Over the past few years, political activism among college students has been rising. Conservative groups so far seem to have been the most successful in attracting members. But the anti-apartheid demonstrations of this spring show that students supporting more liberal causes are now beginning to organize and make their voices heard. And not just about apartheid.
``We're not would-be hippies, yuppie activists, or aberrations in a conservative world,'' said Elizabeth Szanto, a junior at Harvard-Radcliffe, addressing a recent convention of 250 college activists at the Democratic Socialists of America student conference in New York. From questions of national policy such as Central America and the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), to more personal concerns such as financial-aid cuts and student involvement in university decisions, a broad range of issues has captured the attention of a growing segment of the college population. [The liberal agenda, Page 6.]
In the last year, membership in Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative organization, jumped 20 percent, to nearly 60,000 on about 500 campuses, says Terry Cannon, national chairman. Other groups, such as the College Republicans and Students for America, have also maintained a strong presence in recent years.
The number of liberal activists remains small compared to the activist era of 15 years ago. And turnout at their events is not always as high as expected. Recently, the American Committee on Africa underwent a massive effort to organize a national day of protest to urge colleges to divest themselves of South Africa financial holdings. Most demonstrations drew fewer than 100 people.
But students supporting these issues are heartened by the presence of progressive activity of any kind. For many, they see activity on their campuses where none was present only a few years ago.
Frances Fox Piven, professor of sociology at the City University of New York, who has written about political issues and college students, believes the trend toward student involvement in progressive, liberal movements is growing. ``I think in the last year and a half, there have been definite signs of movement.'' Ms. Piven says that, while antiapartheid demonstrations ``signal a kind of resurgence,'' the actions are not tied to only that issue.
``Activism is not concentrating on South Africa alone,'' points out Tom Swann, director of the United States Student Association, an alliance of campus student organizations. As their political experience grows, Swann predicts, students will initiate ``an increase in civil disobedience on campuses.''
Recent actions also have sought to involve students in the push to influence university policies.
Paul Kumar, an organizer of the University in Society Project, cites among the project's objectives increased access to universities for minorities and low-income people through opposition to student-aid cutbacks, as well as increased hiring and retention of third-world and women faculty and administrators. The group supports getting university workers involved in labor negotiations, amendment of campus policies to prohibit discrimination based on sexual preference, and refusal to participate in SDI research.
Increased student activism has prompted the creation of a new organization. Dave West, of the National Student Action Center, states that ``today's progressive student movement is potentially a political force.''
The center, a non-profit, non-partisan group already responsible for assisting in several national efforts, will provide support services for campus organizers, coordinate information for national actions, organize conferences, and link American student groups with those in other countries sharing their views.
Observing the increase in liberal sympathies, David Plotke, political science professor at Yale University, concludes that ``there could develop a kind of 1950-ish critique. The early '60s student movement emerged as a critique of affluence and the boredom of pursuing careers in certain ways, living lives in certain ways.''
Mr. Plotke, a veteran of '60s student activity, says that the university will again provide a setting for disenchantment among college students who will begin to compare personal values with material objectives: ``The tension will be ripe for the emergence of something like that, because the structual tension in college between the alleged devotion of the place to getting knowledge and the pressures to get money is so strong.''
But students are careful to distinguish themselves from the previous generation. ``In the '60s, students had no power at all,'' states Jane McAlevey, president of the Student Association of the State University of New York. ``The goal today is empowerment. Universities should be run by faculty, students, and staff.'' She traces her activism to a practical threat: ``I got involved when a massive tuition increase was proposed.''
Mr. Kumar says today's activitists are spending more time ``making the connections rather than simply organizing to get large numbers of students out in the streets.''