The University needs to revive student activism

This 1st of October marks the 50th anniversary of the Free Speech Movement that began at the University of California, Berkeley. On that day, thousands of Berkeley students surrounded a police car on Sproul Plaza and held it captive for 33 hours in protest of university bans against political activities on campus. The Free Speech Movement was an arm of the larger Civil Rights Movement, and it marked the nonviolent beginning of a decade of rebellion. The students and their movement reshaped national politics and planted universities as battlegrounds for public policy.

On this 50th anniversary, it is important to reflect on student activism at USC over the last few years. Why? Having experienced student cultures at different universities, it seems to us that USC students suffer from a moral and intellectual crisis with unorthodox politics. While classes consistently emphasize politics outside formal institutions, the day-to-day campus is disappointedly empty of any substantive political activity. Challenges and protests do occur, yet they seem to be passive, temporary and even isolated in nature.

Take sexual harassment and assault as examples. They occur constantly, yet University officials continue to lag on any real change that will punish those responsible for it. On their side, students supporting stricter punishments and change of school policy find themselves alone and even go unnoticed. Ari Mostov and Kaya Masler should be names familiar to USC students, as should be Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia University. Are they? But where were the large protests of students in response to the many rape incidents? Why wasn’t Bovard occupied? Why didn’t students walk out of class in protest? Perhaps we just don’t care enough.

Or take the incident regarding the controversial response of the Los Angeles Police Department towards the graduation party consisting mostly of blacks and Latinos last academic year. Regardless of the details, there were accusations of racial profiling towards the party, something that presumably would have not happened to its white counterpart. To protest the actions of LAPD and the subsequent responses by USC, students participated in a sit-in at Tommy Trojan and LAPD and DPS held a forum the following day to discuss racial profiling. While the forum was well-attended (which was great news), the sit-in was surprisingly small and composed of mostly black students. While sitting there, we asked ourselves: Why aren’t there more students here? Where are the members of other groups who suffer discrimination in other ways? What is causing USC students to be so apolitical in the face of clear abuses of power?

Our point is not to call out specific students who didn’t participate. Instead, it is to demonstrate that these social groups continue their fight alone, delaying any substantive change. At the risk of sounding controversial, where were all the black students who so eagerly attended the sit-in at Tommy Trojan, during events against sexual harrassment? Or where were all the Latino students during the event “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes”? Why don’t these groups work together and join as one in protest? Numbers are important.

Both students and administrators need to do their part. Former UC system president Clark Kerr famously stated, “The University is not engaged in making ideas safe for students. It is engaged in making students safe for ideas.”  Administrators and officials at USC have much to learn from these wise words. Our university seems to continually stumble when it comes to student safety and substantive policy change. Instead of seeking the next multimillion dollar gift, perhaps university officials need to pay more attention to the heart and soul of the campus, the students.

For their part, students need to understand that none of us are alone in our struggles. Pundits and academics alike continue to place solidarity and a broad support base as key in bringing about change. As a lesson, the Free Speech Movement would not have been successful if it hadn’t been for their inclusion of many student groups, including the Young Socialists and the Young Republicans (something we believe USC students might find unthinkable). Just as students at Berkeley joined together against an indifferent administrative apparatus, USC students need to do the same. All of this, of course, should be done in a peaceful, but united manner.

The clever ones among us will, of course, realize that the apolitical nature of our campus actually signifies the extremely political nature of our campus. Therein lies the problem.


Juve J. Cortes 

Cameron Espinoza

Department of Political Science


11 replies
  1. Benjamin Roberts
    Benjamin Roberts says:

    Well, the truly clever ones among us will, of course, realize that the final paragraph of this column is not necessarily true at all. Political apathy is just that. Historically USC has tended to be a very centrist, or perhaps even slightly right of center, unlike public universities where students (particularly liberal or progressive students) tend to be more vocal.

    If however the writers are correct in their final paragraph assertion, then one might conclude that the “political nature” of students at USC is indeed generally more conservative, and therefore less vocal…. which in turn reveals what I suspect to be the true intention of the writers’ thesis which is that they wish USC students would be more vocal and politically active in favour of liberal causes.

