I have an essay in next week’s Chronicle of Higher Education exploring how the demographic and governance changes that have transformed the American campus over the last half century have set the stage for this semester’s student protests, and what history tells us about where the activists are likely to take it from here.
Unfortunately, the essay is behind the Chronicle paywall, at least for now, but here are the closing paragraphs, just to give you a taste:
Today’s students are also unlikely to be bought off with symbolic gestures or limp “diversity” initiatives. The origins of today’s student complaints are deep and in many cases intractable, and the more accustomed activists become to protesting, the more readily they will mobilize in response to new provocations. And while some of the recent demands have seemed haphazard and ill-conceived, in the past few weeks we’ve seen a growing sophistication in students’ messaging, with more and more protesters pushing for substantive changes in university policy — and increasingly for seats at the governance table. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, for example, activists’ demands have included voting seats for students and faculty, staff, and community members on the Board of Governors. At Amherst College, where protesters were harshly criticized for stances seen as hostile to free expression, activists withdrew their early demands — and won pledges of reform to increase the staff for diversity training and campus mental-health programs, and to improve the recruitment of faculty of color.
It is, of course, possible that this fall’s campus unrest will simply burn itself out, though precedent suggests that’s unlikely to happen before summer. More likely there will be flare-ups and lulls over the next few years, with a new baseline that resembles this fall more closely than it does the autumn of, say, 2013.
And history tells us that as student movements mature, they become more ambitious and more aware of the dynamics of institutional power. The activists of the ’60s and ’70s, confronting universities that were hostile to their values and ideals, launched a movement that remade American higher education in their own image — not completely, and perhaps not permanently, but in significant, lasting ways. Today’s activists may yet articulate — and enact — a similarly far-reaching agenda.
If you’re a Chronicle subscriber you can read the whole thing here.