s student activism flourishing or on its way out? The answer is yes to both. It just depends on where you look for student activism. This short piece uses ethnographic data to examine student activism in higher education today. It is our experience that there is little space on campus today for organizing student-led resistance calling for radical change to university policy. The majority of spaces of “activism” we see on campuses today are those produced by and for administrations, usually through student affairs divisions, in order to commodify and control dissent on campus. The shiny social justice activism sold by universities is marketed in student friendly packages in spaces that offer no real autonomy or control over programming for students. Liz’s work documents this through the story of the administrative push-back met by student activists in student government when they step outside of accepted forms of dissent. Unfortunately, this push-back can manifest in psychologically violent forms. Becky’s work examines this through the stories of student activist groups, and the faculty that support them, moving outside of sanctioned student group systems or off campus in response to the enclosure of their activist spaces. These strategic moves are necessary in order to create and maintain the sort of social action and community they desire. Both of us work with student activists that take on the big issues and in manners that make waves and rock not only the boat, but the whole institution. In order to distinguish these students from the student activists working within the system on their campuses we will call them the resistors because their activism is more radical, controversial and confrontational than most of that being done by other student activists.

This intervention is written by only two people, but it expresses the words and opinions of many more. The ideas we share here are based on a total of 20 years of ethnographic field work with student activists in the California State University System. During this time our relationship with each other and the activists has moved in and out of multiple roles. We have been colleagues in protest, classrooms and on committees, friends, mentors and mentees, researchers and participants. In our working relationships, we strive to reimagine the traditional power structures of higher education and acknowledge we always have much yet to learn from each other. The defining characteristic we choose to promote in our relationships is collaboration, a quality we see less and less in higher education today. The corporate machine of higher education pushes faculty to focus on getting ahead and keeping ahead, while students are pushed to single-mindedly focus on the end result, “finish in four.” In an environment like this, the desire to collaborate often falls to the side in favor of the individual attainment so characteristic of neoliberalism. Yet the control of the neoliberal corporate university is not complete. There are students and faculty that choose every day to make community, social change, and the common good their goal over the individualistic neoliberal status quo (Brown 2015). Even amongst administrators and their staff, collaboration, or at least hints of it, is possible. Over the years of this research administrators and their staff expressed quiet empathy for the work of these outspoken activists. Hushed conversations of, “I agree with you completely and I wish I could join you, but I work at the behest of the President and I need this job,” were described by activists on several campuses. Clearly, the corporate university is not a “safe space” for self-reflexive critique by anyone in the university community.

Our work together examines the crucial role student activists play in current movements to challenge the corporate university. In particular, our work with outspoken and confrontational student activist groups teaches us the neoliberal goals of the corporate university (Bousquet 2008; Busch 2017) are most productively challenged by students organizing outside and across campuses. This organizing may be done by groups that have chapters on multiple campuses or by local groups that ally themselves with groups with similar views at nearby campuses. In both cases, the focus of interventions is policy on their own campuses in the greater California State University system, but the location of their organizational bases differ. After varying years of work within and beside student movements in California’s largest public university system, our projects came to a similar conclusion: the greatest threat to student activism for meaningful social change and for the development of student activists is the corporatization of higher education. The primary aspects of the corporatization process that work to destroy autonomous student activism are the heightened need for image control necessary to compete as a corporate university and the attending commodification, packaging, and marketing of all sellable aspects of higher education (Smyth 2017). 

Based on our conclusions, the following three themes emerge from our work. First, the corporate university will enclose spaces of possible politicization in order to keep dissent and resistance under control (Dolhinow 2017). Second, once these activist commons are enclosed, administrations take over the work of social change formerly done in these spaces in an effort to tame and commodify dissent and sell it in the popular guise of “social justice” training. The corporate university’s goal here is to replace any form of politicized dissent on campus with their own version. This way, students have no venues into confrontational social justice-based activist practices but rather many opportunities to be social justice tourists, experiencing second hand, watered down, and toothless versions of social justice for social change. Third, in order to keep social justice work under their control, be it in diversity centers or through student government events and resolutions, administrators and staff use threats of emotional violence to stop challenges to the commodification of dissent and the development of openly political social justice work. 

