Campus Activism: The Fight for Imaginary Victories

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus. It is the third in a series on “the year that was” in higher education. The first two articles are here and here

Campus activism is, by and large, the world of make-believe.  Whenever students occupy a president’s office, Tinkerbell is not far away.  Whenever faculty demand a boycott, Professor Dumbledore winks at Professor Snape.

The premise behind campus activism is always the same.  The college campus is a microcosm of the larger world.  What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what happens at Oberlin or Sweet Briar is imagined to rock the foundations of the old order.  Patriarchy trembles.  The Zionist Entity is called to account.  The coal-breathing capitalist Earth warmers feel the chill of a generation walking on their graves.

That premise, of course, is always mistaken.  It matters not a whit to the energy producers that Pitzer College chose to divest from fossil fuel companies, or even that Stanford, with its much larger endowment, decided to pull out of coal company investments.  Israel will do what it needs to do to defend itself against its enemies, regardless of what resolutions the American Studies Association passes.  “Patriarchy” stalks the American college campus the way the plesiosaur stalks Loch Ness:  oft reported, never actually seen.

A mistaken premise, however, is still a premise, and we anthropologists have written many books about the way people organize their lives around interesting misconceptions.  If you believe that witchcraft causes unfortunate events, protecting yourself from witches becomes a significant preoccupation.  This is especially so if everyone else in your village is worried about witches too.  From such preoccupations arise communities that appear to outsiders to be dominated by irrational fears and sometimes destructive obsessions.  The classic anthropological text,Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) by the great British investigator, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, deals with a central African tribe.  Evans-Pritchard neatly showed that given the Azande premise of invisible, malevolent witches, the anti-witch precautions made perfect sense.  And there is no way to prove that when a termite-ridden granary falls over and kills someone, a witch didn’t arrange it.  The Azande had developed what today’s climate activists call the “precautionary principle.”  In the absence of evidence, better to assume the witches are at work.

Indeed, when I go through the list of things campus activists are now focused on, it is hard not to think of the Azande.  Our college campuses are busy fretting over numerous imaginary dangers, which of course forestalls them from thinking seriously about some real problems.  Let me offer a short tour of the barricades.


The most widespread form of campus activism this last year was the continued burgeoning of the sustainability movement.  The tactic of the moment is to demand that colleges divest from their endowments any holdings they have in fossil fuel companies.  This message seems to have emerged first at Swarthmore College in fall 2012, and quickly spread to other campuses including Harvard, where a large majority of undergraduates endorsed the idea in November 2012.  Initially, the idea made no headway with boards of trustees or college presidents.  A year later, Harvard president Drew Faust was adamant in her rejection of it.  In spring 2013, a mob of Swarthmore students acting under the instigation of a group called Mountain Justice swarmed a meeting of the college’s board of trustees.  Although their demands were many and confused, the central concern of Mountain Justice was divestment.

The divestment movement seemed to lose momentum in fall 2013.  I reported on a dispirited summit of the New York activists held at New School in October.  The movement’s guru, Middlebury professor Bill McKibben, attended the meeting by way of videotape and candidly explained to the students that persuading the trustees to divest wasn’t the real goal.  The larger aim, McKibben avowed, was to turn a generation of students into life-long opponents of the fossil-fuel economy and the energy industry that feeds it.  “Divestment,” rightly understood, is merely a recruitment tool for the long war to rid the world of capitalism.

Whether that’s what the student activists at Pitzer and Stanford really want isn’t clear, but they did manage to persuade their institutions (in April and May, 2014) that divestment would be a good idea.  My account of the Stanford decision emphasized that, as far as influencing the energy industry, divestment means nothing.  Others will gladly buy whatever securities Stanford sells.   But surely McKibben is right:  the divestment movement is about building long-term loyalty and ideological disposition, and the Stanford decision is a major victory in that campaign.


The sustainability movement is currently by far the best organized and most aggressive of campus movements that have a substantial student base.  As a student movement, however, it has always had an astroturf problem.  It originated outside the campus, starting with a United Nations report in 1987, and gained momentum when it became coupled with the theory of man-made global warming in 1988 and with the creation of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which has since held numerous international summits.  One of these, the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, prompted Senator John Kerry and Teresa Heinz to found a Boston-based group called Second Nature devoted to making global warming a campus issue.  Second Nature went about its business by recruiting hundreds of college presidents to sign the “American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.”

