The Trump era and its aftermath have embroiled American colleges and universities in political controversies in a way not seen since the 1960s. In the face of presidential threats to deport immigrants, administrators declared their universities sanctuary campuses. Social media posts of faculty, guest speakers, and students accused of making all manner of offensive statements have gone viral over and over again. Legal scholars, politicians, and media pundits debate—at length—the meaning of academic freedom and free speech on campus. State legislatures, following the blueprints of some conservative think tanks, threaten to cut funding for institutions they deem elitist and indoctrinating, and to expel matriculants who repeatedly protest speakers. And, at the student level, disruptive political events have occurred at an incredibly fast pace.
Studying Collegiate Activism
For our new book, The Channels of Student Activism: How the Left and Right are Winning (and Losing) in Campus Politics Today, we talked with 77 of the young people directly involved with mobilizing for social change at public universities. We heard from progressives, conservatives, and even a few moderates. We also talked with 21 leaders of political organizations operating in the field of higher education. This included representatives from operations like the Charles Koch Foundation and Young Americans for Liberty to NextGen America and US PIRG. Additionally, we sat down with 16 professors and student affairs workers connected to political matters on their campuses.
As sociologists, we wanted to understand how the resources made available by schools and extramural organizations intersect with collegiate activism. Ultimately, we came to see the various types of support and funding on offer to students as critical to contouring the debates and protests taking place on campus. We also came to see these internal and external resources as helping to shape students’ identities and ideologies. In short, we found that collegiate activism is being channeled through the social structures in which young people are enmeshed.
Of course, this is always a two-way process. Just as the channels of student activism produce campus politics, they also are a product of them. In particular, we think it paramount to focus on the relationship between political clubs operating at schools and the channels they are part of. It is student-led groups, after all, that enable collegians to effectively mobilize on their campuses. But the clubs can exist only because of the support and funding they receive from the internal and external resources that the activism channels provide.
Pulled From the Outside
Focusing on the conservative channel first, our research digs into the ways right-leaning students are encouraged by outside groups to adopt a discourse hostile to the academic enterprise. Turning Point USA’s “Professor Watchlist,” used to intimidate and harass progressive faculty, comes to mind here, as do PragerU videos decrying the professoriate as threats to Western civilization. And we emphasize that today’s political engagements from the right are mainly (although not exclusively) oriented towards targeting a liberal campus culture, which plays into a larger Republican game plan.
Many outside organizations encourage conservative students to plan events specifically designed to incite outrage among their left-leaning peers. Once outrage is successfully sparked—and progressive students demand that administrators do something in response—the frontline of conservative politics shifts to protecting the speech rights of reactionaries and provocateurs.
This tactic fractures collegians along a variety of ideological lines opening the door to more sustained attacks on the value of academia. It also begets enormous airplay on conservative television networks and websites, where conflagrations in higher education can spread quickly. Ultimately, the conservative channel promises to funnel its young participants into pathways for future political careers by linking them to right-leaning politicians, think tanks, and media outlets.
Pushed Further Inside
Activists on the left, by contrast, are drawn inside their universities—even those on the far left who see themselves as dissidents battling the administration. That is, the progressive channel for student activism embeds individuals within their campuses’ institutions through student affairs offices, multicultural centers, and even academic departments. For instance, we interviewed a variety of left-leaning collegians with a bevy of connections to their schools, often working in conjunction with administrators and staff on causes explicitly tied to social justice issues.
Robust as these bureaucratic ties are, however, they often chafe against progressives’ desire to see sweeping changes from school officials. So, while the demands of leftists have succeeded—to a degree—in restructuring higher education, students invested in social justice causes can still come to have contempt for their administrative partners. The turmoil at Evergreen State some years ago offers a useful (but extreme) example.
What is more, the progressive channel offers a much murkier route into post-baccalaureate political work than what we see on the right. That is, the career benefits for left-leaning mobilizations are vague at best. Or possibly even damaging for job prospects.
Taking a Culturally-Informed Organizational Approach
To an extent, our argument can be thought of as a sociological rejoinder to Lukianoff and Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind, a book familiar to many readers of this blog. Lukianoff and Haidt make worthwhile observations about parenting and pedagogical practices that can encourage emotional fragility in young people. But we think it is also necessary to consider the social structures that make provocative and illiberal behavior more or less acceptable in different contexts.
This involves thinking about the institutions and organizations behind political clubs and the practices they encourage or discourage. That is, an adequate analysis of contemporary campus politics requires a serious engagement with the multitude of players operating in the broader field of higher education. In short, we argue that it is more useful to consider students as being channeled, not coddled.
Consider the issue of free expression on college campuses. On the right, we see the very apex of how outside organizations can successfully channel students’ thinking, by producing an easily available script (such as YAL and TPUSA) that justifies constitutional protections for words and symbols that offend, and sometimes frighten, many collegians.
Progressive students, on the other hand, worry about the ways unchecked free expression can be used to further marginalize underrepresented populations on campus. And left-leaning organizations have (so far) been less successful in supplying a satisfying script for why free expression can actually support inclusive communities. Thus, on the far left, we see students seriously questioning the underpinnings of the First Amendment—often in ways that make centrists and liberals deeply uncomfortable.
As such, school officials were caught on the backfoot in 2016 as “free speech” became a proxy war between students with differing views on the rights of individuals and the needs of the collective. The upshot has been that most collegians have probably ended up a little less equipped to grapple with complex questions about democratic values.
Tamping down what we see as negative forms of mobilization (practiced by the left and the right) will require school officials understanding how students make sense of their ideological orientations and then appreciating the outside-in/inside-out dynamics at play on college campuses.
More than this, it will mean committing to real world change—often in the face of opposition by activists coming from one or the other end of the political spectrum. It will be a tough line to walk, but efforts like those of BridgeUSA, Heterodox Academy, PEN America, and Sustained Dialogue can help inform future efforts at further facilitating productive interactions between all members of the campus community.
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