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Student Power: Policy Recommendations

Look, anyone who reads this blog (or follows me on Twitter, hint hint) knows I'm not a big fan of diverting organizing capacity toward legislative vehicles, let alone elections. We can't legislate or elect our way to a more democratic society, nor to a stronger student and youth movement.

That being said, there are a myriad of policy changes that can happen on the state level that can make the lives of student organizers much easier. I'm leaving off the "abolish all tuition and fees" and "hand all decision-making power over to general assemblies" kind of policies, because they're both obvious to us and entirely off the table for legislatures at this point.

There's a middle ground, however, of policy changes that can help us do our jobs better that aren't completely outside the current realm of possibility. A lot of these regulations can and should be applied to private universities as well — while they're not formally public entities, states already have reams of regulations private schools must adhere to, as conditions attached to either funding or certification. And depending on the state, some of these recs can be done at a regulatory level and don't even need the legislature's approval.


  • Publicly available, detailed budgets for all private and public institutions
    The best that most students can hope for in both private and public universities is a vague, unhelpful summary of revenue and expenses. Getting a firm handle on university finance is important

  • Publicly available vendor contracts
    Usually vendor contracts are set up by their own terms to be confidential, only state law can override those clauses and mandate public access.

  • Publicly available reports of endowment investments
    Key for investment/divestment campaigns, along with sniffing out conflicts of interest among trustees.

  • All trustee and regent meetings for all private and public institutions held publicly
    Pretty straightforward.


  • Authorize university employee and graduate student unions
    Also straightforward. Though we've seen recently how quickly legislators can roll back these rights — there is no substitute for an active and militant university union movement.

  • Mandate all student activity fees are exclusively under student control
    Universities love to give students control over their own activity fees, until students start doing something actually interesting with them. Mandating that a democratic, student-run organization such as a student government/association/union has final say over the use of those funds would ensure a potentially powerful asset in organizing campaigns.

  • Treat students like human beings
    That could be in the form of a state-based DREAM Act, Good Samaritan rules to allow students to safely get medical attention to someone who's overdosed or blacked out, abolishing the use of "free speech zones" that restrict student activity to a few square feet, etc.

  • Strict restrictions limiting campus safety/police use of lethal and “less-than-lethal” weapons
    One of the biggest differences between student protest now and in the 60s is the obscene level of police violence activists are subjected to today. It's a huge hamstring to any productive confrontation with campus administration.

  • Strict restrictions of campus safety/police activity during protests, occupations, and sit-ins
    Same as above.

  • Popular elections of trustee/regent boards
    This is a bit of the more "out there" proposals, but there are thankfully many examples of constituent representation on university boards — student and faculty reps on boards aren't a totally new idea. As a result, expanding their presence, even if not to 100%, is a lighter lift than it would otherwise be.


  • Guaranteed funding streams for universities with automatic increases each year
    Legislatures in many states can set automatic funding for programs, without having to reauthorize it in every budget. There's no magic bullet that fixes higher ed without greatly increasing state (and Federal) allocation to it.

  • Ban the siloing of funds from academic or research profits
    There are huge profit centers at universities, especially public research schools like UCLA, that are contractually required to keep their profits in-program. This is especially evident with biotech and defense firm research projects — profits and royalties that those programs get above and beyond their operating costs can't be redirected into needier programs.

  • Deprioritize new facility construction
    Universities are taking out massive loans on new construction projects, many of them little more than vanity projects to recruit more affluent students, while ignoring the funding needs of actually teaching students. That debt is driving many of the fiscal crunches we're seeing at schools across the country. The best policy to deal with this would likely vary from state to state.

  • Bar any state scholarships from being used at non-public universities
    State scholarship money should go to students who go to state schools. Most of us realize the problem with voucher schemes at the K-12 level — state scholarships to private universities are essentially the higher ed equivalent. And given the lower price of state universities and community colleges, states are getting more graduates for the buck.

  • Establish a system for states to directly lend to students on more favorable interest and forgiveness terms than Federally-subsidized loans
    There are already campaigns across the country to set up state banks like the lone Bank of North Dakota. Offering very low-interest student loans with generous deferment/discharge options would be a pretty straightforward prospect for a state. They could even use it to keep graduates from moving elsewhere, promising lower interest rates or partial/complete forgiveness if students live and work in-state for x years.

