Reframing Faculty Criticisms of Student Activism

February 10, 2017

Recent years have seen students energized by grassroots movements mobilizing for change on campuses across the country. They are demanding changes to admissions, curriculum, labor practices, college financial investments, administrators’ responses to sexual assault, and more. The recent election has mobilized even more people, and campuses will continue to be sites of protest.

This is an important time to investigate how faculty criticize student activists, sometimes even while attesting to support the students’ underlying ideas. These criticisms tend to be consistent, which raises questions about where these scripts come from, why we are repeating them, who they serve, and what alternatives exist.

The patterned criticism falls into six categories:

"I agree with what the students are fighting for, but…"

    1. "Their activism makes our university/department look bad (while we are actually better than our peers). They are defeating their own purpose by portraying our school as racist because they will drive away other applicants of color."

    2. "They should be building up the institution, not just tearing it down and being negative."

    3. "Their claims are inaccurate. Their demands are impossible. The institution/administrator cannot do those things because of the law/the budget/the decision-making structure."

    4. "They are being unprofessional. They should be in dialogue with the administration, not making demands. That is not how change happens."

    5. "They are being hostile/mean." (I have heard administrators invoke the claim that they are being "bullied" and/or "traumatized" by the student activists.)

    6. "Don’t they know what the real world is like? They are going to have to face this same kind of racism/sexism/ableism out there; we should not coddle them."

Perhaps some of these responses sound familiar. Reading this list may even make some people feel defensive. Social movements challenge existing norms and institutions, causing discomfort among people implicated in those systems. Our discomfort may signal that we have something to learn.

We ask students to be curious, open-minded learners. We see, for example, how students impede their learning when they become defensive to feedback on writing. Could our defensive reactions to their activism indicate that we have an opportunity to model the openness to learning we ask of them? If we temper our reactions, what might we learn about the systems we work in, our behaviors and positions, and how to support change?

Here are some possible reframes that may help us think through patterned reactions.

Appreciate their risk-taking. Taking up activism is a challenging task. Our students are more indebted than any prior generation and face bleak job and housing prospects. Many are working long hours, making long commutes, and caring for family. By becoming activists, they risk disapproval from peers, family, faculty, and employers. Many are exhausted from getting by in an institution they experience as hostile. Given these disincentives, perhaps rather than looking for what they are doing wrong, we could try to support them. There must be a lot at stake for them to take these risks.

Consider power dynamics before framing faculty/administrators as victims. The language of victimization is available to all, but it is not always appropriate, given asymmetrical power structures. It hurts to be called racist or sexist or to be criticized at our jobs. However, just because it hurts does not mean we are victims. Being in leadership roles in institutions means receiving feedback. It is not the job of those harmed by the institution to protect leaders from learning about that harm, or to put leaders’ feelings first. When, for example, students of color give feedback to white leaders about their experiences of racism, it is inappropriate for us to claim to be bullied by students.

People in positions of authority in institutions need to be able to receive feedback, to look for the truth in it rather than criticizing how it was delivered, and to respond with meaningful action. It is not our students’ job to congratulate us on prior efforts or to keep track of how our efforts compare with those of other institutions.

If asking nicely worked…. Social movements emerge because formal channels of grievance and redress are not working and people are desperate for change. Institutional leaders often call activist tactics "disruptive" and want activists to use insider methods instead. On most campuses, people have been challenging racism, sexism, ableism, environmental destruction, and colonialism for decades, if not centuries. Aspects of these discourses have been institutionalized in various programs, yet students are saying these strategies have not sufficiently transformed their colleges.

Often student activists turn to more disruptive tactics when they believe they have been used as tokens in ineffective institutional "diversity" strategies. Some of them perceive committees and advisory boards to be hamster wheels that keep students, staff, and faculty of color busy creating reports and recommendations that are not acted upon. Much of this institutional labor is not recognized or compensated and leads to frustration and burnout. Sometimes it leads to mobilization and an escalation of tactics. Those who study social movements are well aware that escalation is what leads to change. Institutional change, including on campuses, emerges because something happens that people in authority cannot ignore.

Recognize that activists have probably already considered the critiques. Student activists debate strategy and work from multiple organizations with competing perspectives on message and tactics. It is easy to criticize any action people take for change and imagine how you would have done it differently. It is easy to find inaccuracies in activists’ claims about a university, often because institutions are not transparent about spending and decision-making. We can criticize student activists for every misstep we perceive, or we can build relationships with them, learn about their perspectives and choices, and offer support.

Consider the benefits of student activism. It is not fair to portray student activists as troublemakers damaging the institution’s reputation. First, it is not the students’ responsibility to portray their colleges as wonderful destinations if they are not experiencing them that way. Second, the disruptive activists are often the same students who are leading student organizations, mentoring new students, pipelining high schoolers, and otherwise devoting themselves to making the institution more accessible and survivable for marginalized people.

Often the same students who were threatened with disciplinary action because of their activism return to campus as alumni speakers and award recipients. Student activism builds analytical and other skills that are unavailable in our classrooms, and benefits our campuses during their time with us and after they graduate.

The job of people seeking change is to increase the comfort of those suffering the most harm, and decrease the comfort of those running the institutions that create harmful conditions. As faculty, we might see our own discomfort as a sign that students are doing good work toward transforming our universities. Rather than resenting and criticizing student activism, it would be heartening to see faculty members appreciate the opportunity to teach during a time when student activists are participating in important contemporary social-movement struggles. I hope that we can defy our established roles and work to be as brave and curious as our students are.

Dean Spade is an associate professor in the Seattle University School of Law.