WHILE many of their classmates canvassed for favorite presidential candidates in key primary states earlier this month, hundreds of university students traveled to New Jersey for a convention of student activists to examine alternative methods of getting their voices heard. Organizers had projected a turnout of 200 and were caught off guard when more than 700 showed up from schools in states as far away as Washington, Texas, and California. Twenty years ago, the call to forge a unified national student left movement, which resulted in the formation of the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962, attracted only 59 participants.
``We need to build as broad a base as possible,'' says Christine Kelly of Rutgers University, which was host to the Feb. 5-7 convention. Stuart Erlin, another of the planners, notes that ``historically, social change has not come through electoral politics.''
Issues drawing action on the 130 campuses represented go beyond the continuing divestment and antiracism movements. They include strong organizing against American intervention in Central America and the CIA's role in the internal affairs of other countries; support for the rights of women, for gay and lesbian students, and for minority students; and demands for a shift in financial commitments away from military research and toward student aid, health care, day care, and programs for the homeless.
Actions aimed at these issues often take the form of focused pressure on the university to change specific policies. After students experienced the successes of divestment campaigns (nearly 130 universities have dropped investments in South African-related corporations), they began to pinpoint other areas where a researched, targeted campaign could make a difference. Ms. Kelly notes that students at 78 schools have disrupted the CIA's practice of recruiting on their campuses. Other students have pressured administrations to add courses on the causes of racism, the contribution of women, blacks, and gays in history, and examinations of non-Western cultures. Recent developments in amending mandatory Western culture requirements at Stanford University reflect this growing trend.
And instead of adopting the ideologies of the past, activist students - who feel more comfortable with the name `progressive' than any other - are moving away from existing organizations and political beliefs. Although representatives from a variety of radical political organizations holding Marxist-Leninist beliefs peppered the convention with leaflets, most students ignored their solicitations.
``I expected to find a lot of groups trying to convert me to their principles,'' says Mark Ritterbusch from Hiram College in Ohio. Instead, students debated whether to charter a new organization that would not be bound by what they see as outdated labels and discredited doctrines. When it was learned that a student trying to take over the microphone was a member of the Progressive Labor Party, he was escorted by other students from the stage and ejected from the meeting.
``My commitment is for local commitment,'' says Madeline McNeely of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., ``and for recognizing the plurality of this movement.'' Plans to draft a constitution for a new organization were scrapped when the large assembly agreed with representatives from the black students caucus and from the gay, lesbian, and bisexual students caucus that the group present did not accurately reflect their constituencies. Instead, regional groups were formed to gather more support from other campuses and organizations with an eye to convening a more representative second conference, possibly during Labor Day weekend.
``We can't allow our diversity to separate us, or we're going to make the same mistakes that were made in the past all over again,'' says Hyun Bowden, from Purdue. And Kim Paulis of the Washington, D.C.-based National Student Action Center believes ``there was a sense that students wanted a national `youth left' organization.''
Not all student leaders believe a new organization is needed. According to Kevin Harris of the United States Student Association, a coalition of student government members who lobby for student issues and do community organizing, ``I'm not convinced that building a student movement equals creating a new national organization.'' Mr. Harris does think that a summit of the various national organizations involved in student activism should be held with the large numbers of nonaligned students, to see if a new organization is needed.
Whether or not a new structure is created, activist students have moved to link themselves with other campuses. Speakers included representatives from Peace Net, an interactive computer network capable of putting campus activists in touch with one another. Jared Goldstein, student body president at Columbia University, feels that the convention ``will bring activism to many more campuses. I talked to students from small conservative colleges,'' he adds, ``who were feeling totally alone, and now they can know that they are part of a larger movement.''
``We don't need a constitution right now,'' proclaims Mark Caldiera of the New School in New York. ``But we do need a declaration of independence.''