What other policies did I miss? Hate that I've now become a bourgeois reformist sellout? Head to the comments!

Are Student Governments Obsolete?

Below is a classic essay from the 1970s — much of it is applicable today, sadly. I don't agree with all of it (which will be the topic of a future post), but it's a very important read. Of particular note is the section at the end, which is one of the earliest strategic analyses of what a student unionism movement in the U.S. might look like, and some of the pitfalls it must avoid.

Ray Glass wrote this article when he was Legislative Director of SASU (Student Association of the State University of New York), prior to that time he was active in the anti-war movement and a voice for Students in New York and the Nation on the issues of financial aid, student rights and equal access to Higher Education. Ray was struck by an automobile on October 1st, 1975 and died a few days later.


by Ray Glass

To some extent, at least, the problems with student governments are similar to those affecting all modern American institutions.

Robert F. Bundy, an educational futurist who is presently serving as an educational consultant to the New York State Education Department, suggests that most modern American institutions pass through two stages, or watersheds, as he calls them. Since most institutions are formed for noble purposes, the first watershed involves an application of new knowledge and skills to produce desirable effects. The institution, then, provides a great deal of services or programs using a relatively small amount of resources.

In the second watershed, the survival of the institution or organization itself becomes the major purpose as an increasing amount of time and resources are spent maintaining the bureaucracy, leadership, continuing existence and other aspects of the organization. Relatively fewer resources are devoted to the organization's programs and. services.

In this article I have outlined the problems with student governments, their failure to adequately represent and further the interests of students, the need to develop a new organizational form to serve this purpose, and some of the principles on which that new type of organization should be based. I have defined the problems according to Bundy's watershed theory because student governments have passed their second watershed.

What's wrong with Student Governments?

In addition to those problems affecting all Institutions in modern society, student governments suffer from a variety of ills related to their own nature and to the nature of students. Any study of the effectiveness of student governments and the need to replace them with a new organizational form must attempt to discover and understand each of these problems. Below is a discussion of what I consider to be the seven most serious shortcomings of college student governments:

l. Lack of Autonomy
Legally, a university is a corporation and all power and authority to govern and direct the institution is held by its governing board. The governing board delegates some of this authority to the chief administrative officers, lower-level administrators, departments, the faculty senate, etc., and then a few crumbs are delegated to the student government, any or all of which can be taken away at whim. Legally and politically, a student government exists at the pleasure of the university and is a creature of the university. Student governments do not derive their existence, legitimacy and authority from students, but from governing boards and administrators. The lack of independent existence means that student governments are dependent upon the university — for their sources of funding and for office space.

2. They have no power except over social and recreational activities and service programs. In other areas, (purposes of university learning-teaching process, curriculum, admissions, appointment, promotion and retention of faculty, university budget, etc.), the most student governments have is some influence. In very few colleges, (even in those which have faculty-student governance systems), do students have the power and authority to determine these matters. Advise, recommend, influence — maybe, but decibel — no. The decisions are made by legislatures, governing boards, administrators, and faculty (on some matters). The student, even in social activities, is limited, since at most colleges the administration, at least ultimately, has veto power over the use of .the student activity fee. Aside from tinkering with the grading system and course requirements, getting a few new courses offered, or getting "input" into various decisions, student participation in university governance has accomplished little except to co-opt students into helping administer the university for the goals of the administration and the governing board. Most significantly (to administrators) it contributed to the decrease in campus unrest. It has done nothing to change either the fundamental purposes of the university or the educational system or to alter the basic power relationships within the university.

In his book, The Student as Nigger, Jerry Farmer referred to student governments as "those little make-believe student governments which govern in about the same way that baby's toy steering wheel drives daddy's car." Let's face it — student governments are sand boxes for adolescents to play government, training grounds for those who aspire to be real life politicians, and a continuation of the "let's pretend" process of electing home room officers in. grade school where we learn to be "responsible" (and responsive to those in power) and to work within the system even if the system works counter to our goals.

