively equal footing. Otherwise, decorum is set and often flaunted by the powerful to moderate the actions of the disempowered.

Still, struggles to change the institution from the institution cannot be the end of the story. To illustrate, I leave you with an excerpt from “On the Poverty of Student Life,” written in 1966 by French college students, led by Algerian situationist and social critic Mustapha Khayati. Determining that the pamphlet surpassed the bounds of tolerated dissent, university authorities violently attempted to censor the piece. However, once disseminated, the contents of the pamphlet and the institutional reactions to it directly contributed to the events of May 1968, a series of student and worker mobilizations that nearly toppled the French government and sparked similar mobilizations worldwide. The piece remains as vital today as it was then.

“The student, if he rebels at all, must first rebel against his studies, though the necessity of this initial move is felt less spontaneously by him than by the worker, who intuitively identifies his work with his total condition,” the pamphlet states. “The best criticism of student life is the behavior of the rest of youth, who have already started to revolt.”

The university is a deradicalizing institution, and the class position of the student distances them from the labor struggle. Universities are designed with the latent function of interpellating their students into docile members of the professional-managerial class. 

Universities cannot and will not be the site of revolutionary action; the most radical gesture a university student can make is to leave them. Maintain critical distance. Get what knowledge you can after separating what’s useful from the dominant ideology. Educate yourself counter to the curriculum when necessary. Get your rubber stamp diploma, and get out.

Marcello Ursic PO ’24 is an environmental analysis and sociology double major from Portland, Oregon. In his free time, he enjoys getting upset about bad politics and even worse art.

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