The Return of Student Protest

By Nella Van Dyke

For those of us who were present on a college campus in the 1980s, the tents of the students participating in the Occupy movement on campus this past year provided a feeling of nostalgia, and even a sense that things are as they should be.  College students should be protesting, and when a long time goes by without a visible protest on my campus, I think something is wrong.  When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan in the mid-1980s, I was accustomed to seeing the anti-Apartheid shanties on the quad as I walked to class.  As with myself, college student protest makes many people think of a specific era, most often the 1960s.  However, college students have always protested.  The first recorded student protest in the U.S. occurred in 1766, when students at Harvard protested the quality of the butter served in the campus cafeteria.  “Behold our butter stinketh and we cannot eat thereof” was their somewhat tongue in cheek rallying cry (Lipset 1972).  (I can’t help but share this quote whenever I have the opportunity).  Student protest is a part of the college campus landscape and culture, even though at sometimes it is less visible than at others.

Although student protest is fairly ubiquitous over time, there is no question that levels of protest have been higher and more geographically dispersed in the past year than we have seen since the anti-apartheid movement, and possibly since the late 60s/early 70s.  Although I have not seen information specifically on campus protests, maps of occupy protests available online show high levels of mobilization widespread across the country.  An explanation of the recent emergence of the Tea Party and Occupy movements is beyond the scope of this blog entry.  However, I think it is safe to say that both the Tea Party and Occupy movements are populist movements concerned with the failure of the political system to address the needs of the working and middle class, especially in the context of the worst economic recession to face this country in decades.  Many college students are concerned by the tuition hikes many universities have imposed in the wake of reduced state and other resources.  But grievances are not sufficient to explain mobilization.  Why are college students mobilizing now?

I argue here and elsewhere (e.g., Van Dyke 1998; 2003) that college student mobilization is fairly continuous in some locations, sustained by activist subcultures.  Thus, at almost any given point in time, students on certain campuses will be protesting.  The choice of issue focus undoubtedly has to do with grievances, but also the issues garnering attention nationally at the time.  As we know from the spread of the Shantytown tactic in the 1980s (Soule 1997), protest can diffuse from one location to another either as a result of direct ties, or due to inspiration gained from action taken on campuses or other locations perceived to be similar.

In my study of 60 years of college student protest (Van Dyke 2003), I find that during relatively quiet times, when we don’t see high levels of mobilization and are not in the midst of a protest wave, student protest tends to be confined to more highly selective college campuses and schools that have a history of student protest.  These locations, what might call hotbeds of activism (see Van Dyke 1998), often have fairly continuous student protest on one issue or another, sustained by multi-issue organizations and other cultural centers.  These movement centers, including communal houses in some places or coffee shops in others, serve as abeyance structures (Taylor 1989), helping sustain protest through more quiescent political times.  During times of broader political upheaval, when protest becomes widespread, then students engage in protest at a range of campus settings.  Thus, students at Harvard University and UC Berkeley are always protesting, but St. Mary’s College and the University of Southern Mississippi tend to see mobilization only during protest waves.

College students are arguably the population most likely to protest because they are biographically available (Snow, Zurcher and Ekland-Olsen 1980, McAdam 1988); that is, they are free from many of the constraints imposed by full time careers and family commitments.  College students often have breaks in their day when they can take the time to protest, or, (shock!) they may elect to skip class to attend a protest and can do so without facing the consequences one might face after skipping out on work for half a day, or failing to care for one’s children.  Of course there is variation among college students, and more and more socio-economically disadvantaged individuals are attending college as are more older students, who may have a full time job and family, but the fact remains that a large portion of the college student population has some flexibility in their schedule.  They do not face many of the constraints that prevent others from participating in protest events.  In addition, college students are at a time in their lives when they are developing their beliefs and identities.  They are learning new information, and therefore may be more open to consciousness raising and ideological appeals.

Am I suggesting that the current student mobilization is a fairly boring, campus-life-as-usual sort of event?  Yes and no.  On the one hand, student protest is common, and contemporary protests share elements with student protests of the past.  The fact that college students are protesting is not a new and exciting development in campus life.  On the other hand, tomorrow’s political leaders are forged, even nurtured and developed, when they are young, often while they are in college.  The right knows this, and provides financing for right-wing student protest and college student leadership conferences.  There is absolutely no question that the individual students participating in contemporary mobilization will be forever changed, and they will have an impact on US politics.  As numerous studies have shown (e.g., Corrigall-Brown 2012; McAdam 1988; Whittier 1995), participating in protest campaigns can have a profound effect on individual activists and their subsequent life course.  Experiencing the collective emotion of protest, being a part of something larger than oneself (ala Durkheim), and having one’s consciousness raised often cause individuals to choose a life course, including a career, that is consistent with their politics.  The individuals who participate in protest often remain active in politics for the rest of their lives.

Whether we are in the midst of a mass uprising large enough to influence a generation remains to be seen. In my opinion, however, there is no doubt that it has affected thousands of student participants, who will go on to influence politics in this country for decades to come.


Corrigall-Brown, Catherine. 2012. Patterns of Protest: Trajectories of Participation in Social Movements. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1972. Rebellion in the University. Boston: Little Brown.

McAdam, Doug. 1988. Freedom Summer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Snow, David A., Louis A. Zurcher, Jr., and Sheldon Ekland-Olson. 1980. “Social Networks and Social Movements: A Micro-Structural Approach to Differential Recruitment.” American Sociological Review 45:787-801.

Soule, Sarah A. 1997. “The Student Divestment Movement in the United States and Tactical Diffusion: The Shantytown Protest,” Social Forces 75(3): 855-882.

Taylor, Verta. 1989. “Social Movement Continuity: The Women’s Movement in Abeyance.” American Sociological Review 54:761-775.

Van Dyke, Nella. 1998. “Hotbeds of Activism: Locations of Student Protest.” Social Problems 45(2):205-220.

Van Dyke, Nella.  2003.  “Crossing Movement Boundaries: Factors That Facilitate Coalition Protest by American College Students, 1930-1990,” Social Problems 50(2): 226-250.

Whittier, Nancy. 1995. Feminist Generations: The Persistence of the Radical Women’s Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Student Activism in Social Movements

2 responses to “The Return of Student Protest

  1. charnigo

    Re: “student protest tends to be confined to more highly selective college campuses”
    So there is an inherent elitism in student protest movements?


  2. >>>” tomorrow’s political leaders are forged, even nurtured and developed, when they are young, often while they are in college. The right knows this, and provides financing for right-wing student protest and college student leadership conferences. There is absolutely no question that the individual students participating in contemporary mobilization will be forever changed, and they will have an impact on US politics.”

    I was just at the University of Denver speaking about the interesting intersections of student protests in which I was involved at DU in the late 1960s and early 1970s and both the Tea Party and OWS movements. Student activists and journalists there now were well aware of this dynamic within their own political and media work now. This level of self-awareness took me by surprise. It was fascinating.


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