Building Student Power
Working Toward Organizing and Democracy Within the University
BY JAMES GUTSCH
The plutocracy of higher education is so institutionalized that students are unable to have their voices heard within their own alma mater.
Patrick St. John, a Pennsylvania native educated at Moravian College and currently residing in Boston, facilitated all three workshops. The organization he works with, ‘For Student Power,’ works to expose corruption within higher education. Several social justice student groups at Evergreen sponsored the event, including the Evergreen Political Information Center and Students for a Democratic Society.
St. John introduced student power as a pan-ideological concept serving to unify disparate student groups on campus. Citing a historical precedent, he delved into medieval Europe, where, beginning with the University of Bologna in Italy during the 12th century, higher education emerged as a student-led institution.
“Students would come together, and then collectively hire the professors to teach them,” St. John recalled. “If you look at the actual transactions, that’s not much of a difference, but there was a huge distinction in how things were run and how decisions were made.”
Professor accountability was a critical part of this and faculty that deviated from the agreed syllabus would be fined. Faculty that were late to class would be fined. The students controlled policy and therefore controlled their own education.Unfortunately, St. John said, as infrastructure developed, so did the institutional hierarchy and students began to see their power slowly disappear.
Power in higher education in the U.S. during the 20th century was also discussed. St. John detailed how student groups wielding influence over campus policy began developing in the 1930s and reached their apex in the ‘60s. From then on, student groups endured a gradual decline in power, which St. John attributed to rapidly rising tuition. During the ‘60s, he said recently graduated students were able to work part time waiting tables to make ends meet, and could devote their free time to student organizing. With the massive increase in student debt, recent grads don’t have that option. Their speech is stifled by the amount of debt they have to worry about. St. John also cited increased militarization of campus security as another impediment towards pursuing methods of change such as protesting.
St. John also delved into specific techniques for effective organizing. “Campaigns to win student power have to look fundamentally different than the campaigns that students usually run,” he said. “You can roughly divide the demands that student organizers make into two: policy demands and structural demands. Structural demands question who’s running things in the first place.”
He noted that policy demands, such as demanding adequate recycling programs or protesting inedible cafeteria food are important, but fail to isolate the core issue of polarized power. Structural policy however, seeks to permanently remove barriers to effective change.
St. John also stressed the importance of tactics and strategy. One mentioned example of successful student lobbying using tactics were the protests at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Cooper Union, located in New York City, was originally tuition free–until economic mismanagement by the administration forced them to begin charging students for their education. Infuriated, the students began developing strategy and implementing tactics at the grassroots level. They made their demands very well known, gaining the support of the student body. When the protest finally reached its pinnacle in the spring of 2013, students forcefully occupied the President’s Office. Because of the foundation they had established beforehand, they were able to avoid punishment, despite threats of expulsion from the administration; this was done by putting heavy pressure on the administration from the community and student body.
John emphasized how the last part of the strategy, the last ‘tactic’ was the only one that received any attention, since the preceding tactics were simply too boring to be considered news. New York University had a similar revelation of institutional plutocracy and decided to model their protest after the one at Cooper Union. Unfortunately, organizers at NYU decided to begin with an occupation instead of end with it. Many of the participants faced expulsion and criminal charges.
Another major impediment towards building student power is a lack of institutional memory. Because administrations last far longer than a student’s tenure at a university, a student’s legacy of activism is often erased after graduation and the next generation of activists are left to begin from scratch. Sometimes, the most permanent change is not what can be achieved the fastest, but what is built through generations of cooperation. “Sometimes you have to leave it to faith,” St. John said. Student power is all about forging strong social relationships that last far beyond an individual’s tenure.
Students were also given the opportunity to voice their ideas for improving Evergreen. These ideas included, but were not limited to, compensating faculty members for sponsoring independent learning contracts, severing the contract with Aramark and contracting with small local businesses to feed Evergreen students, setting up an accountability system for campus security and establishing a communal kitchen. According to Dante Garcia, an Evergreen student organizer, “the workshops did not quite fit into the context of student power specifically at Evergreen.” In terms of engineering change that is compatible with Evergreen’s unique learning program, much work remains to be done. At the end of the last workshop on Sunday afternoon, students started planning the agenda for the next General Assembly, which is tentatively being held Monday, Feb. 10.
Photo by SOUKI MEHDAOUI