THE NEW STUDENT ACTIVISM; FROM MARCHES TO MEMOS
Washington — * On Capitol Hill, the only sitting-in students are doing these days is in meetings with congressmen and their staffs. Well-dressed and well-informed, student lobbyists have become effective champions of campus causes. Their victories include passage last year of the Middle Income Student Assistance Act, which nearly doubled the then-$2 billion in federal financial aid available to college students.
* When traces of asbestos were discovered in University of Maryland dorms in September 1978, college officials promised to investigate. But several months later, exasperated by official foot-dragging, students decided the university bureaucracy needed a shove in the right direction. Student government association president Jordan Fox Released a 125-page report to the national press last July, a three-month research project that documented the seriousness of the problem and accused the university of a "cover-up." In the flap that followed embarrassed officials moved promptly to correct the health hazard. The move was a "net plus" for students, admits one administrator, who says the report got the university "to react a lot quicker than it would have otherwise."
* At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, students don't just brush up on Robert's Rules of Order before meeting with faculty and administrative committees. They attend "assertiveness training" workshops where they learn the do's and don'ts of negotiating by rehearsing their committee presentations in role model games with other students.
This is today's student activism -- sophisticated, realistic, and a lot less visible than it was a decade ago when student protests were front-page news.
It is a movement born not of the idealism and luxury of the 1960s, but of the pragmatism and concern of the 1970s. It is carved from a theory of change which , as one student describes it, "is not so much the 'Apocalypse Now' approach as it is gradually wearing the rock away by dripping water on it."
Unlike the 1960s activism, it is not now -- and may never be -- a mass movement. The issues are complex and diverse, and do not attract the thousands of protesters that divisive issues like the Vietnam war once did. They are concerns that spring from a personal "How does this affect me?" level.
In some, ways, the new activism is a reflection of the self-absorption of the 1970s. But it is more. Among the small yet growing percentage of students who are at the core of the new movement, the "me first" quest has expanded so that the question is rephrased: "How does this affect me, my neighbor, the world we live in, and the future we face?"
Today's student activism is marked by change in three major areas -- attitudes, issues, and tactics.
At the heart of the student movement today, as in the 1960s, is the assumption that it is legitimate -- even necessary -- to confront authority and question the values of society. But what separates today's activists from the generation that preceded them is the understanding that change must come through reform, not revolution.
Now emerging is a philosophy built on lessons learned from the 1960s and tempered by the sober, work-oriented approach of the 1970s. Dogma has given way to a nuts-and- bolts practically. Burning anger has cooled into a patient realism, summed up by one student activist who says, "You can't change a country by hating it. You have to understand the world while you change it."
"We were more naively idealistic," explains Dr. Lee Kneflekemp of her own experience as a student activist in the civil-rights movements. "We listened to voices that told us we had no limits.
"We were told we could put a man on the moon, and we did," continues Dr. Kneflekemp, who is now a professor and administrator at the University of Maryland. "JFK said the torch had passed to a new generation and it had. There was talk of a "new frontier" and we found it. We were told we could fight the war on poverty and win, and we believed it. But by the end of the 60's, we saw where we had failed.
"This generation knows we have limits," she says. "They lived though a decade where our limits were shown."
But the shattered illusions that marked the end of the 1960s are now the anchor of the new activism. Students today understand that in pushing for change they may at times take "one step forward, two steps backward." They are a steady group, not likely to lose heart if that change is slow in coming. "We are not in this for the short run," explains one student organizer.
They are also more diplomatic than were students in the 1960s. Unlike that generation, activists now are more likely to "wheel and deal" with bureaucrats than to march into a meeting and demand that changes be made. Although student leaders are as distrustful as ever of university administrations, it is says one University of Maryland student, "a lot easier to go in there with your hand held out instead of with your guns smoking,"
And as these new attitudes have developed, so too have new issues.
Once powered by national issues which filtered down to the community level, activism now is fueled by local concerns. What may be a heated issue on one campus may be unheard of on another. At the University of California at Berkeley, for example, campus attention has been focused on the alleged sexual harassment of women students by their male professors. Meanwhile, students at the University of Missouri are still battling over restrictive dormitory hours -- a policy abolished on most college campuses years ago.
But there is a unity theme in this diversity of issues: a consumer-minded demand for accountability.
On campus it is often found in a "make sure you get what you pay for" attitude. As tuition costs continue to climb -- an average jump last year of 9 percent for public institutions and nearly 16 percent for private schools -- students scrutinize university budgets and push for increased financial-aid programs. And they are asking for a greater voice in academic and administrative decisions.
In many states that drive has resulted in placing students on university governing boards. In California, for exmaple, student lobbyists convinced state legislators to pass a constitutional amendment mandating a student seat on the University of California Board of Regents.
Students at City University of New York won a similar victory last year. Their success had a wry twist, however, which highlights the effectiveness of student lobbyists: When the legislature granted voting rights to the student member of CUNY's Board of Higher Education, it did so without giving similar status to the nonvoting faculty member of the same board.
In their push for a greater say in the details of campus affairs, students are also working to win a role in deciding which faculty members receive tenure. And as university professors have won the right to collective bargaining, students have followed close behind, asking to be allowed to sit in on such negotiations as observers.
But Student's campaign for control over the world around them does not stop on campus. In their work to make the university system more accountable to their own needs, they are seeking the same gains on the community and state levels.
