The History — and Health Implications — of Student Hunger Strikes

Nicholas Pfosi, Tufts Daily

Janitors embraced hunger strikers on Wednesday at Tufts U. The protest, to thwart planned layoffs on the janitorial staff, is the latest example in a long tradition of fasting-as-activism.
May 08, 2015

A hunger strike at Tufts University stretched into its sixth day on Friday, with five students refusing to eat until the administration reverses a decision to lay off 20 janitors. Tufts officials say the strikers, and a larger group of students who are camping on the university quad, are free to remain as long as they comply with the Massachusetts institution’s policies.

By choosing to fast, the students have joined a long tradition of campus activism: Hunger strikes have always been part of the repertoire of nonviolent protesters, at colleges and elsewhere. The strikes can be uniquely difficult for colleges to deal with, both because of concerns over participants’ health and because there’s no playbook pointing to a clear response. Here are answers to some key questions about campus hunger strikes:

How common are they?

That’s hard to say because there are no national statistics on the matter. Anecdotally, it seems that students are striking less often than they did in the mid-1990s, when there was a spate of strikes for ethnic-studies programs and professors, or even a decade ago, when students at Georgetown University and the University of Miami demanded higher pay and union representation for their institutions' janitors.

Cassie L. Barnhardt, an assistant professor of educational policy and leadership studies at the University of Iowa, asked college leaders in 2010 which types of protest had occurred on their campuses in the previous 20 years. Petitioning led the pack — 71 percent of respondents said their college had experienced it — followed by rallies (57 percent) and letter writing (51 percent). Roughly a third of college leaders recalled protests or demonstrations. Ms. Barnhardt didn’t ask about hunger strikes because she hadn’t seen much mention of them in her research.

When hunger strikes do occur on college campuses, they tend to be small and focused on narrow institutional issues such as faculty hiring and firing or employee pay. That means they rarely spread across campuses as protests over the Vietnam War or the Kent State massacre did in the 1960s or 70s.

"Nationwide campus protests just don’t exist anymore," said Rick Halperin, director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University and a veteran of the 60s protests. "There doesn’t seem to be a national student unity today."

How do students get to the point of starving themselves?

Hunger strikes are typically a last resort of activists — an attempt to force a change less-drastic forms of protest have not achieved. They’re visceral, disturbing, and undeniably attention-getting.

At Tufts, the hunger strike and occupation followed months of marches, rallies, sit-ins, and meetings between the administration and the protesters. While the parties reached agreement on some points, campus officials have stood by the plan to cut the number of janitors, saying it's part of an institutionwide effort to "improve operational efficiencies."

In a statement sent to reporters at the start of the strike, the Tufts Labor Coalition said students were striking on behalf of the janitors, whose contract forbids them to take such action.

Mark E. Boren, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who is the author of Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject, said students engage in hunger strikes for three reasons: "to galvanize solidarity among the movement’s immediate followers," "to spark a larger protest movement," and "to garner media attention."

How dangerous is hunger striking?

It’s absolutely dangerous, if it goes long enough. When the body is deprived of food, it begins to break down fat, then muscle tissue. Everything slows down — metabolism, heart rate, cognition — and the striker may become confused and more sensitive to heat and cold. The muscles of the heart become damaged; eventually, of course, the striker will die.

How long that process takes depends on how healthy a person is when he or she begins fasting, said Joan Salge Blake, a clinical associate professor at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, who is also a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Dietetic Association. "It’s very individualized," she said.

Still, in medical circles, doctors often refer to what’s known as the 72/72 rule: You can’t survive more than 72 hours without water or more than 72 days without food, said Sarah Van Orman, executive director of University Health Services for the University of Wisconsin at Madison. "We start to become really concerned about the physiological effects after 20 to 30 days," she added.

Dr. Van Orman said hunger strikes pose an "ethical dilemma" for campus health-care providers, who are often torn between a desire to protect their patients and a need to respect their autonomy. Ultimately, she said, the best plan is to educate students about the risks of striking, be ready to provide medical support, and make sure other administrators understand the medical ethics of reponding to hunger strikes, she said.

Does the tactic work?

The short answer is: sometimes.

Occasionally strikes have resulted in decisive victories. In 2005, strikers at Georgetown University helped secure a "living wage" for campus workers; a year later, students at Gallaudet University toppled Jane K. Fernandes, a controversial new president.

More often, though, hunger strikes have led to compromises — such as Columbia University’s agreement to hire four new ethnic-studies professors, rather than the 12 that protesters were demanding. Some hunger strikes simply end when the protesters give up, as was the case at Purdue University in 2006, when students fasted in an attempt to force the institution to stop selling clothing manufactured in sweatshops.

Whether the Tufts strikers succeed will depend in part on how much media attention they get and "whether the administration feels pressure to act, especially this late in the school year," Mr. Boren said.

It will also depend on how long they hold out and "what price they are willing to pay — physically, spiritually, and academically," said Mr. Halperin."The question is," he said, "what are they prepared to sacrifice, individually or collectively, and how committed are they to the goal that they have professed?"

How should colleges respond to hunger strikes?

Generally speaking, college campuses today are more hospitable to protest than they were in the confrontational 60s. While there were some violent clashes between police officers and protesters during the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years back, and a notorious pepper-spray incident at the University of California at Davis in 2011, college administrators are now much more likely to engage with protesters than arrest them.

That shift is reflected in a guide to dealing with student protests issued last year by the Education Law Association and Naspa—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. It encourages civil discourse with protesters and respect for students’ free-speech rights.

But neither the student-affairs association nor the American College Health Association has issued any advice on how to respond to hunger strikes in particular. The lack of guidance has left colleges to navigate the complex legal and ethical issues largely on their own.

During the Georgetown protest in 2005, university administrators sent letters to students’ parents, urging them to tell their children to "begin eating right away," and threatened the protesters with involuntary medical leave. Protesters accused the administration of violating their privacy rights and trying to thwart their strike.

During a hunger strike at the University of California at Santa Barbara 20 years ago, campus health officials asked students to sign consent forms to let themselves be treated if they became unconscious or irrational.

Kevin Kruger, president of Naspa, said colleges typically check in with hunger-striking students daily, to make sure they are not in severe distress. In some cases, they will notify parents that their child is fasting. And if a student becomes severely ill, they will forcibly hospitalize them as a "last resort," he said.

At Tufts, university officials are meeting daily with students in an effort to reach a resolution, said Kimberly M. Thurler, director of public relations. Campus health officials have been encouraging students to drink plenty of fluids, including electrolytes, and reminding them of the availability of medical and mental-health support, she said.

"We want all participants," she said, "to be mindful of their health and safety."

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.