“IS THERE STILL SOMETHING HAPPENING HERE?”: THE IMPACT OF HISTORICAL ACTIVIST CAMPUS SUB-CULTURES ON CONTEMPORARY STUDENT PROTEST, 1998-2008

Open Access
Author:
Gromis, Ashley Renee
Area of Honors:
Sociology
Degree:
Bachelor of Arts
Document Type:
Thesis
Thesis Supervisors:
  • John D Mc Carthy, Thesis Supervisor
  • Jeffery Todd Ulmer, Honors Advisor
Keywords:
  • student protest
  • activist sub-cultures
Abstract:
Many observers have noted a conspicuous lack of student activism in recent years compared with the flourishing of activism in the 1960s, yet there exists no systematic effort to assess that widespread perception. This research investigates the extent of student protest during the last decade, the nature of that protest, and the range of substantive claims advanced at protest events. Eighty colleges and universities were sampled from four categories based upon their history of campus activism, aimed at capturing the residue of the historical presence of activist sub-cultures. This design allows for an assessment of the impact of prior student activism on the likelihood of contemporary protest as well as the types of claims advanced on campuses during the last decade. The sample of campuses for this study includes 80 colleges and universities selected from a dataset which included all four year institutions in the United States. A scheme was created to establish categories that denoted different levels of a history of activism—institutions with activism in the 1960s but not the 1990s, institutions with activism in the 1990s but not the 1960s, institutions with activism in both decades, and institutions that did not show any activism in either decade. A standard methodology was developed to identify student protest events at each campus using the NEWSBANK database. Evidence was compiled for each protest event to determine the frequency of protest, the claims articulated by participants, and other important characteristics, such as event size and interaction between protesters and law enforcement officials (if any police were present at an event). The findings derived from this extensive dataset demonstrate that college and university students continue to be actively engaged in protest on campuses across the United States. However, the nature of the protest events has changed considerably since the 1960s, as the recent protest is rarely confrontational, in stark contrast to that of the 1960s wave of campus protests. An institution that experienced previous student activism in any decade—the 1960s, 1990s, or both—was more likely to witness student protest in the last decade than campuses that have not seen protests in earlier periods. Additionally, the type of claim advanced by participants—particularly issues of local self-interest versus those of a broader focus—was not related to any historical pattern of activism. Contemporary students at all types of institutions were more likely to mobilize around claims of broader social interest than those directed specifically at the academic institution where they were enrolled. Contrary to widespread reports in the mass media, student protest still plays an integral role in student life on campuses across the country. Given the lack of scholarly research focusing on the full extent of recent student activism, these findings illustrate important recent trends in the frequency of student activism, the kinds of claims that are advanced, and the nature of protest actions. While student activism today looks increasingly distinct from that in the 1960s, it continues to be notable in its presence on campuses and demonstrates that there still appears to be something happening here, even if it is substantially less confrontational.