In light of this year’s rise in protests on college campuses nationwide, the University of California at Los Angeles’ annual campus survey, “The American Freshman,” found the highest number of students who said they expected to participate in protests in the 50 years since the report’s conception.
The survey, a national study of the American higher education system, which began in 1966, is conducted in the fall by UCLA’s Cooperative Institutional Research Program of the Higher Education Research Institute. For this year’s report, “The American Freshman” was conducted at 200 universities, including Georgetown, with around 140,000 participants. Universities were self-selecting, and the survey only applied to freshmen.
In 2014, 5.6 percent of students stated that they were likely to participate in a student rally while in college. That number jumped to 8.5 percent of students in 2015, an all-time high. Black students surveyed were most likely to participate in a protest — with one out of six responding affirmatively. Areas of particular interest for students include high tuition costs, race, student debt and sexual assault.
Additionally, students’ political inclinations have shifted. A third of students identifies as liberal or far left, the most since 1973. Approximately one in five said they were conservative or far right, a decline from one in four in 2006. Of all students surveyed, 60 percent indicated they were likely to vote, an increase of 10 percent from last year’s findings.
Reported interest in global involvement along with a desire to help others has also increased sharply., with 74.6 percent of students stating that helping others was a personal objective, 39.8 percent responding that becoming a community leader was an essential life objective and 59.2 percent stating they aimed to deepen their understanding of other countries and cultures.
CIRP Director Kevin Eagan said the findings are an indication of increased student community engagement.
“What’s encouraging to me and what was somewhat surprising, given how drastically these numbers increased, is just a genuine interest students seemed to be taking in the world around them, and in particular issues affecting their local community,” Eagan said.
Eagan added that though the report indicates a rise in interest in campus student protests in the coming years, this does not necessarily indicate that students will act on these interests.
“I think that having an interest in these kind of issues is one thing, and I will be very interested in following these students during their college careers to understand whether any of these interests actually lead to action,” Eagan said. “Given that the students tell us that they’re incoming freshmen, that they were very likely or they thought they were very likely to protest in college, do those students actually end up going to participate in a protest while in college?”
College campuses across the country saw student demonstrations this past fall, including the University of Missouri, Harvard University, Yale University, Ithaca College and Claremont McKenna College.
At Georgetown, students organized a rally and a sit-in outside the Office of the President in November 2015 in solidarity with University of Missouri students, who began protesting against racial injustices at their institution last September. One day after the sit-in began, the Georgetown Board of Directors and President John DeGioia approved the renaming of Mulledy and McSherry Halls to Freedom Hall and Remembrance Hall, respectively.
Additionally, DeGioia proposed an African American studies department and major as well as a center for racial injustice research Feb. 4, addressing some of the demands of the students who conducted the sit-in.
Georgetown’s Black Student Alliance member Symone Wilson (COL ’19), who took part in last fall’s sit-in, said protests are more effective in initiating action than conventional discourse.
“If you just talk and talk and talk and never do anything and never exert pressure on the authorities, which you want to change, they will take it that you’re not serious and that they can disregard your demands,” Wilson said. “So I think that protests are super effective.”
Wilson cited the rally and sit-in as an example of a protest that successfully facilitated change.
“The Working Group on Slavery and Reconciliation at Georgetown, which had been in effect for a couple of months, they had had meetings and promised to change the names of things like Mulledy Hall, but it hadn’t happened yet,” Wilson said. “But then after the sit-ins at the president’s office, a day afterwards, the names were changed.”
Campbell James (SFS ’17), president of GU Pride, which hosted a solidarity event during the counter-protests against Westboro Baptist Church last April, emphasized the importance of campus protests as a means of making positive progress.
“Protests are fantastic ways of gaining attention for a specific cause if students have a plan of action that they want to implement already, not just protesting campus climate without something to change,” James said.
Charles Johnson (SFS ’19), member of Georgetown University Fossil Free, which has organized numerous protests for university divestment from fossil fuels over the past year, agreed that protesting garners the attention of administrators, an important component of enacting change. Johnson highlighted this as a central aim of GUFF’s annual Earth Day rally held in April.
“We definitely feel that this rally will have a tangible effect in getting our message across to the administration,” Johnson said. “Whenever students are showing to be in solidarity it definitely makes the administration feel like they have more incentive to actually act in the best interest of the students.”
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