The Times, They Have a'Changed: Student Activism in the 1980s

In what seems to be a throw-back to the 1960s, increasing numbers of students at college campuses around the country are wearing tie-dyed T-shirts and listening to the Grateful Dead. But these are the 1980s--the T-shirts are mass-produced and sold in department stores, and the Grateful Dead have hit the Top 40.

The changes in the 1960s-era symbols of student activism are indicative of a deeper change in the goals of activism in the 1980s. In 1968 at Columbia University, several hundred students occupied a university building to protest the war in Vietnam. Police stormed the building, clubbing and arresting students. More than 600 people were arrested, almost 90 students were hospitalized, and three faculty members were injured.

Just this month at Harvard Law School, Black law students gathered in the office of Dean James Vorenberg '49 to protest the lack of minority faculty members. There was no violence, and no arrests were made. Instead, Vorenberg's secretary showed the demonstrators how to use the coffee machine. After a one day sit-in, an agreement was reached.

Michael Thelwell, professor of Afro-American studies at the University of Massachussetts-Amherst, says he has noted a recent change in student activism on campus.

"I have noticed in the last couple of years a new impulse on this campus. There is a renewed interest in the 1960s. Students are beginning to develop a new sense of progressive politics. The political pendulum is swinging back," Thelwell says.


"The U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented rise in student activism," says Brian R. Perkins, a sociology major at the University of Vermont (UVM). "Our society has been in a state of crisis in terms of interventions abroad, domestic economic crises and a crisis of vision. Students look to themselves to create the only alternatives."

One Step at a Time

Many compare the new student activism to the radical politics of the 1960s, but most say the political techniques have changed. Although students listen to the music and wear the clothes of the baby-boom generation, the focus has shifted to effecting positive change rather than simply protesting.

"There are as many students involved in working for change on campus today as there were in the 1960s," says Yale senior Jon H. Ritter, who has been involved in student activism during his four years at Yale. "The difference is that in the 1960s students were calling for everything at once, while students in the 1980s have more specific goals, and work on one issue at a time."

Students today say that the activism of the 1980s, although it attracts less attention than did the protest movements of 20 years ago, is a more effective method of achieving lasting change. "The 1960s were characterized by the baby-boom surge in youth culture, but the student movement that sparked in 1965 collapsed in 1971. What we have now is a much more enduring organization," Perkins says.

Students are addressing a wider range of issues, from local problems to international conflicts. At Dartmouth College last week, students opened a women's center as part of their effort to change sexist attitudes left over from the all-male enrollment 16 years ago. At Yale University, students are concerned with divestment and union organizing as well as community work such as tutoring high school students. Across the country, students are concerned with racism, sexism and the homeless in America and divestment from South Africa.

Activists today are dedicated to the behind-the-scenes work that attracts less attention, but makes real changes, says Felicia Kornbluh '88-'89. "What makes the most important changes today are doing things that do not always end up on the nightly news," she says.

"There were a lot of things that contributed to the spectacle of the 1960s. We do not have a war going on today. We do not need a free speech movement. Administrators do not call the police at demonstrations. And the demography has changed--there were an awful lot of kids then, who got angry awfully fast," Kornbluh says.

Students also note how the opposition's reaction to student politics has changed. Recent anti-racism protests on several campuses were met by administrators willing to listen to student concerns and agreeing to work for change.

UVM students who took over the president's office last month for five days to demand an increase in recruitment of minority faculty members found that the president was "surprisingly agreeable," says Perkins.