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College Student Activism, or How to "Disguise Subversive Action like a Sugar-Coated Pill" (October 2017): The 1980s and 1990s

By Robert V. Labaree

The 1980s and 1990s

Young people of the 1980s have been labelled by some as the “Me Generation,” viewed by older generations as generally apathetic and self-absorbed, optimistic about their future but intensely focused on their own financial well-being after graduation. The decade represented a relative lull in nationally organized student activism—with the notable exception of the widespread anti-apartheid protests demanding that university endowments be divested from companies doing business in South Africa. By the mid-1980s, students were occupying buildings and camping out in cardboard-box shanty towns to protest the living conditions of indigenous Africans as well as the collusion of universities in silently supporting apartheid rule through their financial investments. The movement was successful in forcing schools such as Michigan State University, Columbia University, and the University of California to divest from holdings in South Africa. However, this movement has not received a lot of attention outside of several dissertations, exceptions being the brief report of a study by Jennifer Kibbe in Divestment on Campus: Issues and Implementation (issued 1989; updated 1992) and Tony Vellela’s book published shortly after the peak of the divestment movement, New Voices: Student Activism in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Vellela includes a chapter on the divestment protests and provides evidence from the work of student organizations and interviews with student activists to show that college populations were indeed politically active during the Reagan era. Issues of interrelated concern during this period included opposition to US intervention in Central America, Central Intelligence Agency recruitment on college campuses, and increased military spending under Reagan, as well as protests against racial and economic inequality, women’s rights, and discrimination against the LGBT communities.

As the 1980s transitioned into the 1990s, more organized concerns began to emerge about higher education’s institutional relationship with its student base. While past protests focused on significant societal issues, by the late 1980s there was a growing inward gaze on universities as objects of protest. In his book Generation at the Crossroads: Apathy and Action on the American Campus, Robert Rogat Loeb challenges the notion that students at this time were apolitical or value neutral. Opinion polls indicated that student attitudes during the 1990s became more critical of social institutions and concerned about issues such as the environment, even as individuals remained optimistic that they could fix the problems of the past. Most notably, students organized protests focused on curriculum reform that reflected a growing social consciousness around struggles of cultural identity and inclusion, while several studies of activism intended to “decolonize” the curriculum were published. David Yamane’s Student Movements for Multiculturalism: Challenging the Curricular Color Line in Higher Education examines the increasing visibility of multiculturalism in the curriculum and the desire of students to expand the scope of general-education course content beyond texts based on Western canons of scholarship and cultural norms. Similarly, in her book Student Activism and Curricular Change in Higher Education Mikaila Arthur examines six case studies of reforms that furthered development of programs in women’s studies, Asian-American studies, and queer/LGBT studies. The essayists in Campus Wars: Multiculturalism and the Politics of Difference, edited by John Arthur and Amy Shapiro, examine not only student demands for curricular reform, but also broaden the discussion by looking at people’s increased access to higher education evidenced by demands for more women and minority faculty, regulations banning sexual harassment and date rape, and development of hate-speech codes and affirmative-action policies. Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval’s newly published Starving for Justice: Hunger Strikes, Spectacular Speech, and the Struggle for Dignity examines student activists who used the tool of hunger strikes to demand the establishment and expansion of Chicana/o studies programs at UCLA, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Stanford University. The author uses oral history interviews, primary documents, and the personal archives accumulated by hunger strikers to illuminate this critical moment in student activism during the 1990s.