Student government leaders are usually worse than the student governments themselves because they tend to be status or status quo oriented, have a "don't rock the boat" attitude, and they depend on potential adversaries for recommendations to graduate school, law school, etc. If students are naggers in the university and the educational process, then student government leaders are Uncle Tom bioscientist.

3. Lack of continuity — the transient nature of students leads to a rapid turnover in the constituency and in the leadership. The effects of this transient leadership is that student governments have no historical perspective and little patience or long-term vision- which results in limiting goals to those which can be accomplished in one year thereby reducing the chances of accomplishing meaningful change.

4. Lack of support from students. Unfortunately, this is evident to everyone and it hurts in a lot of ways. Since it is obvious that student governments have little support from students, and they have very little influence and no power with faculty and administrators, they are forced to work from a weak position. (Of course, it should be noted that frequently this weak position is exacerbated because the student government compromises and waters down its demands even before approaching the faculty and the administration.)

One must wonder how low a voter turnout it will take before we admit that according to the people who count (students), student governments should be declared dead. Instead, we continue to delude ourselves by trying various P.R. techniques and gimmicks to "cure" apathy rather than to discover the causes of it.

Why is it that students don't care about student government? Could it be because of an unconscious recognition that they are powerless, that student governments are impotent and that student governments are doing nothing to change this? hat but unaware of their oppression? Could it be that activity in student government is virtually meaningless and therefore, students are justified in being apathetic?

If students are to view student government or any other student organization as an effective and meaningful arena for participation, then it has to be so. The student organization has to have power (or be working to take power) and must work on issues more significant than social activities.

5. Bureaucratization, elitism, and undemocratic representation.
Student governments seem to be in the business of building a complex bureaucracy to parallel that of the administration and/or the federal government, one which students don't understand and which acts as a barrier to inexperienced students or student organizations who want to get involved. The budgeting and accounting system for student fees and the new fad of student governments incorporating are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Another common trait of student government people is the elite, cliquish atmosphere among those in leadership positions. The controlling clique of honchos from the student government, newspaper and other related organizations determines and certifies their own successors by grooming their heirs, securing editorial endorsements for them, appointing them to particular committees or granting them other choice assignments, etc. A common trait of student government leaders is a "we-they" attitude. How many conversations have we been involved in when the topic was "why are they so apathetic" or "thick" or whatever? (Maybe "they" are apathetic because our vision and leadership deserve apathy!)

Many student governments have undemocratic representational structures which do not guarantee the representation of all students in a proportional manner (one person, one vote) with a readily identifiable constituency which encourages maximum contact between the representative and the . constituents. These less than satisfactory structures exacerbate apathy, widen the gap between student government and students, and personality rather than concrete issues reigns as the basis for election campaigns. Examples of undemocratic or less than satisfactory representational schemes include: an all at-large election; associational representation by clubs, organizations or other interest groups;) and representation by clubs, organizations or other interest groups;)and representation by academic field or class standing. The system which best meets the criteria listed above is one determined by geographical district, by residential unit on cam- pus and by towns or wards or election districts off campus.

6. Time, attention, energy and resources are devoted to peripheral issues, areas and problems.
Aside from the time, attention and resources devoted to the survival and growth of the student government itself, most of a student government's resources are devoted to peripheral areas. Issues such as social, cultural and recreational programs, student services, recognizing and chartering student organizations, administering the student fee budget, food service, book stores, health care, searching for and appointing students to serve on university, faculty or student committees or other bodies, and tinkering with academic policies dominate the attention of student governments.

Even though these issues or programs are directed toward aspects of the quality of student life and are important, they are peripheral because they are not directly related to the fundamental nature and central purpose of what it means to be a college student — which is that student's role in the educational process. Education is the originating nature and purpose of what the university and students are all about, while these other issues and aspects are derivative and marginal.

At this time, the point is simply that student governments devote their resources to peripheral issues and problems. Probably the most obvious example of this shortcoming is to compare the amount of time and attention that student governments devote to the student activity fee budget and that which they devote to the university budget, even though the university budget is usually 10 or 20 times (or more) larger and has a much greater impact on students, education, and the university as a whole.