My colleagues and I have told this story before.  The essence of it is that what we now know as the sustainability movement is a top-down creation.  It came from the UN, supporting governments, and college presidents.  It arrived on campus with enticing grant opportunities for members of the faculty.  It took some twenty years since its inception to become a “student movement.” And the student movement side of sustainability has had to lumber along with the burden that it is coddled, petted, and fully endorsed by the Establishment.  What kind of student movement is that?

It is a movement in search of an identity of its own—one that has not been pre-programmed by campus officials.  To a large extent, that’s what the divestment movement offers.  By demanding something that fits with the “Climate Commitment” premise but which is a financial extravagance, the students can outflank the preening administrators.

But in other respects, the student activist side of the sustainability movement this last year was somnolent—so much so that green administrators spent considerable time trying to devise ways to trick students into becoming more activist.  As described by my colleague Rachelle Peterson (née DeJong) in Commentary (“An Ivy-League Nudge-ucation”) Yale University President Peter Salovey has led the way by setting out a plan to hem in students with hundreds of petty behavior modification rules that he imagines will eventually translate into a belief system.  “Fake it until you make it,” declares Salovey.

In 2010, not long after I first started tracking the sustainability movement, I wrote an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “From Diversity to Sustainability: How Campus Ideology Is Born,” that took note of the implicit rivalry between these two illiberal sensibilities.  “Diversity” was then (and still is) the old guard that is thoroughly institutionalized and commands the lion’s share of administrative appointments and budget.  “Sustainability,” however, is coming on strong, partly by claiming that “diversity” is best seen as a sub-department of the sustainability movement.

One aspect of campus activism this year that has probably escaped the notice of non-combatants is the escalation of conflict between sustainatopians and diversiphiles.  This isn’t easy to follow, since it often takes the form of dissention within the ranks.  So, for example, in July, the organization Green 2.0 released a 187-page study by University of Michigan professor Dorceta E. Taylor, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations, faulting environmentalist organizations (on and off campus) for not hiring enough minorities, not promoting women to top positions, for attracting too many white members and volunteers, not promoting enough “cross-race and cross-class collaborations,” and so on.  By every measure, the diversiphiles within the environmental movement found the sustainatopians wanting.

The tensions on display in the Green 2.0 are visible among student activists on campus too.  Sustainability is mainly a movement of white middleclass students and diversity remains mainly a movement of minority students.  They are competing for the same institutional resources, but there are still students who find both movements attractive, and there is no compelling reason to choose between them.


Where people believe in witches, witch-finding and witch-punishing also thrive.  Formal denunciation has become a major part of contemporary campus activism.  Academic traditionalists who worry about the decline on campus of the art of rhetoric may take some solace in the current generation of Tom Paines.

The most notable example during the last academic year is surely Harvard undergraduate Sandra Korn, whose Harvard Crimson essay, “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom,” attracted notice coast-to-coast.  Ms. Korn called for discarding the out-lived idea of academic freedom in favor of the imposition of a Robespierrian notion she called “academic justice.”  She savored the opportunity of applying this expeditious form of adjudication to Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, who had somewhere called for the return of “ladylike modesty.”  Academic justice cannot countenance the expression of such destructive sentiments.

Ms. Korn’s articulation of a principle was the distillation of a broader phenomenon that has been widely remarked.  Erin Ching, a student at Swarthmore, was appalled that Princeton professor Robert George was allowed to speak on campus in February. The student newspaper reportedthat Ms. Chin attended a talk given by Professor George and Professor Cornel West and afterwards told a reporter:

What really bothered me is, the whole idea is that at a liberal arts college, we need to be hearing a diversity of opinion. I don’t think we should be tolerating [George’s] conservative views because that dominant culture embeds these deep inequalities in our society. We should not be conceding to the dominant culture by saying that the so-called “progressive left” is marginalizing the conservative.