In the last five years or so, Becky and Liz noticed a new bully was set loose to control student social justice work. This visually and rhetorically ubiquitous bully is “diversity” and today the concept is employed to channel and control the shape of social justice work on campuses across the country. The resistors and the faculty that support them express nearly universal commendation for university diversity initiatives. These campaigns are described as “phony,” “dangerous,” “useless,” and most commonly “bullshit.” Students and faculty alike view campus diversity campaigns as a performance done in place of actually doing any meaningful work for change (Ahmed 2012, p. 117). For many faculty, Student Affairs run centers, including cultural centers, fit well into Ahmed’s discussion of diversity and “non-performance” spaces. In these spaces, “naming can be a way of not brining something into effect (117).” In these administration-controlled spaces “non-performative” acts can be used to constitute “activist” subjects whom replicate and continue to produce no real change. In order to achieve complete direction of activist subject formation spaces of confrontational activists must be enclosed for total control.

Cooptation of Student Activist Spaces

Over 15 years of talking with student activists and the faculty that support them on California State University campuses, Becky’s work documents a clear movement toward the enclosure of autonomous activist spaces. These spaces need not be entirely student run, although those spaces go first, as any space in which student activists can exert control over programming and goals becomes a target for enclosure. The term enclosure is used here in relation to activist commons spaces: autonomous and semi-autonomous spaces student activists create when left to their own devices (Bollier 2014; Dolhinow 2017; Pickerill & Chatterton 2006). It is these spaces that threaten the corporate university the most. Like most commons, these spaces are produced organically out of the needs of the commoners (activists) based on their shared resources and beliefs. These spaces become a refuge for students who want to lead but do not fit the models of leadership offered by the university. These spaces, produced by and for students who often feel outside the corporate university system, are where they spend much of their time. In these spaces, they create community, support each other’s needs, and plan programming that brings resistant social justice ideas, activists, and campaigns to their campus. These spaces often grow and do tremendous work until their work becomes too visible and the administration can no longer look away. For example, Becky and Liz both experienced the enclosure of a popular Ethnic Studies department cultural center at a campus on which we work. The students that ran this center created for themselves an inviting, comfortable, and supporting space that was always full. Students in this program worked hard for the space, the furniture, the computers, and the ability to keep the doors open all day. Even though the center was based in an Ethnic Studies program the students did a great job bringing in students from other majors that shared their cultural identity. The space was a huge success and faculty from across campus came by and lead impromptu discussions and mentored students. The space united a deeply marginalized population on the campus and moved on to more radical work such as organizing marches and sit-ins. Soon after this more activist turn the administration moved the space from the control of Ethnic Studies, an academic unit, to Student Affairs. Student Affairs staff were assigned daily roles in the space and within two years the center itself was enclosed and moved into a larger Student Affairs complex. Students report the space no longer feels the same and their autonomy is gone.

Sometimes enclosure is slow and sneaky. In this situation, more resistant activists push back for a while until they realize the space is no longer for them but is now all about controlled and commodified dissent. When this happens, administrations remove the unpredictable factors, such as student directed programming and campaign development, so the university no longer has to worry that their reputation may be tarnished by the actions of a rogue group of student activists. In other situations, enclosure is more direct. This is currently the case for cultural centers across the country. On several of the campuses on which Becky and Liz work, the universities recently created “Diversity” divisions in their administrations. These could be entirely new divisions with new administrators and staff or new sub-divisions of already existing Human Resources units. A common first step once this type of division is created is to move cultural centers, such as African American Studies Centers, Asian American Studies Centers, or Women’s and LGBTQ Centers out of the academic units in which they were born and into new spaces under the direction and control of the new “Diversity” divisions. In the opinion of more confrontational student activists this move, which can physically group cultural centers together in one building, can create “diversity museums” or “zoos.” Spaces in which students feel on display for the sake of producing visible diversity. Activists wonder who is best served by these spaces, students or university diversity initiatives in their quest to create visible results.

Students in these new cultural center spaces do “activism” and express their “dissent” but only in the terms, offered up, interpreted, and controlled by the administration. The control of dissent and its marketing has been traced by student activists to many spaces on campus such as diversity centers and student government. According to a student club faculty advisor involved in social justice work on campus, administrative enclosure follows closely behind social justice work. This faculty member is concerned with the use of cultural centers and diversity programs as methods to control dissent and manage historically disenfranchised groups as they learn to use their political voices.

