Raising Cain: The University Student and the Politics of Protest

John Hundscheid


Student protests and occupations are not new phenomena. On February 10, 1355, what came to be known as the St. Scholastica Day riot occurred. Oxford students and townspeople clashed after a dispute in a local tavern and almost one hundred people were killed. But while student protests have occurred throughout history, the 1960s introduced a new kind of student activism, and in that decade the nature of the relationship between student and university fundamentally changed. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom recounts his experiences teaching at Cornell during the 1960s: “I know of nothing positive coming from that period; it was an unmitigated disaster for [the universities]…the sixties were the period of dogmatic answers and trivial tracts.”1 Bloom argues that while students in the sixties rediscovered an interest in morality, their new morality bore a novel trait:

Indignation or rage was the vivid passion characterizing those in the grip of the new moral experience. Indignation may be a most noble passion and necessary for fighting wars and righting wrongs. But of all the experiences of the soul it is the most inimical to reason and hence to the university. Anger, to sustain itself, requires an unshakable conviction that one is right.2

This anger came with violence that drove student protests to national attention. Campus unrest was the predominant concern for most Americans according to opinion polling conducted at the end of the 1960s.3 The nation’s attention was arrested by such confrontations as the Kent State shootings, which left four students dead and nine wounded when the Ohio National Guard fired into a crowd of anti-war demonstrators.

Writing at the end of the 1970s, Arthur Levine and Keith Wilson noted that the student activism that characterized the 1960s vanished during the next decade. Levine and Wilson explained this shift by pointing to what Tom Wolfe called the “meism” of the 1970s:

Activism has at times served as a channel for mischievous or rebellious student impulses, but in this century it has more often been used as a vehicle for attaining desired student ends on campus or in the larger society. Students have changed dramatically since the late 1960s. The ends associated with “meism” or individual ascendancy are different from the issues associated with the protests of the late 1960s. And so too are the forms of activism that students are using to attain them. In recent years American colleges and universities have witnessed new forms of activism and the expansion of several existing types which were not previously considered part of the dominant motif of student protest.4

The 1980s ushered in a new era of student activism. Philip G. Altbach and Robert Cohen argued for a paradox in the student politics of the 1980s: “American students tend to be ‘middle of the road’ and not significantly motivated toward social action concerns….On the other hand, there has been a significant but sporadic resurgence of student activism.”5 The anti-apartheid divestment movement, for example, gained traction across campuses. Altbach and Cohen go on to suggest that the 1980s may represent a transitional period between the quiet years of the 1970s and a period of more vocal student unrest in the future.

The Newest Left

That future may have arrived. On Thursday, February 19, 2009, seventy members of a New York University student group named “Take Back NYU!” barricaded themselves in the third floor cafeteria of the Kimmel building on Washington Square South.6 The students had a litany of grievances against the university and hoped their occupation of a dining hall would result in exposure for their diverse agenda. The students’ demands ranged from amnesty for those involved in the demonstration to the right of teaching assistants and student workers to bargain collectively to the investigation of “war profiteers” and donation of “all excess supplies and materials in an effort to rebuild the University of Gaza.”7

At least one person protesting was not even an NYU student. Saher Almaita, a senior philosophy major at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey, also joined the barricade. When asked by a New York Times reporter why he was there, he responded, “[T]he opportunity to do something together is a rush….I want to experience humanity to its fullest.”8 Students across the nation are seeking the same high. Just around the corner in the Greenwich Village neighborhood, The New School has experienced similar student protests against embattled President Bob Kerrey. In April 2009, twenty students occupied a building on campus. The university asked the police to remove the students and nineteen people were arrested.9

On the West Coast, the University of California system has been plagued with student activism after the board of regents decided to raise tuition by 32 percent to help reduce the budget deficit. Students at the University of California at Berkeley, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Santa Cruz locked themselves on campus as an act of protest. Twelve students were arrested when they attempted to disrupt the board of regents’ meeting.10 Students at UCLA occupied Campbell Hall and renamed it “Carter-Huggins Hall” after two members of the Black Panther Party who were killed there in 1969. The students created a blog, The Carter-Huggins Hall Occupation, on which participants recounted the occupation: “Friends were made, the building re-decorated, and the bathrooms were declared gender-neutral: while there was a general feeling of defeat on the outside from the day’s protest, inside Carter-Huggins Hall there was a revolution.”11 In a display of solidarity, Take Back NYU! held a dance party in Washington Square Park to show their support for the student protests in California. Two students were arrested on disorderly conduct charges.12 While the particular demands and circumstances of these students differ, it is clear that they view themselves as part of the same student revolution.