This came on the heels of the disruption of an invited speech at Brown University by New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and as a prelude to the dis-invitation fiesta of late spring, when Brandeis disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali; Rutgers prompted Condoleezza Rice to withdraw; Christine Legarde bowed out as commencement speaker at Smith; and Robert Birgeneau withdrew from Haverford’s graduation.  Greg Lukianoff and Robert Shibley have provided a roundup of these debacles in “A Big Year for Campus Censorship.”  I bring them up again only to emphasize that the illiberal spirit they embody is exactly the spirit of contemporary campus activism, which has turned from the old demand for more freedom of expression to a new demand to restrict other people’s freedom of expression.

There is a deep question of which “values” and which principles will prevail in American higher education.  If we have somehow decided that the Sandra Korn-style pursuit of “justice” trumps open-minded inquiry, we can expect an ever-narrowing zone of free expression.


Campus activism seeks to transgress and sexuality offers perhaps the most visible ways to accomplish that.  The story of the year is surely theDuke University freshman, Miriam Weeks, who is paying her tuition by performing in sado-maschistic porn films as “Belle Knox.”  Ms. Knox has capitalized on her notoriety by becoming a columnist to celebrate her particular brand of feminism.

Rachel Shteir, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes that as “fourth-wave feminism, a generation of angry young women who have come of age in a pornified, financially devastated century.”  She quotes Knox as saying that porn makes her feel “unimaginable joy.”  Elsewhere Knox is described as part of “sex positive culture,” which endorses “objectification” as empowering.  “Sex work” from this point of view is an excellent career choice and one that opens the door to “supportive” relationships among women.

As with Sandra Korn’s call for replacing academic freedom with “academic justice,” Belle Knox’s call for women to embrace a pornified lifestyle could be dismissed as simply a peculiar declaration from a fringe figure.  Knox is certainly that.  But there are troubling signs that she may actually be the distillation of a new form of feminist activism on campus.  Shteir’s “fourth-wave feminism” might be here.  A few months ago, for example, the Women’s Resource Center at Bowdoin College mounted an exhibit, “Commending Women, Celebrating Bodies,” that featured nude photographs of over a hundred undergraduate women at the college.  Bowdoin is not competing in Belle Knox territory, but the rhetoric surrounding the event was nearly identical.  Taking off their clothes to be photographed for public display was said to “empower” the women, and the experience was also meant to promote “solidarity” among the participants.

The Bowdoin event has numerous counterparts at campuses around the country and it is right to wonder exactly what has happened, in Harvey Mansfield’s phrase, to “ladylike modesty.”  We are in an age in which college women in large numbers regard sexual exploits as matters of pride and sex itself as transactional.  For various reasons, biological as well as psychological, that’s a troubling pattern.


Belle Knox-style empowerment—the empowerment of promiscuity and sexual libertinism—is now awkwardly partnered with a movement that depicts women on campus as victims-in-waiting.  According to President Obama, one-in-five women enrolled in college is sexually assaulted before graduation.  We are in the midst of a national movement that claims that there is an epidemic of sexual assaults on campus and that American higher education has a “rape culture.” There is a long history here, involving the way in which Title IX of the Higher Education Act has been gradually transformed into a doctrine that holds institutions guilty of “discrimination” if they fail to address with sufficient vigor rules against sexual harassment and sexual assault.  But the short history is pregnant.  In May 2013, the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education issued a “dear colleague letter” to the University of Montana, which was presented as a “blueprint” for all colleges and universities.  Among other things, it lowered the standard of evidence for finding a person guilty of sexual harassment or assault.  The matter has snowballed from there, with numerous new complaints filed by students to campus authorities alleging instance of sexual assault, and the White House convening “Not Alone,” a task force to “Protect Students from Sexual Assault.”  The task force issued its first report, Not Alone, in April.  Among other things, it calls for campuses to appoint a “single investigator” to receive, investigate, adjudicate, and mete out punishments in all cases of alleged sexual assault.

Critics have loudly complained about the disappearance of the presumption of innocence, the radical erosion of due process, and the shunting aside of police and criminal courts in favor of amateur campus authorities.  But the rush to do something to stem the “epidemic” has not been slowed.  Three bills are pending in Congress that promise policy changes.  The most prominent of the bills, introduced by Senator Claire McCaskill, the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, would put the responsibility to deal with rapes squarely in the hands of campus authorities, not the police.

