Protest Long a Part of Campus Life

Eric Johnson

American universities are full of weird contradictions. One of the most striking is the way they nurture radical ideas while operating with a deep-seated conservatism. We think of colleges as bastions of activism and social change, and they can be. But as institutions, universities are slow to change, bound to tradition, and deeply rooted in a particular place and culture.
That’s part of the reason campus conflicts seem so intense. The idealism and energy of youth run headlong into the dense and deliberative bureaucracy of centuries-old institutions that need four advisory committees and a task force to tweak parking policies.
In that way, college activism is a lot like American politics. Demands for urgent action collide with systems of government that were designed from the beginning to be slow, to require a lot of discussion and compromise before anything really happens. Change in our constitutional democracy has often required marching in the streets, but almost always alongside a focused, disciplined effort to move the gears of government.
“You have to learn the difference between mobilizing and organizing,” explained Joy Williamson-Lott, a professor at the University of Washington College of Education. She Zoomed into the American Professoriate class last month for a discussion on how change happens at universities and how social movements translate ideas into policy. She told the graduate students in the class that protest plays an important role, but it has to be complemented with a sustained inside game to be effective.
You hold a rally, and you show up to the faculty assembly meeting week after week. You launch a social media campaign, and you carefully lobby administrators. “Accountability and organizing can be super boring, but that’s how institutional change happens,” Williamson-Lott explained.
It was a great lesson, and it made me think about Carolina’s long history of creating room for intense dissent without undermining faith in the University or in the country. There’s been a lot of angst over the last few years about student activism and young people’s attitudes toward democracy, but even the most cursory glance through Chapel Hill’s past shows that those anxieties have been around for decades.
Some of the largest student protests in American history happened in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, sparked by the Vietnam War and ongoing demands for racial justice. The National Guard deployed to colleges across the country, President Nixon launched a Commission on Campus Unrest, and more than 6,000 Carolina students went on strike in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings.
“We go on strike to open up a new university, to create a free university,” declared Student Body President Thomas Bello in a May 1970 speech that also contained some harsh words for state and national politicians. “We strike to establish a university that will espouse what this society so desperately needs: mutual love, respect, and understanding.” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor J. Carlisle Sitterson faced intense pressure from alumni and state leaders to expel disruptive protestors and fire the faculty members who joined them.
Into this fray stepped UNC President William C. Friday, gently reminding everyone that college campuses are not alien outposts but a mirror of American society. “To my knowledge, the vast majority who have participated in these demonstrations on our campuses and others are our own sons and daughters, nieces and nephews,” he wrote. “During all the years before enrolling in the University, these young people have been developing their sense of values, their standards, and judgments by what they learned from us as parents in our homes and by what they were taught in our schools and in our churches. It is our task to help each student build on this base, to broaden his knowledge, to deepen his understanding of our society, and to qualify himself for a useful and meaningful life.”
Friday went on to explain that while the University itself would remain politically neutral, it would support the right of students and faculty to speak and protest within the bounds of the law. “I believe it is a constructive and wholesome thing for students to engage in political activity,” Friday wrote. “It is encouraging to see their energies and talents so constructively channeled.”
Channeling those energies means not only protecting the right to speak and protest but insisting on the responsibility to serve. One of the problems with our public life right now, both on campus and off, is that people are impatient with the actual work of governing. Institutions don’t move at the speed of Twitter, and changing people’s minds takes a lot more patience and discipline than rallying your own side.
Universities are at their best when they insist that American institutions can be allies in the fight for progress and that politics and protest are two sides of the same coin.
Eric Johnson works for the College Board, the UNC System, and sometimes for UNC-Chapel Hill. He can be reached at


Looking to book the authors for an event or a Campus Conversation? Question from the media? Comment from a reader? Complete this form and we'll get back to you.

Buy The Book