So, and this is the conflict.  They are using Student Affairs multi-cultural knowledge from journals and their professional societies and their workshops they get from the professional societies.  They are not basing this in the academic research that we engage in and do.  So, there is a gulf, so that the students are constantly admonished in terms of you know appropriate, non-offensive language to use, and, and what students are learning… But it’s very superficial without understanding, what’s the history, what’s the ideology, what’s the theory, what’s the you know, who are the people affiliated with, where that idea came from before it was lifted and borrowed into Student Affairs literature?  

The control of content in social justice work in cultural centers disturbs many faculty and more confrontational activists. Many expressed to Becky that the functional language of social justice served by Student Affairs made students feel “woke” with the right buzz words but gave them little critical educational foundation from which to utilize this language. This history of social justice movements and their genealogies was lost. The central idea of social justice education, to understand and address one’s own oppression, was lost as well. In the words of the same faculty member, “[T]hey [students] can parrot a lot and ventriloquize a lot of the ideas, but they don’t have anything deeper like where does this come from and where can I get further support in this?  They don’t know that they can go for sexuality gender issues to some of the multi-cultural curriculum in Woman Studies or Chicano Studies or African American Studies et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.” Most of the faculty and student activists with whom Becky spoke, had stories of students in classes using the language of “social justice.” Yet when pressed or challenged these students often fell back on the idea that if you do not use this language exactly as they were taught in their workshops then you are wrong and practicing some sort of discrimination. They had little room for deeper discussions or questions of narrative. Their understanding was usually based on polished presentations. They were not familiar with the critical thinking and often messy and difficult discussions of historical power relations necessary to examine social injustices and produce social change. 

The surveillance present in administratively run cultural centers and “activist” spaces is another problem for the resistors. It makes these spaces unfriendly for confrontational student activist groups. This is due to differences in ideology as well as fear of further enclosure of their activism. A member of a confrontational student group that focuses on fair educational access for all racial groups in their community puts it this way,

And with the cross-cultural centers and other places we’ve met in the [Student] building–because what we want most in those meetings is privacy, the privacy to say what we need to without having someone’s co-worker or their supervisor or their boss hear. So, when we have been speaking in, like, the cultural centers it’s always been hushed, and it’s always been a bit more reserved in how we actually go about what we’re doing. Again, it was never an official meeting.  But that space is not one we feel safe to speak freely in.

The faculty mentor and activist quoted here are from different campuses, yet both have worries about the cooptation of student cultural centers by their administrations. On their campuses, a new division was created to encompass all activities and centers that relate to “diversity.” Both people clearly express doubt that this move is the right idea and have support for this opinion from their colleagues. Becky had many conversations with activists and faculty about the dangers of diversity centers detached administratively and physically from their related academic units. Liz has lived experiences of these dangers. Both students and faculty shared Liz’s fears that the new “diversity” based cultural centers lacked the political edge they had when housed in academic settings. “Ethnic Studies is about teaching anti-racism and strategies for making social and systematic changes…We are not about celebrating or highlighting differences…leave that to corporations or higher ed. administrators…who like safe colorful things.” This quote is from an Ethnic Studies Professor and critic of institutionalized cultural centers and diversity programs that operate based on the belief that celebrating difference will lead to all the change necessary for equality. Perhaps the most important word in this quote is “safe.” This distinction between safe, university sanctioned social justice, and the confrontational social justice for change activism practiced by the student activists discussed here is what makes resistant activists feel unsafe in many “social justice” spaces on campus.