7. No Philosophy and No Planning
Even more significant than their focus on peripheral issues, student governments do not' have a philosophy, any underlying principles, values, goals, or any vision of the purpose of a college education, the role of the student in the educational process, or the role of the educational system in society. Instead, student governments work on an ad hoc, issue by issue, year by year basis that keeps them in a powerless position working on incidental problems with little support from students. To bring about truly meaningful change, an organization has to adopt a perspective that encompasses more than one year. Because of the lack of continuity and transient nature of students and student leaders and because students are pitted against faculty and administrators · and permanent, it is even more necessary for students to develop a philosophy and goals and then plan how to bring about those goals. A student master plan is as essential as a university master plan.

Before moving to a summary valuation of the effectiveness of student governments, it is necessary to first discuss two other questions: what is a student, and what should be the purposes of an organization that represents students?

What is a Student?

Strangely enough, student governments are not based on any explicit perception of what it means to be a student or what students have in common with one another as students. This situation is strange, indeed, because just about the first thing that people who want to organize a labor union (or any other organization) do is to define the community of interest that exists among the people whom they want to join the organization. They are most likely to be successful in organizing the union if they base it upon those interests which the potential members have in common with one another. For a labor union, the community of interest is obvious. Workers are workers and work in order to make a living. Therefore, their community of interest is based upon their working conditions, particularly economic conditions. The labor union views its major function as improving the working conditions of its members. Labor unions also provide political action, lobbying, services and other programs to their members, but their overriding central purpose is to improve the working conditions of their members. Likewise, it should be quite obvious what it means to be a student and what students have in common with one another as students. Simply that we are students which means that the only basic thing we have in common with one another as students is our role in the educational process as learners. The primary purpose of a representative student organization, therefore, should be to improve the learning conditions of its student members.

The Role of the Student in the Educational Process

If the central community of interest among students is our role in the educational process, it is necessary to define and understand that role — what it should be and what it is. John Dewey, Alfred North Whitehead, Harold Taylor, John Holt, Ivan Iliac, and almost all educational theorists are in general agreement that education and learning are an active process, that one can only educate oneself, that all learning must be self-initiated and self-directed, and that the only proper role for the student in the education-learning process is as an active participant; In the words of Harold Taylor, "freedom for the student is the necessary condition for learning."

Originally, academic freedom had two traditions — one called lehrfreiheit to protect the teaching and research of the faculty, and one called lehrnfreiheit to protect the active role and freedom of the student to learn. Historian Henry Steele Commager reports that the latter "was designed to provide independence for students. It meant freedom to learn, freedom to study what one wished to study — to go from one university to another, to attend class or stay away — freedom, in short, to run one's own affairs and live one's own life."

Yet, there is probably not one college in the country which guarantees this student academic freedom or has. an educational process that reflects anything near self-directed learning with the student as an active participant. The student's role is not that of an active participant, but of a passive recipient of instruction. The present educational system teaches submission, socializes us to passively accept authority and coercion, and to surrender one's individuality to an institution. Despite all the administrative rhetoric to the contrary, students are still naggers.

The classroom, the university and the educational system are oppressive and authoritarian, and students, as a gr6up, are oppressed and exploited by that very system.

Purpose of a Representative Student Organization

If the above is true, then the primary purpose of any organization which represents the interests and welfare of students has to be the radical transformation of the educational process in the university. All other issues, goals and activities should be secondary or complementary to the goal of radical educational reform. If the present educational system is authoritarian, then tinkering with it can not accomplish meaningful change — radical transformation and overthrowing of the system is necessary. Present liberal reform efforts aimed at putting students on governing boards, revisions in the curriculum and grading system, etc., take the existing system and structure for granted. What is needed is radical, structural reform to alter the power relationships in the existing structure and to transform the system itself.

Student Governments Are Obsolete

It is clear that student governments are presently doing nothing to eliminate this oppression or accomplish the necessary radical changes in the conditions of students or the educational system. In the light of the expressed fundamental shortcomings of student governments, it seems likely that student governments are, by their very nature, incapable of restructuring themselves to make it possible for them to accomplish radical change.

Since they are the only student organizations that presently have any legitimacy or substantial funding, and because of their collaborationist nature, student governments stand in the way of carrying out meaningful change and are a threat and obstacle to what a representative student organization should be doing. I must conclude, therefore, that student governments are obsolete, dysfunctional and counter-productive, and, at least in regard to the function of representing the interests and welfare of students, a new organizational form is necessary.