In 1969, Ian Weinberg and Kenneth N. Walker analyzed the relationship between institutionalized student government and the deinstitutionalized politics of student protest. The phenomena of the protests of the 1960s intrigued Weinberg and Walker because the “important feature of such student political activity is that it bypasses existing institutionalized arrangements for aggregating and articulating student interests.”13 The students were protesting perceived injustices in society; their focus was not specifically on their local universities. For example, SLATE and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement demonstrated against the Vietnam War. In contrast, The New School protesters sought the resignation of President Bob Kerrey and the NYU protesters demanded a variety of internal reforms to NYU’s governance. Similarly, the UC students protested an internal decision of the university. Although the NYU demands addressed some larger issues, the focus of student protesters has mainly shifted inwards. Today’s protesters have taken the tactics and spirit of the 1960s and recast them for an even more radical form of pseudo-politics.

Take Back NYU! describes itself as struggling for social justice at NYU. Two groups with ties to Take Back NYU!—NYU Inc. and Students Creating Radical Change—publish a Disorientation Guide for students at NYU.14 Dedicated to a “freer and joyous world,” the 2009 Guide defines 2008–2009 as “the year in struggle,” and offers a timeline of student protesters’ confrontations with university administration and police over the year.

The Guide is a compelling melodramatic composition. A section entitled “Why Occupy?” offers an analysis and defense of the occupation of the Kimmel building. The anonymous author chastises bourgeois NYU students locked out of revolution in the cafeteria who were upset at “their inability to access meal-plan quesadillas.”15 But in the view of the dissidents, the Kimmel occupation was required because “we exhausted lawful tactics.”16 The Guide also features “Student Government Vs [sic] Direct Democracy,” the story of Caitlin Boehne, a student government senator who was a member of the group that occupied the Kimmel Building. Boehne “didn’t care” that she was suspended from the student senate for participating in the occupation, because that body is “an institution whose sole function is to act as a democratic façade for an authoritarian administration.”17 The anger lacing this piece can make one forget that the guide is about student governance and administrative matters at NYU and not about a global revolution to crush the capitalist, imperialist machine.

The Guide is riddled with Marxist rhetoric, custom-tailored for the university. The essay titled “Work, Study, Indenture,” states that “[s]tudents are workers,” and explains:

Perhaps the hardest thing for most of us to get our head around is that we are already workers not just when we are waiting tables or shelving book [sic] at the library, but when we are sitting through a lecture or writing a paper—when we are being students. In this late stage of capitalism, owners don’t just make their profits from people who manufacture things in factories, but also from the production of new knowledge, scientific innovations, and the shaping of how people feel. So in producing us as highly-skilled, highly-trained cognitive workers, capitalism is reproducing itself.18

What the Disorientation Guide represents is the tactics of the 1960s wedded with the “meism” cultivated during the 1970s. Instead of claiming to speak for the weakest members of society, student dissidents now regard themselves as the primary victims of Global Capitalism. In the eyes of the new student radicals, the enslavement of students is evidenced by the atrocious form of indentured servitude known as internships. The language of the revolution has been adapted for the battleground of the university: unpaid work by students in exchange for experience is one of the most prominent forms of capitalist oppression.

“Why I Don’t Volunteer, Why I Don’t Want an Internship” offers a feminist perspective on life as a student in New York City. A student concerned with social justice might find life in the city overwhelming. The author recounts scenarios of mountains of trash accumulating on the street, homeless men asking for change, and the injustice of the school system. To assuage her guilt about attending an elite private university, the author volunteered to help ESL students write résumés. And then it dawned on her that most NYU students engaging in such socially responsible activities were female. Of course, she recognizes that “the delegation of women to bear the spiritual burden of their civilization is nothing new.” The author now refuses to do such charity work in good conscience: “As a wife of an alcoholic inadvertently condones his drinking by washing his clothes for him, women can enable unjust societies to perpetuate themselves by caring for its [sic] marginalized populations.”19

Weinberg and Walker suggest that when students select the administration as the target of their protest, “student politics are then caught in the inevitable progression to extremism.”20 The NYU and New School protests confirm this assessment. As the university has moved further to the left since the 1960s, dissident students must become even more radical to stand out. This presents the university with a problem. In a posting to Indybay, a message board for student activists, “Three Non-Matriculating Proletarians” encourage their brothers and sisters in the UC protests to keep the faith: “The Bricks We Throw at Police Today Will Build the Liberation Schools of Tomorrow” is one of the group’s slogans.21 The “Three Non-Matriculating Proletarians” are not even UC system students. Rather, they seek to work with student protesters to collapse the university. They advocate occupation because “[o]ccupied buildings become spaces from which to further strike the exploiters of this world and, at the same time, disrupt and suppress the ability of the college to function.”22

The Right Responds

The politicization of the university is not just an endeavor of the Left. An interesting development of the 1980s was the rise of right-wing student activist groups. The most prominent conservative group was the Dartmouth Review. In 1986, the Review sponsored an effort to “beautify” Dartmouth by removing shanties constructed by students seeking to influence the administration to support divestment from apartheid. The Review proceeded to play a rhetorical game with college administration and the student-run Dartmouth Community for Divestment. The spectacle became front-page news. Dean Edward Shanahan informed the students who constructed the shanties that they “didn’t have permission” to do so and asked them to “remove the shanties by the end of the day, or the College will take action.”23 President David T. McLaughlin overruled Dean Shanahan because he thought the shanties served an “educational purpose.”24 The only action Dartmouth took was to suspend twelve students for their roles in removing the shanties.

