Giving It the Old College Outcry

Forget spring break. Flush the bowls. For real college action, check out the top 10 activist campuses.


| January/February 2002



Ever since students at the University of Wisconsin protested the presence of napalm manufacturer Dow Chemical on their campus in 1967, college students have been fighting the corporate world’s creep into the academy. During the 2000–01 school year, activists on many campuses sought to put their university’s academic mission ahead of corporate partnerships. The flawed presidential election, campus race relations, and poverty wages for university employees also raised student ire. Following is Mother Jones magazine’s 2001 ranking of the best of student activism. (It was completed before the terrorist attacks of September 11. John Nichols in The Nation magazine, however, points to Wesleyan College as leading U.S. campuses in challenging our military assault on the Afghan people.)

1. Yale University
Student protesters forced Yale and its business partner Bristol-Meyers Squibb (BMS) to relax the patent on Zerit, an AIDS drug developed by Yale scientists that brought BMS $618 million in profits in 2000. The students collaborated with Doctors Without Borders in an attempt to shame the university into making the drug cheaply available in Africa. It worked: Yale and BMS agreed to allow production of a generic version of the drug, royalty-free.

2. Pitzer College
When the seven-college Claremont consortium in California announced that it wanted to build a new biotech campus—promising industry backers broad influence over the curriculum—students at Pitzer took to the streets. They spent the summer of 2000
collecting thousands of signatures to force a public referendum on the plan. University officials shelved the proposal temporarily, but protests continued throughout the school year. At a March 2001 sit-in, students chained themselves to garbage cans filled with concrete; 10 were arrested and removed—with the aid of forklifts.

3. Pennsylvania State University
Race relations at Penn State, where African Americans make up only 4 percent of the student body, were stretched to the breaking point by a series of anonymous death threats aimed at black students. Hundreds of protesters took over the student union to demand that the administration address the climate of racial intolerance. The sit-in ended 10 days later when the school’s president promised to establish an Africana Studies Research Center and create $350,000 in new minority scholarships.

4. Harvard University
The 46 students who staged a three-week occupation of the president’s office succeeded in putting a national spotlight on the low wages the nation’s wealthiest university pays its custodial and food-service workers. The protest—which stirred debate about the living-wage movement in media as diverse as Fox News, Business Week, and The Nation—ended when Harvard promised to raise the wages of food-service workers, although other employees will continue to make considerably less.

5. Howard University
After fellow student Prince Jones Jr. was shot five times and killed by an undercover officer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in a case of mistaken identity, more than 200 Howard students marched on the U.S. Department of Justice. Their outcry caught the attention of then-Vice President Al Gore—who interrupted a campaign speech at Howard to speak out on the killing—and prompted a federal investigation of the use of lethal force by the Prince George’s police department.

6. University of Michigan
Michigan’s entrance into the Worker Rights Consortium, which polices the labor practices of university apparel licensees, initially prompted Nike to pull out of licensing negotiations with the school, but in January 2001, Nike agreed to reforms and signed a seven-year pact. Just weeks later, however, a consortium audit found that Nike was continuing to do business with a Mexican factory that had fired striking workers. Thanks to student pressure, Nike agreed to push the factory owners to improve working conditions and reinstate the workers.

7. Florida A&M University
Students at this predominantly African American school in Tallahassee were outraged at the disproportionate number of black voters disenfranchised in the 2000 presidential election. On November 10, one day into the recount, some 800 Aggies occupied three floors of the state capitol, demanding, and later winning, a meeting with Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris.

8. Oberlin College
In November 2000, 110 Oberlin students journeyed 818 miles from their Ohio campus to Fort Benning, Georgia, to demand that the army close the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The institute, formerly known as the School of the Americas, has a dark history, having trained many Latin American military officers later tied to human-rights atrocities.

9. University of California–Los Angeles
In March, a thousand UCLA students rallied to demand that the UC system reinstate affirmative action, storming the Royce Hall auditorium and forced the cancellation of a televised debate among L.A. mayoral candidates, several of whom stayed to join the protest.

10. University of Wisconsin
The Badgers stand out for their commitment to Ecopledge, an organization that attempts to persuade corporations to be more environmentally conscious. The 9,000 UW Ecopledge signers—more than a fifth of the student body—have vowed not to work for, or purchase from, the likes of Boise Cascade, Disney, or DaimlerChrysler until the companies improve their environmental records.
From Mother Jones (Sept./Oct. 2001). Subscriptions: $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 334, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.

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