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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.

Student Power: A Brief Primer, Part 2

We covered "What is Student Power?" in Part 1.

How Do You Get Student Power?

Because there is a profound difference in the nature of what we are fighting for, structural demands must also be sought differently than policy demands are. And unfortunately, in all likelihood it's going to be a helluva lot harder. Demanding a recycling program generally won't freak administrators out. However, demanding a student majority in all student-related committees (student affairs, dining, etc.) and a significant number of democratically elected Trustees generally will freak administrators out. It's encroaching on "their" turf. Because of the nature of such a campaign, expect even the most genial of administrators to drop the facade and play hard and dirty. I liken it to when you tell your easy-going, fun, gregarious manager that you and your co-workers are forming a union. Goodbye, "Team Leader" Jekyll; hello, Slave Driver Hyde.


So what does a campaign for student power look like? Well for one it should embody the values and structures we are fighting for. Theory wonks call it “prefigurative politics.” The theory of it is that one's political actions and organizations foreshadow the future dominant actions and organizations if they are successful. So if you’re fighting for democracy, you should be sure your agitation group is democratic, even though having one absolute leader, or stifling the views of the minority in your group, might be more expedient at times. That coincidentally is the key difference between mainstream Marxists and anarchists.

The practice of prefigurative politics means that your campaign serves a twofold purpose: 1) it protests the way things are right now, and 2) in the act of doing so, it presents a model for a replacement.

Really, it's important to be flexible with exactly what form your organization takes. See what your comrades and allies think, assess the institutional political climate on campus. It could take the form of a (co-opted by you!) student government, a student union, or look like a traditional school club. What matters is what you do, how you do it, and who does it.

I think both Michael Albert and Saul Alinsky offer some impressive guides to activists fighting for any goal, but their advice is particularly relevant for those seeking student power.

Tactics: Albert

One of the most important concepts Albert has put forth is the idea of "raising the social cost." He writes:

Tactical calculation about movement tactics runs like this: If receiving lots of critical letters and email messages doesn't bother elites, and if this doesn't lead to other actions that will bother elites, then writing letters is not useful. If, on the other hand, lots of mail does bother elites by making them nervous about their base of support, or for any other reasons, or if it leads to other actions with these effects, then letter writing is one good choice for dissent. And the same holds for holding a rally, a march, a sit-in, a riot, or whatever else. If these choices either in themselves or by what they promise in the future raise lasting and escalating social costs for elites who are in position to impact policy, or if they organize and empower constituencies to do additional things that in turn will raise lasting and escalating social costs for these elites, then they are good tactics for dissidents to choose.

What really, really worries me is that student activists are too hung on the tactics and strategies of the 1960s and '70s, and don't force themselves to diversify their tactics. Sit-ins, marches, petitions, rallies: genuine concerns have to be raised about their usefulness in modern situations, especially when the administration is adamant in its position. The biggest problem is that those tactics are nothing new to your targets. I guarantee you that many higher-ups in your university's administration have taken courses and seminars on how to deal with student activists on campus, and that training shows. Stalling decisions until the end of the school year (so that momentum is lost), promising to set up advisory committees (toothless), and adding a token student to a few committees (to defuse the claim of no representation), all are very smart, very shrewd moves. There are also numerous instances of activist leaders being co-opted, be it with a generous work-study program, an official "special advisor" status, or other way of granting her or him privilege over other students. In fact, as I mentioned in Part 1, student government itself is a fantastic co-optation mechanism; it corrals those students most politically-minded and ambitious into a position and mindset very close to administrators.

So, how do we choose which tactics to use? Albert says to see which tactic raises the social cost the most for your target. Well first, what the hell is "social cost"? Essentially it says that when faced with recalcitrant decision-makers who don’t want to do something that would pain them – such as cede some sphere of authority, or change a policy – you as organizers and agitators need to make their lives so painful that it’s actually easier for them to just accept your demands than to continue on.

