Tag Archives: student movements

successful student movements

Amanda Girard | November 10, 2015

Here are lessons from some of the most successful student movements in history.

During the last 50 years, college campuses have been known as havens of activism for the biggest issues of the time, where students organize to demand change. Here are 7 actions from campuses both in the US and around the world that left a lasting impact for generations to come.

  1. University of Missouri Student Strike (2015)

Missouri, home of the Ferguson Uprising that launched the nationwide Black Lives Matter movement, has a long history of racism. President Harry Truman, who was born and raised in Missouri, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The leader of the largest KKK-affiliated group also lives in Missouri. After a string of racial incidents at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) targeting black students, a group of black Mizzou students decided they had enough, and presented a petition to Tim Wolfe — Mizzou’s president — to step down. Other demands included a 10 percent quota for black faculty and staff by the 2017-2018 academic year, racial awareness curriculum, and more funding for mental health professionals to help students cope with racism on campus.

The protest received national attention when black players for Mizzou’s nationally-renowned football team pledged to go on strike until Wolfe was no longer president. After Mizzou football coach Gary Pinkel tweeted his support of his support for the players’ strike, Wolfe stepped down this week.

  1. Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-Ins (1960)

In 1960, a small group of students at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College in Greensboro, NC, protested segregation by simply sitting at the whites-only Woolworth’s lunch counter and asking for menus. Angry white southerners attacked the seated students, and hundreds more joined the sit-ins in the following days. Once the protest attracted national media attention, the actions of racist white segregationists were captured on live TV, creating nationwide outrage. As a result, lunch counters were desegregated months later. The action sparked the creation of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was responsible for many more notable civil rights protests on college campuses across the country.

This scene from Lee Daniels’ The Butler perfectly captures the horrific brutality of the racist white attackers, and the steely courage of the protesters:

  1. Columbia Apartheid Protests (1985)

In 1985, approximately 150 students at New York City’s prestigious Columbia University chained themselves to Hamilton Hall in protest of the university’s investments in companies that did business with South Africa’s apartheid regime. Students padlocked doors and blocked access to the building for over three weeks in spite of court orders demanding they move. Ultimately, Columbia conceded to the students’ demands, selling off investments that amounted to 4 percent of the university’s total portfolio.


Columbia students demanding divestment from South Africa, 1985.

  1. South Africa’s Fees Must Fall Protests (2015)

Last month, South African students won an historic victory in defeating a planned 11.5 percent tuition hike for the following academic year by taking to the streets. However, the Fees Must Fall protests became about more than tuition, with students protesting the persistent systemic racism and inequality of South Africa that’s remained even after the fall of the apartheid regime. For example, South Africa’s richest 1 percent of citizens own 393 times more wealth than the bottom 10 percent, combined. 60 percent South Africa’s black residents live below the national poverty line. And South Africa’s youth unemployment rate for those aged 15-24 is a staggering 50 percent.

While students have defeated the tuition hike, they aren’t stopping — South African students have escalated their demands, calling for free public college education as a right.


South Africans protesting tuition hikes, unequal hiring of university staff, and systemic inequality.

  1. Fossil Fuel Divestment Protests (2011-Present)

Since 2011, students at hundreds of colleges and universities around the country and the world have successfully pushed their schools to sell off their investments in the fossil fuel industry, in an effort to deprive funding to the companies responsible for global climate change. The divestment movement’s tactics include everything from marches, to blockades, to walkouts, and Twitter storms. To date, over 470 institutions have divested $2.6 trillion in fossil fuel investments. Divesting institutions include the University of California system, the World Council of Churches, and even the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.


One of 350.org’s Fossil Free actions on a London campus.

  1. Chilean Student Protests (2011-Present)

Starting in 2011, students in Chile — known for its crippling inequality — organized massive street protests to demand free public college education, more funding for public secondary schools (Chile only spends 4.4 percent of GDP on public education, compared to the UN standard of 7 percent), and the end of privatized higher education. Students across Chile formed the Confederation of Chilean Student Federations to organize coordinated nationwide strikes and walkouts, led by Camilla Vallejo.

Last year, a Chilean protester calling himself “Fried Potatoes” burned $500 million in student debt papers in protest of high tuition rates. Due to sustained protests, the Chilean government is now instituting tuition-free college beginning in 2016, funded by a tax on wealthy corporations that will generate $8.2 billion in new revenue. And student leader Camilla Vallejo is also now a member of Chile’s parliament.


Thousands of Chilean student protesters and supporters march for free education, 2011.

  1. Quebec Student Protests (2012-Present)

The original 2012 student protests in Montreal, Quebec were known as the “Maple Spring,” in which tens of thousands of students shut down city streets in protest of both a massive tuition hike and an anti-protest law that was passed by the Jean Charest regime in a futile attempt to force students off the streets. After doubling down on their protests, Quebec’s students went to the polls and voted out Jean Charest. One of the first actions of the new government was to repeal the tuition hikes and the anti-protest law.

However, Quebec’s students are back in the streets this time, demanding not only free higher education, but an end to austerity politics, environmental degradation, and higher taxes for the rich, among other policies. This past March, over 60,000 students took to the street

Student action is at a fever-pitch — this Thursday, the #MillionStudentMarch, a national walkout for free public college tuition and the cancellation of student debt, is taking place at over 100 college campuses across the country. Learn more at studentmarch.org.

What determines student activism?

What determines university students’ political mobilization in an era when about a quarter of young people of their age group are university students? Editors of a book on Student Activism in Asia (2012), researching student social movements post-war to the early 21st century, found university student activism is inconsistent with periods of activity and inactivity. Most are liberal, aiming for democracy, but some movements are right wing or religious. Even in peak periods, most students are not involved although they are often gathered together on urban campuses, they’re taught to think critically, they don’t have families to support, and they’re usually allowed some form of student government organization. Student power is based on self-identity as an activist, influenced by the university system, the government, other social movements and allies, and the national economic development.[1] As democracy spreads, universities expand, and international models fade, these forces oppose massive student movements. Like other scholars, they didn’t predict the youth-led uprisings of 2011.

The post-colonial expansion of access to universities replacing a few elite universities led to a decrease in activism as students no longer felt privileged by their special status to monitor their governments. Also, more graduates are associated with more competition for jobs and more unemployment, and therefore more caution about challenging the status quo. Some movements encouraged students in other countries and participated in international student organizations, but their activism was mainly localized. The waves identified by Weiss and Aspinall are a leftist egalitarian wave during the Cold War from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, a New Left wave protesting government emphasis on economic development starting in the late 1960s to the 1980s, and a wave for democracy in opposition to authoritarian regimes beginning in the 1980s in a period of massification of the university system. Transnationalism was made more difficult by censorship of student media. Weiss and Aspinall reported a decline in the power of student protests in the last two decades.[2] Student movements are most likely to arise when other political forces are repressed: “Authoritarian regimes and student protest are often entwined in a fateful embrace.”[3] Their research would explain student activism of 2011 and beyond as enabled by spread of social media that exposed the corruption of ruling regimes and enabled protesters to learn from their peers around the world.

[1] Weiss and Aspinall, p. 28.

[2] Weiss and Aspinall, p. 281.

[3] Weiss and Aspinall, p. 282.