Students differ on the proper outlets for political activism


In an issue of the Daily Trojan from April 15, 1969, professor of education Nathaniel Hickerson wrote an article entitled “Students and the quasi-private University,” discussing the political role of college students during a particularly turbulent time in the nation’s history.

In it, he highlighted the shift of universities from institutions solely churning out working professionals to communities serving as a growing hotbed for political activism. 

“Students in large numbers are coming to view their campuses as the centers for producing socio-economic and political change in America,” Hickerson wrote. “They are in effect saying, ‘If we at the university do not spark the changes in America, then who will?’”

Sit in · Eighteen students from the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation wait outside President C. L. Max Nikias’ office in Bovard Auditorium to negotiate ending business relations with JanSport. — Daily Trojan File Photo

Sit in · Eighteen students from the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation wait outside President C. L. Max Nikias’ office in Bovard Auditorium to negotiate ending business relations with JanSport. — Daily Trojan File Photo

More than 40 years later, it seems the role of student activists across the nation is still in flux, particularly at USC. Though USC was once a predominantly conservative-leaning institution, shifting attitudes and demographics among today’s students are redefining their political role and identification on campus.

“The millennial generation sees less and less a place for them in the traditional political system,” said Dan Schnur, the executive director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics. “They are looking for other more immediate ways to make a difference.”

Schnur said he feels students today contribute heavily in volunteer and community-based engagement, a model of activism he describes as less noticeable. 

“Fifty years ago, a college student defined political involvement as marching against the Vietnam War,” Schnur said. “Today that same student is more likely to be teaching an at-risk child to read, or involved in a neighborhood watch or community clean up. Those ways of being involved don’t attract as much attention.” 

In addition to off-campus outreach, there are official student organizations on campus that work to foster a greater community for political discourse and activism. A common difficulty in such organizations, however, has been generating enough student interest in high-level political discussion. 

“Politics at USC is there and it’s growing, but it’s not one of the prime focuses of university life,” said Luke Phillips, the outgoing executive director of the Political Student Assembly. “There is a lot of academic level movement toward giving USC a higher national voice, but what I think is lacking at the moment is a simultaneous student commitment to making USC a part of the national conversation.”

PSA, founded in 2007, predominantly hosts discussions and panels relating to contemporary political issues in an effort to encourage greater student engagement. 

 “The model we’re striving for is hitting hot button political issues as they happen and planning discussions that are attended organically,” Phillips said. 

What seems to be lacking on campus, however, is the air of public student activism that was prominently seen during the 1960s and ‘70s. Phillips shared that in pursuit of promoting said discussions, there has been difficulty in accommodating students who are “more on the activist side of things.” 

“When [on-campus demonstrations] happen, it’s excellent,” Phillips said. “[But] I don’t necessarily think that expanding the amounts of sit-ins and rallies we have would necessarily make USC’s image more as a political university. That can help, but the big thing has to come in more discussion and more of the silent variety of activism.”

Not all student organizations, however, agree with idea of “behind-the-scenes” activism, a terminology some find contradictory to the type of action necessary to initiate change. 

“I love speaker panels, and I go to them frequently, and I think having an engaged discussion is very important,” said Sarah Newell, a member of the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation. “But I think the secondary step to discussion is taking those ideas and putting them into action and USC is often missing that part.”

SCALE is one of the campus’s more outspoken organizations, often emphasizing activism in the form of public demonstrations. Last spring, the group held an 18-person sit-in outside President C.L. Max Nikias’ office in Bovard Auditorium, protesting against the school’s relationship with JanSport, a company that SCALE members assert utilizes sweatshop labor practices. 

Newell said the university has reached such a point where it is now necessary to work outside the system, and hence necessitates public disobedience.  

“Genuine political activism that’s going to make genuine change is always going to have to go outside the lines,” Newell said, “Since the ’60s and ’70s, political activism has changed because our universities have figured out ways to channel student energy into something that they control. They’ve created power structures, and they’ve allowed us to do what we want within the power structures they created, but genuine political activity challenges the accepted power structures.”

The two sides of the spectrum, however, seem to agree on one thing: The political role of USC’s students is changing, and the university administration must do more to foster that growth. 

“We have the same goal — we both want to see a better USC,” Newell said. “I think the new USC student coming forward in the next 10 years is going to be very politically conscious. As a university, [USC] has to figure out how to adapt to that.”