Rent-control campaigns are being waged, although not often won, in college towns across the country. Environmental causes like "bottle bills" and solar energy often are championed by students And in many communities, students are either runnning for local office or helping others get elected.
With the increasing complexity and diversity of issues has come an updating of old strategies and the creation of many new ones.
It is virtually impossible, students have realized, to wage an effective protest against pollution by demonstrating along a river bank or to say anything meaningful about solar power by holding a sit-in for the sun.
What is more, they understand that if lasting changes are to be made, they must be wrought within the system. And the most effectively way they have found of working within that system is lobbying. Since 1971, when the first student lobby in the country was formed at the University of California, student lobbies have spread to campuses in 39 states.
Easily outspent and outnumbered by professional lobbyists, students still have two things in their favor: vast sources of information in university libraries and files and lots of time for researching and roaming the halls of capitol buildings. It is a surprisingly powerful combination, as both students and politicians have found. California legislators in 1975 ranked the UC student lobby 12th in effectiveness out of a total of 675 lobbying groups.
"The normal knee-jerk reaction is -- if you don't like something, demonstrate ," says Ken Mosakowski, who oversees the lobbying program at the University of Massachuesetts, Amherst, Student Center for Educational Research Advocacy. "The approach is different now.
"You don't need thousands of people to talk to one state representative," he continues. "You only need two or three people who've got their facts straight."
Lobbying victories are also being won by public interest research groups, Ralph Nader-conceived organizations which are funded and run by students with the help of hired professionals. PIRGs, which began in 1970, are on nearly 200 campuses in 29 states.
Among the most recent and hard-fought PIRG victories was the New York Legislature passage last year of the country's first truth-in-testing law. (Although California has a similar bill, it is a much watered-down version).
The bill, the result of a three-year battle spearheaded by New York PIRG, requires that testing companies make public corrected tests as well as any research that questions the validity of intelligence exams. Although the law was widely supported by parents, educators, and consumer groups, it was bitterly opposed by the testing industry, which has challenged the law in court and is expected to wage a fierce repeal effort this year.
Hailed for breaking what many critics saw as unfair secrecy surrounding tests such as college entrance examinations, the New York law has served as a model for similar bills, which are expected to be proposed this year at the federal level and in 15 other states.
Students have also learned that there is more to using the system than lobbying -- there is the legal system as well. When administrators won't talk and legislators won't listen, students have found they can take their arguments to court.
At UMass, Amherst, one of the the few campuses in the country where student activity fees may be used to sue the university, students have filed a lawsuit asking that administrators be forced to release student course-and- teacher evaluations.
Such documents are now made available on an optional basis by each department. But campus leaders argue that those evaluations should be given to students who want to know how their peers rate the quality of a course or a faculty member.
In College Park, Md., students are still awaiting the outcome of a four-year-old lawsuit charging that voting districts around the University of Maryland campus are gerrymandered. The two students who brought the case have argued that district lines were drawn with the intention of minimizing student impact in local elections.
But even as students fight the system on its own terms, they have maintained one powerful link with the 1960s. It is an understanding of the power of mass protest and the results such disruption can bring. Although they do not often look to demonstrations as a first resort, they have not abandoned them as a way of bringing change.
"We realized emotional arguments over things like fee increases don't mean beans to businessmen and bureaucrats," says one student body president. "It's more quality than quantity these days -- not how many people you've got, but how good your argument is.
"But when they don't listen to your argument," he continues, "you can take to the streets with demonstrations. The two strategies are irrestible."
Despite all the heady victories, however, there have been a number of setbacks. Alongside the legislative successes tallied by student lobbyists are a number of losses. Campus activists ruefully recall demonstrations for which no one showed up. And the vast majority of students still show little interest in anything outside their own work and play.
"The only mass movement I see is for football and homecoming," laments one students at the University of Missouri at Columbia, a conservative campus where sororities and fraternities last year spent more than $10,000 on homecoming floats.
Even at the University of Michigan, a campus once charged by protest, student activism seems to be little more than a memory. It is ironic, almost irreverent , that today students gather in front of the Michigan Union to barter for scalped tickets to a football game -- not 50 feet from a medallion marking the spot where John F. Kennedy first defined the Peace Corps" and was cheered by a large and enthusiastic student audience for the hope and promise his idea gave the world."
For all the savvy tactics they have learned, many studdent leaders feel university administrators have grown equally adept at handling activists.
Deans and chancellors who once engaged in head-on confrontations with angry students have learned now to defuse student protest by stalling issues until activists graduate, say many students. Activists also argue that despite the seats they have won on university policy committees, such concessions are only a token role granted as an appeasement to students.
Still, it is a measure of their realism and their commitment to a long-term struggle that students are the first to acknowledge those defeats and limits of power. And they ar also the first to take such setbacks in stride.
"We've made people think," says Jordan Fox, president of the student government association at the University of Maryland. "But I know that's also just a few people. I'm not going to pretent we have this campus jumping up and down. We don't.
"But we do know how to get what we want," he says. "We know how to use the media, how to use our funds, how to use good common sense. It's very difficult to pull the wool over our eyes. . . ."
Adds Frank Jackalone, who chairs the United States Student Associations, a national student lobbying group: "Things are rapidly coming to a head in this world and maybe it's foolish to think that we can change them. . . . Maybe we'll just become frustrated doing it.
"But," he adds deliberately, "it's worth a try in my book."
Next: An era past an era to come