    If indeed the USC campus needs to be more active politically, then may I suggest the following:

    Where was the outrage when the California Supreme Court decided that an illegal immigrant (who admitted to using false documents and to lying on countless forms through the years) was nevertheless admitted to the California Bar to practice, of all things, Law?

    Where was the outrage when Governor Brown signed into law driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants, saying, “Now they can come out of the shadows, and drive safely to their jobs.” ?

    Where was the outrage when Governor Brown (succumbing to the militant bicycle lobby) signed the law mandating drivers allow 3 feet of distance when passing cyclist on the roads… while NOT mandating or even addressing the fact that cyclist whiz past motorists with only inches to spare, and roll through stop signs and even red lights.

    Where was the outrage over our President’s delayed reaction to the clear threat posed by ISIS/ISIL after two gruesome beheading played out on the world’s stage?

    Where is the outrage over the DWP’s refusal to reveal financial records pertaining to the tax-payer funded special trusts it manages?

    Where is the outrage over the zealous grasp that public unions continue to have on our local and state budgets as they continue to cripple our economy, while their members (police, fire, teachers) continue to do everything from filing false injury claims for leave, to billing for their time when they attend funerals, to inflating their pensions by applying last-minute vacation time?

    The list is endless, but I suspect the writers of this column are really only concerned with specific activism.

    • jon
      jon says:

      This is a very silly reply and rather sadly typical of the kind of witless response than I fear is typical of many when it comes to this kind of debate. Firstly, the authors included the College Republicans of precisely the type of group they wanted to see be MORE involved. Secondly, what is left-wing about standing against sexual assault, racial harassment etc? It’s exactly the Right’s failure to even consider solutions to these problems that make them so irrelevant on campuses up and down the country. Lastly, your examples are one of national relevance rather than affect students as students on campus. That doesn’t mean that they should be cared about any less, but the authors are clearly talking about the former and your use of the latter examples is clearly designed to confuse rather than engage.

      • Benjamin Roberts
        Benjamin Roberts says:

        I don’t think my response was silly at all, and certainly not witless. To the contrary, I am told often that I elevate debate to a higher level (another reason I have the confidence to put my full name to my responses).

        Second…, my initial references to conservative vs. liberal were meant to highlight the fact that liberals tend to be far more vocal (to their credit) with their concerns than are conservatives… and, that I have observed the USC community to be slightly more conservative overall than otherwise, which might account for the fact that the authors notice less “activism” at USC.

        Third… I never suggested that the topics the authors raised were not worthy of debate or protest… or even that they were conservative or liberal.. (This is a distinction you drew.)

        Fourth.. How could you possibly suggest that my concerns or examples were offered in an effort to confuse? I was clearly suggesting that that there are all sorts of issues that deserve debate and protest, that are sadly rarely addressed by any sort of activism at USC.

        Lastly… How can you possibly suggest that the examples I provided are not of significance to students on campus? That seems very narrow-minded to me. And how are they specifically or only of “national relevance”? I’m pretty sure they are of California state and local relevance, and I don’t think the authors were suggesting that the USC community should only engage in activism that affects “students as students on campus”.

        I’m always happy to have an intellectually honest debate, but I’m afraid your response to my reply was ill-conceived and misguided.

        • jon
          jon says:

          Whoever told you that you raise the level of a debate was lying to you. And I don’t think you can accuse interlocutors of assuming things in your post when the entire premise of your initial reply was a giant assumption about the authors’ intent. Anyway, the fallacy that undermines your entire argument is that apathy is conservative. There are Students for Life and College Republicans on campus, but they are as sparsely supported as any other cause. The apathy suggested a sort of narcissistic disregard for people who are not you. This is clearly problematic. The authors are arguing for an expanded sphere of human understanding that education is arguably meant to foster, although the utilitarian turn in Higher Education has arguably undermined attempts at fostering broader ideas of citizenship. The low-profile of religious groups on campus perhaps also points to this. But then you go on to suggest that, while you understand why conservatives might be less concerned than liberals about women getting raped on campus, that it is odd that people are not more concerned by people being able to drive to work elsewhere in the State. While people should feel connected to California as a political and cultural entity, it would surprise most that this should be of more concern than far more egregious thing happening yards from where many of us sleep. So your point seemed deliberately obtuse and designed to undermine an interesting and nuanced argument by the original authors. Their article deserved better than your rather unlettered tangent.

