For Freshmen. By Freshmen.
Display occupy cal general assembly at night
Jan 06 2016
by Taylor Lang

11 Past and Present Social Movements Led By College Students

By Taylor Lang - Jan 06 2016

Different social movements sweeping across college campuses have been in the news as of late. As people come together to focus on a common goal, it is important to look at some of the social movements that have made an impact on history as well. Though they focused on different things, all of these movements have one thing in common: students coming together to push for awareness or action on an issue that is of the utmost importance to them.  Here are but a few of the instances where college students brought about awareness and change.

The Berkeley Free Speech Movement


In 1958, Clark Kerr became the University President. At that time, “student groups could not operate on campus if they engaged in any kind of off-campus politics.” As time progressed, feelings of unrest and fear towards communism and political affiliations increased. The University of California at Berkeley was no exception. Numerous rules were put in place on campus to prevent politics from being expressed, including a ban on all political leaflets. Students took matters into their own hands in the Fall of 1964 to advocate for their rights when they called themselves United Front and set up tables and marched without prior permission. The movement grew as students showed their desire for free speech. This movement lasted just over two months, with “the arrest of 773 persons for occupying the administration building, the removal of the campus administration, and a vast enlargement of student rights to use the University campus for political activity and debate.”

University of Michigan Teach-In

One of the earliest anti-war social movements occurred at the University of Michigan in March of 1965. It was to protest American intervention in Vietnam. It was decided that the protest would be a “teach-in.” As a way of both educating the university’s students and making a statement, teachers would enhance the awareness of the Vietnam War after classes were over at night and it would last until the next morning. Since it did not disrupt the way that the University held business, it was actually endorsed by both administration and the student body. “Historian Charles DeBenedetti (1990: 108) argued that the teach-in was an effective act of resistance because it “was a protest rather than a debate; and yet it was also a shrewd means of energizing the university without disrupting it.’”

Women's Activism at the University of Georgia


In 1968, a three day sit in occurred at the academic building of the University of Georgia to protest the unequal treatment of males and females.  Females had a stricter dress code and curfew, and they were banned from drinking or living off campus, which males were free to do.  More protests occurred as the events at Kent State brought about alarm, and over the next four years the military building on campus was targeted as students unsuccessfully attempted to burn it to the ground.

Gay Rights Protests on Campuses


As the fight for Civil Rights and Women’s Rights were going on, so was the fight for Gay Rights. “By 1973 some 800 gay organizations existed; most were based in big cities and on university campuses.” The main goal of these organizations was to create a safe environment for people, but many groups also went further to lobby local officials to pass statutes like those for minority groups, women, and African Americans that would stop them from being discriminated against. Unfortunately, it was still a largely taboo subject and many people considered it to be an unacceptable lifestyle due to religious beliefs, causing their successes to be limited. However, many of the goals that the organizations were working towards have finally happened.

Columbia University Against Apartheid

gettyimages, Barbara Alper

In 1985, students of Columbia University took part in a three week demonstration to push the school to divest its investments to go to South Africa to put pressure on the government to make a change. This demonstration did push the Union Theological Seminary’s board of directors “to sell its holdings in American companies with ''major, direct involvement in South Africa.’''

Georgetown University Fights Keystone


In March of 2014, President Obama was considering the creation of the Keystone XL pipeline. Though many different students from colleges and universities all over the country came to participate, students from Georgetown University headed the protest event. On the way to the White House fence, “they stopped at Secretary Kerry's house and unfurled a giant mock oil spill in the middle of the street.” They then got to the White House and spoke out to rally the crowd about the consequences of creating the pipeline. Hundreds of students were arrested, but their goal was reached when President Obama vetoed the Keystone Pipeline about a year later.

NYU Student Debt Protest


“NYU students in 2013 faced more debt than any other school in the nation, excluding for-profit universities.” In order to show the President of NYU, John Sexton, that he needed to do something about the debt of his students that were graduating, and to make sure that the upcoming President, Andrew Hamilton, was aware of the issues, a protest took place in Washington Square Park. Students wrote about the debt that they were going to have when they left college, using hashtags such as #YouAreNotALoan and #HamiltonGetReady. The Student Labor & Action Movement, known as SLAM, directed this event, and continued on with a teach-in event to talk to students about their loans and ways to help their financial debt situation.

Ithaca Protests Their President

Solvejg Wastvedt / WSKG

In October of 2015, students from Ithaca College protested President Rochon over issues that had been building for years. There had been numerous occasions of racism that sparked outrage among the college students. “The protesters also say there’s generally a hostile climate on campus for students of color. Several students said the school has trouble retaining these students because it’s not a place where they feel welcome,” according to a WSKG News article. The students brought about change as a new position of Chief Diversity Officer was created, but President Rochon refused to step down, believing that he was capable of regaining trust and taking care of his students. Even though their causes aligned with a lot of the protests against racism going on all over the country, their efforts were specific to how they were feeling on their own college campus.

The University of Missouri Fights Racism on Campus

Huffington Post

In response to protests, hunger strikes, and a boycott by the football team of the University of Missouri, former President Tim Wolfe, resigned in November.  The students believe that "Racism lives here" and that the campus is a hostile place because of both other students and administration.  This protest led other colleges to also begin to stand up for what they felt was wrong with their colleges.

Claremont McKenna College Fights Insensitivity

NBCUniversal Media, Inc

Claremont McKenna College’s Dean of Students, Mary Spellman, resigned in November after students demanded her resignation for being insensitive about advocating for the diverse population. In an email to an undergraduate of Latino descent, “she implied that students of color “don’t fit our CMC mold.’” After student Taylor Lemmons stated that she was going to go on a hunger strike until the Dean left, Mary Spellman decided that her resignation was the best way to bring closure to the issue.

Columbia University Student Creates Awareness of Sexual Assault

Guardian News and Media Limited

Emma Sulkowicz carried her mattress around everywhere she went, including graduation, to protest and create awareness for sexual assault. As a sophomore, she had allegedly been raped, but the school did not expel the student she accused. By carrying the mattress, she hoped to spark conversation and action for the victims of sexual assault.

Lead Image Credit: WikiCommons

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Taylor Lang - Syracuse University

Taylor is a Broadcast and Digital Journalism Major at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. She started writing and editing as a freshman for Fresh U. From there, she began to help create and expand the News and Multimedia Departments. When not doing something relating to journalism, she LOVES Disney and reading while sipping hot tea. She hopes to inspire others to follow their passions and do what makes them happy.

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