The Dark Side of Student Leadership

[University administration] make you do a lot of busy work that I felt like didn’t do shit. I sat in hours of meetings that meant nothing. They would say that I was the voice of the students, but I was one voice in that room and often my voice was shut down anyways. What the fuck does that one voice mean to a room with a bunch of administrators? The very same people who were either threatening me with lawsuits or purposely manipulating the conversations. I meant nothing in all of those meetings. They just wanted to keep me busy and control me whenever I had an idea. – Dani, Student Government Vice President

Our university president has threatened students, and he has manipulated students. I heard so many things about him and so when I worked directly with him in a particular leadership position in student affairs, before I became Associated Student president, I wanted to see it from his side. I went into that position wanting to be open minded and came at it with a very positive approach. I gave him the benefit of the doubt even though I heard so many bad things about him. Well I started to have my own experiences with him. He started harassing me over issues I would bring to him. He would straight out tell me that he didn’t have to do anything about [these issues] . . . Students came to me to discuss sexual violence and rapes instances that were occurring amongst the athletes. I took all this information to our university president and he would tell me that this isn’t his problem and that he didn’t have to do anything about it. . . When I became Associated Student president and worked with him more, I received open ended threats when I was with him behind closed doors. - Anna, Student Government President

Anna and Dani were both student leaders and activists. They attended different campuses but were united as California State University students. At the time of their interviews they were wrapping up their final semester as undergraduates. Both Dani and Anna invested time serving students in their formal roles, but they also pushed boundaries by participating in a California State University student activist coalition which is where Liz met them. They all participated in student campaigns that resisted the privatization of higher education and the cultural shift that comes along with the corporate setting. Both Dani and Anna are still well respected in the student activist community even after graduating. They maintain this respect because they were transparent in their efforts to organize against the administration. However, those efforts did not come without risk. They both developed severe anxiety that led to physical and emotional trauma. The research that Liz conducted, and their own lived experiences as a student government leader and activist, revealed that this was not an uncommon experience for student leaders who engage in dissent. Anna, Dani, Liz, and many other students like them revealed that there is an unspoken dark side to student government activism. Students have, and still do, receive threats, face constant manipulation, and are often emotionally abused by corrupt administrators. 

Through Liz’s research, and their time organizing on California State University campuses from 2016-2019, they found that community and storytelling empowered students because they were able to experience forms of validation from each other. One student would share a story describing traumatic experiences with administration and another student would shout with excitement “me too!” This excitement comes from a desire to be heard and connect with others in similar situations. Once students connected through acts of validation and storytelling, this experience often led to the development, or further formulation, of collective identity, consciousness raising, and movement participation (Zomerman, Postmes, and Spears 2008). Liz’s work with a statewide student coalition gave them first hand experience of students strategizing to have their voices heard. They would do this by disrupting the Board of Trustees, student government meetings, protesting directly on California State University campuses, and the California state capital. Yet, through what Liz describes as anti-student activism strategic planning by the administration, these campaigns would become hard to sustain and often fade away. There were certainly victories had, such as stopping a tuition increase, introducing progressive student government resolutions, and high lighting significant campus issues, but administrations always found a way to slow down the progression of a campaign to the point it simply dissolved. Liz observed the same commodification of dissent used to coopt or shut down confrontational student activism Becky saw. The students Liz interviewed and all the students they worked alongside within the coalition revealed that administration’s packaged social justice and diversity initiatives and their alleged passion to help all students understand social inequality were simply a marketing scheme.  A marketing scheme that kept many students satisfied, quiet, and disinterested in more resistant forms of activism.

In their work, Liz also uncovered similarities between corporate commodification of dissent in higher education and the professionalization of student government. The stress on climbing the political ladder in student government, purposefully cultivating experience, and grooming oneself for professional life after graduation created very paternal power relationships between members of student government and their staff advisors. Those in student government who do not want to fit into this model threaten the system and most be controlled. Academic repression comes in many different forms (e.g. student conduct policies, university police action, and legal ramifications) and administrators engage in tactics of surveillance and harassment to deter student activists from engaging in political action (Nocella, Best, & Mclaren 2010; Strong 2013). Many of the students with whom Liz organized, and all those they interviewed for this research, had stories of being pressured into obeying administrators’ demands. And at times, students were even threatened with suspension and the loss of academic and employment opportunities all in an effort to keep their confrontational activism in check.