What Needs To Be Done?

l. In general, we and all students must become conscious of our oppression and we must begin to ask the questions as to how we should change the conditions of our oppression and to begin to take adequate steps to deal with the system which oppresses us.

2. We must develop a philosophy based upon a body of underlying values, principles, and assumptions and upon a comprehensive analysis of the present system. Our philosophy must project a vision of what kind of educational system and society we want. Our analysis must include the past and present role of the student, faculty, administration, and outside forces in the educational process, the role of the university or college in the educational system, the role of the educational system in society, and the purpose, goals, functions and methods of other student organizations. Once we have developed a philosophy, we must develop goals, objectives, strategies and tactics consistent with it. The development of this philosophy and master plan will require an incredible amount of research, theorizing, planning, discussion and agreement.

3. Because of the focus on radical educational change from a student-as-student basis, it will be necessary to adopt a national perspective and strategy. Meaningful educational change (initial steps would probably include the elimination of grades, credits, examinations, degrees, and departments as we now know them) would be nearly impossible to accomplish on a campus-by-campus basis. Development and agreement on a national philosophy, goals, and strategy will be difficult enough in itself. Our task will be more complicated than that which originally faced labor union organizers, but, nevertheless, just as labor unions never would have gotten anywhere if there hadn't been general agreement on purposes, so too will students fail if we adopt a philosophy of letting every campus do its own thing.

4. The National Student Association must use its resources to begin the work of developing a national student philosophy of education. We don't need model collective bargaining contracts yet, but we do need a national think tank with plenty of staff and resources, national and regional c6nferences with radical educational theorists as resource persons, and a network of people across the country committed to and working for the development of this philosophy, master plan and organizational form. (I should note that. I have not written off NSA, student governments or people in student government organizations as incapable of joining and helping the cause by financial subsidy or organizing efforts. I'm sure some student government organizations and people will oppose this effort, but our task will be difficult enough without writing off any potential bases of support.)

5. We must develop a new organizational form which builds into its essence, structure, purposes, elements, and means features to counteract and overcome the shortcomings of student governments. Tinkering with student government structures, holding more referenda, conducting a high powered P. R. campaign or other gimmicks will not be sufficient to accomplish radical educational reform. Radical goals will require radical changes in organization, strategy and tactics. Given the nature of the shortcomings of student governments, and the requirement of working for radical educational reform, I believe the only organizational form which will be sufficient to meet our purposes is unionism. A union is a collective agent to advocate and further the common interests, needs and welfare of a group of people, which is built upon the community of interest of the members of that group.

Nature of a Student Union

A student union should be a voluntary association of students funded by voluntary, individual dues from students, dependent in all respects on students and independent of all other people, agencies or forces, which so overwhelmingly speaks for students that it becomes recognized by the university as the exclusive collective bargaining agent for students on all matters affecting the students of that university as students. The primary purpose of a student union should be to accomplish a radical transformation of the educational process in the university.