Then, the trick is finding out what makes their lives painful. Is it some students picketing outside the President’s office? Maybe, but likely not. It seems like every other week I see another example of an attempted “sit in” or other sort of protest in Administration buildings, and the Admins just say hello, offer them coffee, and then just wait for students to get bored and go home.

So where are Administration pressure points?

  • Prestige of the institution (U.S. News rankings, media coverage, peer college evaluations)
  • Donations (from alumni, foundations, grants from state/federal orgs.)
  • Enrollment (a good image to students, accessibility)
  • Good relations with the municipality/state

I'm sure there are others (think of any? Post more in the comments below!), but those seem to be the big ones. So now we are able to evaluate actions and tactics in terms of how it will threaten them in the above listed areas, as well as come up with new and innovative ones.

Tactics: Alinksy

Let's quick shift gears and talk about Saul Alinsky for a moment. This guy pretty much invented modern community organizing, back in the 1930s and '40s. It's imperative you go out and read Rules for Radicals and then read Reveille for Radicals (his earlier book that is more anecdote than step-by-step strategy).

Several of Alinsky's key concepts revolves around "experience." He tells us that a good strategy will stay within the experience of your comrades and allies, and outside the experience of your opponents. Put another way, do things that your fellow activists and sympathizers will be comfortable with, and do things that in the target's point of view are 1) unexpected and 2) difficult to normally respond to. Protests are expected and easy to respond to. Petitions are expected and easy to respond to (and also easy to ignore!). Experiment (more about that in a later post)!

There are times when the mere threat of an effective action will bring stubborn opponents to the bargaining table. A carefully placed and timed “leak” can do wonders for your campaign.

Sure, it’d be really fun to rent out the church across the street from the college and drape a 40 foot banner humiliating the Administration, but getting them to concede before then is even better. Never bluff about your actions though. Sometimes the Administration may be scared, but won’t bite. It only takes one called bluff to obliterate your credibility and dash any hopes holding anyone’s feet to the fire.

It is crucial to recognize the importance of ridicule when planning actions. Ridicule, done effectively, destroys your opponent’s credibility, conveys your demands, and is a hard maneuver to counter rhetorically. Either the target responds by increasing the level of ridicule, which can make them look petty and childish, or the target responds seriously, and runs the risk of looking like he/she is stuffy, out of touch, and can’t take a joke.

One possible type of action is what I call a power seizure action. These actions are helpful if you want to gain credibility through public (that is, student) support, and/or if your campaign’s major goal revolves around student power.
A good example is in an anecdote a friend shared with me:

She had been working with the campus environmental group to get real recycling throughout the campus. They had been told that the matter had been brought up in the appropriate committees, and had been rejected in past years. The group had done everything your typical student group would do: they fliered, they petitioned, they tabled, they met with administrators. They had reached an impasse. The administration simple was not willing to commit the funds. Then they got creative. They scheduled a campus-wide referendum on the matter: all employees and students could vote. They timed it two days before Earth Day, the thinking being that news organs are more receptive to “green” items that time of year. They scheduled a press conference announcing the results on Earth Day on nearby fairgrounds where an Earth Day celebration was already due to get press exposure.

Their plan was to announce the fact that they had conducted a binding referendum on the question of recycling, couched in such words as to paint the picture of a fait accomplit, the goal being to force the school to issue a statement stating that no, in fact, there is no planned recycling program. That would not only look bad to the public – and alumni! – but it also angers the people who democratically voted for the measure, people who may not have gotten angry about recycling previously. Needless to say, when word about the referendum and press conference got out, the Administration put 2 and 2 together and immediately called my friend to meet with the group.

The referendum was held as planned, with more than 70% approval. The press conference was held as well, only when the group spokesperson announced the referendum’s victory, the University President was proudly standing next to him.

This is a perfect example of creating a situation where it is easier for the administration to give in than keep the status quo.

Part 3 will deal with a few more examples (I might grab a few from Rules for Radicals), a bit more on strategy, and then suggest a few structural demands a student power group might make.

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