          • Benjamin Roberts
            Benjamin Roberts says:

            Jon – Your articulate (if not verbose) response suggests it would take much more than this feeble article to earn your praise as presenting an “interesting and nuanced argument”. I’m further surprised that you are doubling down on your notion that the issues I raised should not be of concern to USC students. That notwithstanding, no one should allow your pretentious prose or narrow-minded censorship to deter them from participating in conversation and debate.

          • jon
            jon says:

            *Sigh*. For there to be a debate, you’ll have to raise your level of reading comprehension. I never said that no one should be concerned or interested in the topics you raised, just that they were irrelevant to the article under discussion. An article which deserves a lot more constructive engagement than you have clearly given it.

          • Benjamin Roberts
            Benjamin Roberts says:

            …nor did I ever suggest, or give you reason to believe, that I “understand why conservatives might be less concerned than liberals about women getting raped on campus”. You make too many personal attacks; It obscures and betrays your arguments.

          • jon
            jon says:

            I suppose it’s my “pretentious prose” and “narrow-minded censorship”! Seriously, just stop. You are not doing yourself any favors. But, indulge me by asking yourself one thing: why do you react so aggressively to being challenged to justify your own biases? Should one not learn to let go and perhaps admit one’s fallibility allows one to grow and learn?

          • Benjamin Roberts
            Benjamin Roberts says:

            Jon.. You’ve exposed yourself again. Listening to others and learning from them works both ways. You enjoy listening to yourself so much (yes, I’ve read your many other posts) that you assume others don’t also enjoy listening to you. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our conversation because I like to hear from others who disagree with me.

            My point was very simply from the beginning. I reject the sincerity of the authors’ premise, if not the premise itself. My experience has been that those seeking more activism are generally seeking more support for their own opinions. I expanded the conversation by suggesting that to the extent more activism is “needed” at USC, perhaps conservative voices are the one’s not heard… and I proposed a list of examples that I feel should be important to all citizens.

            I appreciate and value your input, and certainly your right to express yourself. I assert my right to the same, whether or not you agree.

            I assume you’ll want to have the last word.

          • jon
            jon says:

            Feel free to continue. The problem is that you have not updated a very lazy assumption right at the start, despite my many attempts to correct you, as someone who is actually on campus. So let’s give it one last try:
            a) The authors are not after people who share their opinions. They explicitly said that they want more activism from both the socialists and Republicans.
            b) The authors are saying that no real voices are heard. That’s the problem. The focal point of isolated activism listed you have already pushed back as not something conservatives should ignore. So it’s not fair to say that ‘liberal’ issues are only getting an airing. And the campus is pretty much 50:50 liberal/conservative at the moment, with overwhelming apathy being the real winner.
            c) Your list of national issues sidesteps the point the author is making: there are more than enough campus-related issues that students should care about. It seems strange to simply pick out your issues as somehow special, when there are rapes, murders, racism, educational issues etc that directly effect students on campus and should demand our energy as a community to tackle.
            d) In summary, this isn’t a partisan thing. It’s annoying when conservative trolls on this site try and make everything about conservatives vs. liberals. It’s not. And it shows a certain pathology in modern conservatism that they seem to put ideology above our common community on campus.

  2. Sarah Baldwin
    Sarah Baldwin says:

    Bravo! My son is a sophomore at USC, a political idealist, and a questioner of authority. He has been disenchanted with the lack of student activism, apathy, and complacency he senses at the university, as well as in our society at large. If our youth has lost its idealism, what is the political future of our country?

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