Words are not enough. College students across the nation are demanding swift action to combat what they say is a wave of intolerance and ignorance on campuses. And, thanks to the lessons learned from the Black Lives Matter movement and the power of social media, they're having results — immediate, game-changing results.
Months of protests at the University of Missouri led to the ousting of school president Tim Wolfe on Monday (Nov. 9), followed by the school's chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin. A similar push is being made at Ithaca College, where a Chief Diversity Officer was announced on Wednesday (Nov. 12) after 1,000 students staged a walk-out. Tensions on the Yale campus have continued to rise after a series of racially charged incidents that student protesters say have made them feel unsafe at the Ivy.
Those bold actions by students have sparked a wave of similar demonstrations across the nation, with many using social media to both spread the word and claim solidarity with their peers. More than 20 such demonstrations were planned this week, from Syracuse to Smith to Harvard to Columbia, with students at Loyola University in Chicago preparing their own list of demands from their school's administration.
What is behind this the new face (and force) of campus activism? How have these students raised their voices so loudly, and why are administrations suddenly listening so intently?
Part of it stems from the power of social media to instantly put campus concerns on a national (even international) platform, forcing administrations to show accountability and respond to the public airing of their schools' safety and inclusivity shortfalls.
MTV News spoke to a number of campus activists about the speed with which this protest movement is spurring accountability, and what they hope this protest movement will mean for them and their peers.
Students Need A Place At The Table, And They Demand It Now
Last week at Ithaca College students stormed the stage while president Tom Rochon was speaking at a forum about racism and cultural bias. As the administration pledged to focus on "significant advancement in the campus climate for diversity and inclusion," students chanting "Tom Rochon -- no confidence!" overtook the stage and led hundreds out of the room to a rally outside.
Students have a number of grievances, from the offensive theme of a recent fraternity party to an Oct. 8 event during which two alumni repeatedly used the word "savage" to refer to a third — who was a woman of color. The President of IC's Student Government Association, Dominick Recckio, told MTV News that the root of the problem is the lack of student representation in major decisions at the college and students feeling that the response to racially insensitive incidents is not what it should be.
"It just highlights the lack of administrative understanding of what the student body goes through and the unfortunate part is that things need to come to a head all at once," said Recckio, 21, a senior who cites his love of Batman as one of the motivations for his orientation towards seeking justice.
In an op-ed in The Ithacan, the college's Student Government Association (SGA) senator Charlotte Robertson wrote that "though Rochon has increased racial diversity on our campus, he has not built the infrastructure to support and retain student of color."
Robertson, 20, told MTV News she's heard and seen more dialogue about issues of racial inequality than ever before this school year, some of it facilitated by the administration, some by students and some by a group called the POC at IC (People of Color at Ithaca College). She also noted that the Black Lives Movement has had a huge influence on how IC students are voicing their discontent.
The POC at IC is just one a handful of similar organizations across the country that are demanding accountability from their administrations, through protests, hashtag activism and bold calls for changes from the top down. POC at IC declined to respond to MTV News' request for comment, but a spokesperson pointed to an announcement listing the group's demands.
In addition to the list, the POC staged a silent "die-in" protest on the campus quad on Wednesay (Nov. 11). "While we can not demand that everyone participate, we hope that you will show solidarity with us by laying on this ground, chanting with us, and simply being with us in this space."
Social Media Has Totally Changed The Protest Game
This is not the first time college students have demanded change through protest movements and direct action. A similar wave of anti-war and anti-racism rallies shook the nation's universities in the 1960s, but University Of Wisconsin-Madison sociology professor Pamela E. Oliver told MTV News this generation's voices have a new, much bigger megaphone.
Oliver said information spread rapidly in the 1960s thanks to television, but that channel of communication was more "centralized and controlled by a few major media outlets." The word also got out through some other non-mainstream channels like alternative radio programs, telephone, magazines and pamphlets that were effective, but much slower.
"New media make the communication a lot faster," she said.
While the focus on the "administration must go" message feels newly urgent, she said that too is a "very old" protest demand that often surfaces around these issues. "The demand is made a lot more often than it is listened to enough to be even taken as serious," she said.
However, it does happen -- as in the case at Mizzou -- and it can be very effective.
"Sacking an administrator is logical if you think their actions or inactions are causing problems," she said. "And even if the administrator actually isn’t the problem, successfully sacking an administrator can demonstrate movement power and improve a movement’s strategic position for getting what it wants."
What's different this time is that the calls for change from the top aren't just being heard on one campus, but potentially instantly shared at every campus, spreading the movement with a speed and magnitude that was previously unthinkable.
A spokesperson for Ithaca responded to MTV News' query about how the university is handling student unrest and calls for change with a statement that read, in part, "We will never shy away from encouraging our community to raise tough questions and sharp insights about how to ensure that the college is living up to its ideals ... Issues surrounding racial and cultural bias deserve and are receiving the full attention of the president."
Using Facebook To Change The Game
Unlike at Mizzou, Recckio and his colleagues are not focusing on forcing the president to step down (though some have also demanded that). Instead, on Oct. 26 the college's Student Government Association (SGA) voted unanimously for a student vote of no confidence on Rochon, marking the first time a student body had made such a move before the faculty — and driving home students' lack of faith in the administration's ability to affect positive changes on campus.
Recckio said Black Lives Matter has provided a lesson to IC students on how to be heard, pointing to the POC at IC Facebook feed as a kind of public square that can be used to follow activities on campus.
"On a campus like Ithaca, you get get thousands of eyeballs on something for $30 in targeted ads on Facebook," he said, explaining that the campus-wide no confidence vote began on Nov. 4 and will continue until Nov. 30, when the SGA will hold a meeting to announce the results.
If it sounds like the unrest at IC is disrupting learning, social life and just about everything else on campus, it is. And if you ask Recckio, that's a great thing.
"Every single student I've talked to on campus has discussed these issues in their classroom -- in art classes about how art intersects with it, to classes held completely in Spanish," he said. "As a white student who is an ally in these causes seeing that much talk about these issues in those classes and doing things on the front line as student body president has been a transformative experience for me."
Aaron Z. Lewis, a 21-year-old Yale senior stressed the importance of taking protests on his campus seriously on their own merits.
"Nobody thinks we're going to graduate and step into a world that is anything like Yale," Lewis told MTV News. "If we teach people how to get rid of racial discrimination here they can take those skills into the real work and make it a place with less intolerance."
He's well aware that the world "out there" can often be a not nice place and nobody is advocating that Yale students be coddled or shielded from reality. "We're asking for the basic right not to face discrimination on campus, or not have our educational opportunities stymied by racism," he said.
Recckio hopes the vote on his campus will help IC students find a way to "implement shared or equitable governance that can bring all the voices to the playing field and takes democratically chosen students and staff and puts them on an equal footing as the president."
In other words: Give us an equal voice, or step aside and find someone who will.