This double standard became the rule at Dartmouth. In 1988, twenty-nine students occupied the president’s office on campus and refused to leave. The students were found guilty but not punished because, as the disciplinary committee explained, “your actions were motivated by strongly held convictions about the educational goals and responsibilities of this College.”25 But William F. Buckley wrote an editorial about the fiasco at Dartmouth, in which he noted that what the left-wing students “wanted—today as back in the 1960s—was confrontation.” For the first time, there was a right-wing group to give it to them when the administration would not. “This time the right is organizing,” Buckley wrote.26

That trend towards conservative political activism has continued until today. “Youth for Western Civilization” (YWC) emerged as a prominent right-wing student group at the 2009 Conservative Political Action Conference. YWC has a black and white logo featuring the hammer of Charles Martel. While the group currently has only ten chapters, it has received much media attention.27

YWC sponsored a speech given by Tom Tancredo on April 14, 2009, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) expressing opposition to granting illegal aliens in-state tuition. The event spawned protests that became violent. The event was shut down after Haley Koch, a UNC student, placed a banner over Tancredo’s face while he was speaking that read “No one is illegal.” Koch was arrested for disorderly conduct.28

Afterwards, leftist students began disseminating fliers and brochures across campus opposing the UNC chapter of YWC. Some of this literature featured the home address of the chapter’s YWC faculty advisor, Eliot Cramer. When the chapter president sent Cramer an email notifying him of the brochures, Cramer replied and copied UNC chancellor Holden Thorp and the above-mentioned Haley Koch. “I have a Colt 45 and I know how to use it,” Cramer wrote. “I used to be able to hit a quarter at 50 feet seven times out of 10.”29 Chancellor Thorp asked Cramer to resign, and while Cramer insisted the email was a joke, he complied with the chancellor’s request.

The rise of groups like Youth for Western Civilization should hardly come as a surprise. Sociologists David S. Meyer and Suzanne Staggenborg argue, “Once a movement enters a particular venue, if there is the possibility of contest, an opposing movement is virtually forced to act in the same arena.”30 After Jesse Jackson’s chant at Stanford in 1988, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” it seems natural that an opposing group would form on campuses. In the 1960s, the clash was between leftist students and the establishment. Now the tension on campus is between students. While students on both left and right are targeting and protesting decisions, policies, and actions taken by the university, the university itself is trying to avoid any kind of confrontation with the students.

Taking on a more parental role, today’s university encourages students to express their convictions but demonstrate restraint. NYU’s Office of Public Affairs issued a statement after the protesters left the Kimmel building, stating that the students had dishonored NYU’s commitment to “legitimate forms of protest,” and boasting, “None of the students’ demands was met.”31

A recent article posted to the YWC blog by Amanda Prevette, East Coast Field Director, opens with a quote by Morton C. Blackwell, president of Leadership Institute, an organization devoted to increasing “the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process.”32 Prevette’s article discusses the training YWC members are receiving in activism, recruitment, and other campus political activities, and Blackwell’s quote is blunt: “You owe it to your philosophy to learn how to win.”33 This statement implicitly separates a person’s philosophy from his method of arguing for that philosophy in the public square. Philosophy isn’t enough; one must learn how to win with that philosophy. Truth, in and of itself, is only useful if it is put into effect via activism.


Take Back NYU! and Youth for Western Civilization share a common motivation as well as common tactics. As with the leftist students in New York City, members of Youth for Western Civilization articulate a narrative that places themselves in the center of a grand conflict. On December 17, 2009, YWC president Kevin DeAnna posted a YWC blog response to the group’s being banned from Providence College. “If we openly organize,” DeAnna writes, “we win a great victory because our mere existence gives the lie to the idea that students do not resist radical multiculturalism and the left-wing indoctrination on their campuses.”34 DeAnna claims that “We win as long as Youth for Western Civilization members keep the faith and keep fighting and organizing for real change on America’s college campuses.”35

Moreover, both Youth for Western Civilization and Take Back NYU! define the truthfulness of their respective movements by its utilitarian success. At the center of the conundrum is the fact that the university no longer views knowledge as intrinsically valuable. When the pursuit of knowledge and truth has been sidelined or abandoned the only measure of accomplishment left is political success. Under such conditions a university cannot give its students an account of the soul and they will simply take on the institution’s incoherence, becoming self-focused without learning to be self-critical.

In such an atmosphere, moral speech becomes unintelligible and disinterested scholarship, once regarded as an academic virtue, is dismissed as naïve. Today’s university lacks the philosophical resources to tell and teach student dissidents that their actions are inappropriate at an institution of higher education and is unable to confront what could become a strident new era of student activism.

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