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campus organizing 101

Administration Strategies Against Student Activism and Organizing

Student organizers have a wealth of strategic analysis and history to pull from when we start any campaign. Everything from power mapping to the classic Tactic Star, I'm sure we've all been to our share of workshops to hone our activism. However, the point I want to make today is that college and university administrations across the country do the same thing. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals:

Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic.

Since the explosion of innovative (and successful) student organizing and protest in the 1960s, administrators have sought to understand our tactics and strategy so as to work out the most effective ways to defuse our campaigns and actions.

Just as we have trainings and conferences, so do administrators: conferences with exciting names like the "Conference on Legal Issues in Higher Education", and "International Conference on Learning and Administration in Higher Education". There are also journals, magazines, and conference calls all devoted to the job of subjugating administering your campus.

Campus Organizing 101: Policy Demands & Structural Demands

This is the first in a series of primer articles about organizing and student power.

Until we are the ones with the power, we'll be making demands of those who do. Looking at the kinds of demands student groups campaign around, it's easy to lump them into two general categories:

Policy Demand:
A demand that seeks to instruct someone with power what to do.

Structural Demand:
A demand that seeks to change who has power in the first place.

Anyone involved in campus activism will know that American universities are littered with policy demands - from recycling, to divestment, to tuition control, to dorm renovations.

It's been my experience, and that of most folks I talk to, that a common feature of activist campaigns around policy demands is that they all start from the same position (disempowerment) and, once the campaign is over - successful or not! - that's where they all return. To think of it visually:

Policy Demands

What we want are demands (and campaigns) that leave us in a better position than when we started - we want the activism and organizing we did last week/month/semester to act as another foothold to support the work we're doing right now. That's crucial nomatter where you're organizing, but especially when you're organizing in an institution that has 100% turnover every four years. That's where structural demands come in. By chipping away at concentrated power, we gain more access to the levers of power, and more avenues for strategic action open up. We want our campus campaigns to graph out more like this:

Structural Demands

When it comes to institutional influence and power, we want to always start where we last left off.

While it's easy to get broad agreement with structural demands (people are in general predisposed to agree with arguments for more democracy and less bureaucracy), it's hard to mobilize people around it. Policy demands are what get people excited and motivated.

That's why it's best when the two kinds of demands are coupled. Take, for example, divesting your university endowment's holdings in ExxonMobil. A pure policy demand would be simply telling the powers that be to divest from ExxonMobil, or perhaps more broadly telling them to invest only in socially responsible enterprises. A purely structural demand would be to democratize the investment decision process. Clearly, the global injustice of what ExxonMobil does is going to rile people's emotions much more than the comparatively tiny injustice of your fellow students not having a say in how their tuition is being invested.*

These two types of demands work best when they're advocated together. The structural demand provides the radical teeth to a campaign, while the policy demand provides the motivation and passion to mobilize large groups of people.

So adding a structural demand to an ExxonMobil divestment campaign means that if (when!) you win, it'll be that much easier to divest from Wal-Mart, or Lockheed Martin, or Israel. You'll have students and faculty on the investment committee, or you'll have divestment decisions up for a campus-wide vote. Even if you can only get a token non-voting student member on an investment advisory committee, that's still a slightly taller soapbox than what you had before, which will come in handy for the next campaign.

There's much more that can be said on the subject. Though this is way beyond the scope of this blog post (but well within the scope of the book I'm working on), it's worth pointing out in closing that 1) university elites will react much more strongly against structural demands (and consequently campaigns will be harder to win), and 2) the nature of structural demands, if you want to do it right, requires that campaigns be waged in a fundamentally different way than purely policy campaigns (think prefigurative politics).

*I should note that one of the few times that structural demands alone work great is when an abuse of power scandal rocks the campus - embezzlement by an administrator, illegal/abusive conduct by campus police, denials of tenure or firings for political reasons, etc.

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