I admit it, I’m old! I started college in 1968, and I was part of The Movement. In the late 1960s, high school and college campuses were centers of student activism. In addition to many others, the issues surrounding student activism included Civil Rights, SNCC, SDS, voting rights, the conflict in Vietnam, ROTC on campus, African American student needs, drugs, and feminism. As a result, student strikes, protests, and building take overs were often in the news. Each autonomous student group had their own agenda and their own form of activism, ranging from large scale protests to smaller scale teach-ins.
College and high school administrators had various responses to the students’ actions, ranging from calling in the National Guard to using constructive dialog. On many campuses, Student Affairs administrators were responsible for creating dialog with the students to put the situation at ease.
Fast forward to today. Student activism has been commodified and formal student organizations have been created to meet the perceived needs of all students. Campus leaders embrace activism as long as the activists are members of a recognized student group. Co-opting authentic and spontaneous student activism through formal student organizations is certainly good for the campus leaders.
But what does co-opting do for students?
Requiring students to use pre-approved power and organization structures is not developmental. From one perspective, co-opting authentic student organization can be seen as oppressing student activism. Institutionalizing student activism within the existing structures of student organization has advantages, but for whom, and at what cost?
Student activism channeled into recognized student organizations may be oppressing the authentic voices of students and fostering student dependence on existing social and political structures.