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

By Lisa A. Taggart

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.

"The administrators did not call the police. The students and the administration negotiated and they reached an agreement," Perkins says.

At UMass-Amherst in February, students who occupied the New Africa House for six days to protest a racial attack on campus told reporters, "We're not revolutionaries. We're reasonable people with reasonable demands who intend to be taken seriously."

Officials at UMass agreed to take action against students who commit racial violence, while the school's chancellor, Joseph Duffey, sent the protesters a basket of fruit.

United We Stand?

The surge in student activism has prompted many students to work to unify activist forces across the country. A national student conference held at Rutgers University last February was attended by more than 700 students from 20 colleges and universities. Many students came to the conference with hopes of creating a national network of activists at the two-day convention.

"It was the most incredible meeting I've ever seen," says Jay Hodos '89, the only Harvard student who attended the conference. "So many people who are committed to change were brought together. It was amazing."

While disagreements among the various factions brought an end to hopes for a national coalition of student activists, one splinter group established the Northeast Student Action Network (NSAN). NSAN provides student activists at New England-area schools with a means of finding out what is happening at other campuses in their area, Perkins says.

NSAN sponsored a conference and rally in Boston last month and is planning a convention of 40 schools at UVM this fall. "We want to create some lasting structure for the regional network," says Perkins.

Although the techniques of student activism have changed, some of the problems that plagued the movement 20 years ago have not. Many activists in the 1960s "appeared to have no stomach for hard, tedious, daily organizing, no respect for and little contact with the people in whose name they claimed to be acting," wrote Thelwell in The Village Voice last March. Some students see similar problems with activism in the 1980s.

"There are still a lot of the same problems in the movement," says Hodos. "There is fragmentation within the movement. There is a problem with minority representation."

Both of these problems disrupted the Rutgers Conference, which left students without the national network that many had come to create. Power struggles divided the conference, and many of the minority students at the conference said not enough effort was made to ensure a fair representation of minorities, says Ritter. The minority students withdrew from the forum, stating in a letter that they did not want to be part of the organization under such unfair conditions.

"At that point, the whole place went chaotic," says Hodos. "People got really confused. We realized we weren't going to have a national organization this year."

Some students say the problem is a tendency for the white upper-class students to control the movement, leaving minorities with the feeling that they have no place in the very movement that professes to help their cause.

"White radicals cannot speak for everyone anymore," says Ritter. "We cannot have a movement until everyone is brought into the picture."

Divided We Fall?

But not all student activists want to work on a national level. Many, in fact, feel that working to establish a national network is counterproductive and that a more effective way to work for political change is to focus on local issues and local change.

"I think there are some people who actually don't want a national network. They think it would be necessary to have a centralized structure. I can't see it. There is not all that much power for a national network to handle," Hodos says.

"There are two different movements in student politics today," says Kornbluh. "One is focused on national networking, following the Students for Democratic Society (SDS) model, and the other is focused on local activism." The SDS was the leading radical student organization of the 1960s.

"Although NSAN has now been created, I do not really know what it is there for," says Kornbluh. "I think there is something a little floppy about it. It responds to a need created by the media to be like the 1960s. The media will not believe that there is activism going on unless they see protests, but there is activism, however, even if it does not look like the 1960s."

Students at Yale declined invitations to attend the meetings of NSAN following the Rutgers Conference, Ritter says. "In general, you can only make a difference in the place where you are," says Ritter, who attended the Rutgers conference but chose not to get involved with NSAN.

"Maybe if the network formed a student lobby, they could become really powerful. But the emphasis has got to be on grass roots. It is important to be in contact with people in your own area," Ritter says.

"Organizing on a national or regional level takes a lot of commitment to compromising and listening to different viewpoints. I see a great danger that NSAN and other organizations could fall into a hierarchical structure," says Crissie Damon, a junior at the University of Vermont.

The question of whether the recent surge in student activism is merely a fad or capable of producing lasting change remains unanswered. "What we are looking at right now might become a new student movement," says Thelwell, who witnessed the beginning of 1960s movement.

"There's a reason the '60s revival is happening now," wrote Richard Goldstein in an article in The Village Voice in March. "At the end of Reagan's tether, as the economy falters and the yuppie shivers in his power tie, we sense an opening again--but to what?"

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