How exactly did this crisis emerge?  It is to a fairly large extent the product of campus activists, who have been pushing for a long time to make campus sexual assault into a national issue.  This isn’t the place to track this in detail, but nearly every college campus in the United States has administrative staff whose work includes raising consciousness of students about sexual assault, and numerous campus women’s groups treat the creation of campus tribunals with low standards of evidence as a major objective.  They seem to have found their historical moment.


The last academic year will go down as the year of microagressions and trigger warnings.  These are both attempts to transform trivia into travail.  Their prominence was due in part to breathless coverage by The New York Times, which ran headlined stories, “Students See Many Slights as Racial ‘Microaggressions,” and “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” Microaggressions are the imponderabilia of everyday life—the raised eyebrow, the shrugged shoulder, the wayward glance—to which can be attributed a freight train full of racial or sexual animus. Trigger warnings are statements that professors are supposed to make before handing out an assignment or beginning a lecture in which the student might be exposed to something upsetting, such as a depiction of violence.

These were launched on their sensitive careers mostly by students who are in search of hard-to-find evidence that the “structures of oppression” on which Western civilization is supposedly built still persist despite the appearance that racial and ethnic aggression are pretty rare.  The Timesdrove attention, for example, to a Facebook Page titled “Brown University Micro/Aggression,” which offers helpful real world instances such as a student mistaking the name “Jorge” for “Josể.”   It is not a parody but an honest-to-goodness example of contemporary student activism.

So too is the ruckus over trigger warnings.  After the Times described the initiatives at Oberlin and several other colleges to give students ample notice that they might be subjected to something awful in the assigned readings, the newspaper printed an opinion essay by Bailey Loverin, a sophomore at UC Santa Barbara, who defended the practice of warning “survivors” of trauma that bad old memories might be roused:  “Without a trigger warning, a survivor might black out, become hysterical or feel forced to leave the room.”

Yes, that might happen.  But in all the years I spent teaching—and anthropology includes some pretty grim material—I never witnessed it or heard of it happening in anyone else’s class.  The possibility has been raised, most recently by Eric Hoover in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Comfortable Kid,” who airs the debate between those who see the campaigns against microaggressions and for trigger warnings as appropriate next steps in the pursuit of social justice, and those who see an overindulgence of student frailties.  It is not hard to find students, like Ms. Loverin, who see the need for further layers of protection from unpleasant thoughts.  A Rutgers student, Philip Wythe, is quoted by Hoover, explaining the need for trigger warnings for The Great Gatsby.  “Suicide.” “Domestic Abuse.”


Is this what campus activism has come to?

It seems like weak gruel.  The Dartmouth kids who occupied the president’s office for two days at the beginning of April at least came up with an eight-page manifesto full of fetching looniness.  The Dartmouth “Freedom Budget” called for:

  • Increased outreach to “undocumented students,” who are to be treated as “domestic” not “international” students
  • Making sure that African and African American Studies, Latino and Caribbean Studies, and Native American Studies each have “at least one queer studies class”
  • Requiring “all students to interrogate issues of social justice, marginalization and exploitation in depth”
  • Making every department “explicitly state in writing how their hiring will further Dartmouth’s mission for diversity”
  • Ensuring that “47% of post-doctoral students are people of color”
  • Having the college declare that departments that “do not have womyn or people of color will be considered in crisis and must take urgent and immediate action to right the injustice”
  • Having the college “Mandate sensitivity training for all faculty to reduce incidents of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism by faculty towards students”
  • And stipulating that “Every Dartmouth student should be taught and made aware that the land they reside on is Abenaki homeland. This should take place during all major Dartmouth ceremonies, especially during orientation and commencement;” and so on.

It is a document of such richness of detail that it is hard to know where to stop.

Dartmouth isn’t having all the fun.  A controversy has been unrolling in South Carolina over the assignment by two state colleges of books for “common reading” that state legislators have objected to.  Both books, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, and Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio edited by Ed Madden and Candace Chellew-Hodge, are about the difficulties of being gay in America.  USA Today reports that student activists are gearing up for protests starting this month.  Sylvie Baele, a senior at the College of Charlestown which assigned Bechdel’s book, is looking forward to some disruption to tell the legislators where to go:   “When August rolls around, there will be some collective action,” she says. “I’m excited to see what’s going to happen.”