Due to administrative intimidation tactics, neoliberal diversity initiatives, and the influence of dominant culture of professionalism and success, for many students it was often necessary to rationalize the costs and gains of movement participation. When university administrations are such a large presence in student life and co-curricular programming, students are actively subject to dominant ideals of university practices including professional development and non-confrontational civic engagement. During student coalition organizing efforts, this led to student mobilizing challenges. Activists often came across students who sympathized with their cause but decided the best investment of time was their studies and working within administration approved civic practices, such as working in an administrative controlled cultural center, joining honor societies, and/or pledging to Greek sororities and fraternities. This division was a stress factor for student organizers. Not only did they have to struggle with administrations, but at times, they had to struggle with their fellow students.

Our Work: What’s at Stake

“Is This The Hill You Want To Die On?” 

With every decision I tried to make, Admin or ASI [Associated Student Inc.] staff were hanging over me and would constantly ask me “Is this the hill that you want to die on? Is this the hill you want to die on? Is this the hill that you want to die on?” It was so stressful and depressing. My time in ASI was a constant state of anxiety. I cried every day. But that’s what they aim to do, right? They keep poor people busy and scared, so they won’t revolt, so they do the same to student activists, so they won’t revolt either.  

Several activists mentioned this phrase as something administrators and others would use to threaten them. The quotes Liz offers, from experienced student activists, pull together several of the central themes in Becky’s work as well. When administrations enclose or coopt activist spaces, student activists are forced to express dissent and create change from within administration run and directed spaces or leave the system. Any effort to give voice to nonconforming dissent in these spaces is met with push-back. Sometimes this pushback is as simple as close monitoring that induces a lack of privacy: at other times it can be threats to a student’s future livelihood. The other option left for non-conforming student activists is to move their clubs and organizations outside the traditional system. This usually means not registering with their institution and functioning as an entity outside of direct university control. These groups have to follow all of the rules that apply to any organization visiting campus but avoid the extra level of control exerted by the rules set forth for registered campus groups. The downside of the non-registered position is the lack of funding and access to space for events on campus. All of the non-registered groups Liz and Becky encountered had strong coalitions with registered groups, often saying things the registered groups wanted to say but could not say themselves. These coalitions gave access to campus spaces and at times even funds.

Every confrontational activist and group we met chose to climb this hill no matter the consequences. Sometimes the consequences were personal: many students described problems with family members, friends, and partners who did not understand why they would put so much time into topics that might not address them directly or could get them into trouble. Other times, the consequences were academic, as many activists missed class for actions and meetings and left their homework for after their activist work. For a few, the consequences were more extreme, and they were bullied by those with more power who felt challenged by their activism and visibility. Visibility is a common theme in our work. Student activists want it and the corporate university only likes the type it produce itself. The corporate university has no love for the visibility confrontational student activism produces. For both of us, visibility is also an issue. Our activism with and research on student activists puts strain on our relationships with our university. No one likes to be critiqued and when those in power are put on the spot they have their power to use to defend themselves. Becky, of course, as a tenured faculty member has much more power with which to bargain. Yet the publication of these data burns bridges and makes relationships with the administration at her own university strained. Liz is completing a Masters’ thesis with this research and would like to teach locally when done. Their reputation in local academia, at both administrative and classroom levels, matters to their livelihood in very serious ways right now. We know the only way to change the cooptation of social justice and diversity in the corporate university is to support and encourage student resistors in their efforts on and off campus. And this is the work we are dedicated to continue and spread. We, like these student activists, will always choose this hill.

Currently, in our world, this hill is a state-wide Ethnic Studies requirement for the California State University System. The debates surrounding this issue have united faculty and students in a desire to reexamine “diversity” and “social justice” on our campuses. We see this moment as an extraordinary opportunity and a glorious hill on which to, as a community of learners, overturn existing neoliberal ideas of diversity as a thing to attain and move forward with an understanding of diversity as an active process and way of life. Many of the student activists, groups, and coalitions in this research are central players today in this statewide battle. Their positions outside of university sanctioned social justice spaces makes them uniquely qualified to unite multiple student groups and ally themselves with like-minded faculty and staff.

Rebecca (Becky) Dolhinow is an Associate Professor of Women and Gender Studies at California State University, Fullerton. Her work with immigrant, student, and feminist activists focuses on the production of activist spaces and the role of governmentality in these spaces.

Liz Sanchez is a student in the sociology master's program at California State University, Fullerton. Their research broadly examines the dynamics of student political organizing and its interaction with administrative bureaucracy within higher education.