October 13, 2009

The future of campus activism

U of C activists’ strategy must change to achieve long-term success.

The history of campus activism is the history of single issues, which come and go without leaving a significant impact on students’ political consciousness or organization. Hardly any students remember the most successful student campaign of recent years: the “Boot the Bell” campaign initiated in spring 2002 against ARAMARK’s campus contract with Taco Bell. The “Boot the Bell” victory, students hoped, would generate a wider national student movement. Some of the students who had participated in “Boot the Bell” did continue to organize, but they turned away from campus, let alone national, politics and into neighborhood localism.

In spite of modest victories, activism has remained depoliticized insofar as its goal has not been to spur political consciousness among students. Instead, activists have attempted to win limited campus-wide reforms by using conventional tactics such as direct actions and coalition building. All of these campaigns started as single issues, gradually formed multi-group coalitions, briefly captured the student imagination, and then dissolved. Activism seems to rise and fall with the regularity of the business cycle.

Unless we can break that cycle.

The question is less one of students’ motivation and commitment than it is one of strategy. For many, the purpose of student activism should simply be to build a community of progressive individuals. Perhaps they hold this view because they do not actually believe that substantive change at the University or in the wider world is possible. When the wider political world does become an issue, activists tend to accept the priorities of “hot topics” and organize their campaigns around them. They do not consider whether and under what conditions localism and single issues might transcend their immediacy and transform the world at large. As a consequence of this, there is little political discussion among activists, and most are averse to public debate. But without political discussion and debate—debate that addresses the most pressing strategic questions of the moment—there cannot be any serious attempt to change the world.

There is one organization that can potentially change this situation and place student politics on more coherent footing. Graduate Students United (GSU) was founded in 2007 as a committee to begin discussing and working to unionize graduate student workers and the student body as a whole. Since then it has grown to a burgeoning campus organization with a life of its own: regular meetings, social and political events, and networks of stewards in many departments of the University.

What makes GSU unique among student organizations? Simple: Access to the University’s inner workings, i.e. the graduate student lecturers, instructors, and teaching assistants upon whom the University depends for the College to function. When organized, graduate students can exert their collective strength to push forward changes in the University that were hitherto impossible, moving toward GSU’s explicit, purposeful goal: to transform the University to be more responsive to its students. In the process, GSU has the potential to revitalize campus activism and student politics. Although GSU itself is politically neutral, as far as it is a representative body of students and anyone can work through GSU to advance a political cause, progressives can use GSU as a forum to discuss political goals and strategies for students to pursue collectively. In this way the University of Chicago campus could be fruitfully politicized, thereby enriching our intellectual lives, as well as our activist projects.

Student unionization is not the end of student politics—it is the necessary, but difficult, beginning.

Greg Gabrellas is pursuing a degree with the Master of Arts program in the Social Sciences and is a member of Graduate Students United. He graduated from the College in 2009 with a degree in anthropology.