In September 2013, retired Army General David Petraeus was, in NPR’s words,  “hounded and taunted” (NPR’s by protesting students as he walked to his new job as a visiting professor at the City University of New York.  The protesters denounced him as a “war criminal” and vowed that they would continue their campaign of harassment until he resigned.  I was among several who wrote to CUNY’s interim chancellor calling on the university to protect Petraeus academic freedom, which indeed the university did.

And in July, protests by black students at Washington and Lee led the college to remove the Confederate flags from the chapel where Robert E. Lee is entombed.  I am not much of a fan of Confederate flags, but if there is one place where they might seem historically appropriate, I’d think Lee’s tomb might qualify.  But student activism these days needs soft targets.  There are demands that, once issued, no one really feels able to resist.


I’ve left to last the sorriest chapter in campus activism this year:  the efforts by several scholarly associations to promote an academic boycott of Israel. The BDS Movements—Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions—is a cat’s paw of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.  The goal is to de-legitimize the state of Israel and to demoralize Israel’s supporters in the United States. Naturally that strikes a chord with a segment on the American political left, and a variety of academic associations have fallen in line with the project, beginning with the Asian Studies Association in April 2013, the American Studies Association in December 2013, and the Native American Indigenous Studies Association also in December.  In July, something called theCritical Ethnic Studies Association joined the boycott.  The Modern Language Association debated the motion but didn’t pass it.

The BDS resolutions passed by these four associations have no direct effect on Israel.  They are more sprinklings of fairy dust from the land of make-believe.  But again, that doesn’t mean they ought to be ignored.  The resolutions teach students and other faculty members that demonizing Israel is smart and stylish and an opportunity on the cheap for a certain kind of moral self-approbation.  The BDS movement operates with outrageous double-standards—standards that condemn one nation alone for transgressions that are common not only in the region but around the world.  We might think of this as special-purpose activism.  It enunciates a general principle but limits its application to one case—which all but declares that the purpose is enmity to the special case, and the principle, if any, is a flag of convenience.

This movement has, of course, prompted pushback.  Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg promptly quit their institutional memberships in the American Studies Association.  Over one hundred universities have announced their opposition to the ASA boycott, and numerous college presidents went on record to condemn it.

The current hostilities between Israel and Hamas have given academics who despise Israel another opportunity to pronounce anathema on that nation.  Their words are certain to find an echo among student activists this fall:  hatred of Israel having become one of the few outlets for generalized hostility that the contemporary college campus allows.


Campus activism, whether originating among students, descending from administrators, or urged by faculty members, has become a staple of American higher education.  In some nations, campus activism is a serious political force. Students have played important roles in toppling dictators and unsettling regimes.  It would be a serious misreading of American campus activism to say that it posed any such threat to the status quo.  In the United States, faculty members and students are essentially clients of the government, to whom they are dependent for research grants and loans.  More specifically, a majority are clients of the Democratic Party, which finds a useful place for low level social protest and theatrical disruption.

The cost of all this is a slow attenuation of important principles.  The ideal of the university as a place for open debate on the full range of important matters has largely been vanquished.  There is no open debate at all on numerous important matters, but only repetition of a few doctrinaire positions.

Today’s campus activism, like Tinkerbell, requires willed suspension of disbelief.  The Neverland of Millennials is always in search of a suitable villain, a Captain Hook of social injustice.  It is a dispirited place.  It leaves us with trigger warnings and apprehensions over microaggressions.  What would Herman Melville say of microaggressions?  There was nothing micro in Moby Dick.  But then again, our students are reading Fun Home instead of Moby Dick, and finding reasons to keep Condoleezza Rice off campus.  They are doffing their clothes for dollars or for sisterly solidarity. They are demanding that their trustees sell Exxon and buy windmills.

It seems to me a good time to sit down and re-read Evans-Pritchard.  And perhaps Peter Pan.



Photo: Neverland by Ele G. / CC BY (edited)

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