Collective bargaining is an organized and civilized forum for the settlement of issues and disputes between parties which are in an adversary relationship. Agreements reached in the bargaining and negotiations between the part es are sealed in a contract which is binding on all parties. If the educational system is oppressive and students as a group are oppressed by this system, then it would seem to follow that students should adopt an adversary relationship to the system and those responsible for governing and administering it. Collective bargaining would, therefore, appear to be an appropriate forum for the settlement of issues between students and the university. With radical educational reform as the primary purpose of the union, the collective bargaining agreement will be the most important program provided by the union. In addition to educational reform and collective bargaining, other functions of the union could include internal university advocacy, legislative lobbying, political action, and various service programs. The leadership of the union should be democratically elected by the members and all decisions should be made democratically. The union must develop a radical base with a capacity for prolonged resistance, dedication and endurance. The initial organizing drives will take years. While philosophy, goals, structures and strategies are being determined, there will be a need for a massive, sustained educational campaign and then a recognition drive which might require a student strike. The initial contracts will inevitably require full scale, sustained student strikes. We will never get power or meaningful changes by having the administration give them to us. No more than was the case with labor unions. We will have to take the power by offering the university a choice between no university or one which meets our goals. The only power students have now is to say "NO" — to stop or disrupt the educational system until we are satisfied with it. The union should be entirely financed by students through dues and services program income. Before and during the organizing drive, seed money and financial subsidies will probably be needed from the student government or some other source. The voluntary nature of dues will probably be a difficult principle to live with. The rapid turn over of students and the large number of part-time and commuter students will make it very difficult to maintain a membership base. On the other hand, since the mandatory dues which labor unions charge have probably done more to facilitate their entrenchment, removal from rank and file, and conservative policies than any other factor, it should be worth the effort and the risk. One major initial problem will be the relationship between the student government and the student union. The student government (probably with a mandatory fee) could continue to act as the major organizer and promoter of extracurricular activities. It could also, at least initially, subsidize the operations of the student union. The union should be primarily an advocate and catalyst of change, not an administering agency. In order to prevent the creation of a top heavy bureaucracy and to insure concentration of attention and resources on radical change, the union should severely restrict the number of services and other programs it administers. We must also be conscious at the outset that if student unions are successful, at some point they will no longer be necessary. Once the university and the educational system and process are satisfactorily transformed, the union will have outlive its original purposes and the adversary relationship will have to be replaced by a cooperative learning community.

Potential Pitfalls in Student Unionism Movement

Despite the very short period of time in which student unionism has been given serious consideration, several problems and pitfalls have already developed which, if they go unchecked, will set back or abort the movement at this early stage.

1. Lack of patience — The natural reaction to the idea is to immediately embrace it as a panacea, and plunge forward with a lot of half-baked, ill-conceived notions which will probably set back the ultimate goals. As a point of reference, students have been talking about the idea of student unions for more than 10 years now and we're still not past the preliminary theoretical work. If the union develops and adopts a radical philosophy and a set of goals and strategies student unionization will initially unite all factions — faculty, administration, legislature and public against us. Our goals and strategies must be well thought out if we are to succeed against these adversaries.

2. Student unionization as a reaction to faculty unionization. Faculty are workers with working conditions which represent a community of interest much more tangible and easier to organize around than anything students have. Faculty unionization is simply an extension of labor unions to a new group of workers. Students as a whole are not workers and any attempt to rationalize them as being such is just plain foolish. The proper analogy between the labor union movement and the student union movement is to compare the student movement now to the labor movement 80-100 years ago.

3. Legislative approach — Several student leaders have recommended that our strategy be lobbying to get legislatures to authorize student collective bargaining and unionization. This proposal is terribly naive and unrealistic. Legislation is a reflection of existing power relationships. No legislature is going to give students anything, especially power. Power is never given away, but must be seized. Furthermore, student power is not a legal principle, it is an educational principle. It should also be noted that legislation authorizing collective bargaining by labor unions was not passed until over 30 years after labor collective bargaining was a reality.

4. Instant unionization — a romantic, adventurist method to develop student unions. It is impossible to create a meaningful student union by merely eliminating the mandatory fee, circulating pledge cards, changing the name of the local student government to local student union, or performing other wizardry. The perfect example of how not to create a student union was the Stockton State (New Jersey) fiasco. Blessed with a recently announced tuition increase and an impending faculty union strike, the Stockton Student Union (SSU) launched an organizing drive and got 1,100 of out of 2,500 students to sign pledge cards. The organizes realized that they needed money to finance the union's operations and decided to levy dues, whereupon membership fell to something like 50 members. Their highly proclaimed "contract" did nothing except barely maintain the status quo. It did not initiate any reforms (liberal or radical) for students, but only acted to restrict the impact on students of the faculty union contract. The student contract even bargained away the right of the SSU to participate in any way in the faculty union negotiations. Another example of the irrational "instant union" craze occurred at the 1973 NSA Congress when uninformed delegates responded to the demagoguery of misinformed student union zealots by passing a resolution designating NSA as the national collective bargaining agent for all students in the country (without, of course, bothering to find out what the students thought about it).

5. Confusing reactions to faculty collective bargaining with student unionization. It is essential that we make a distinction between short-term actions to reduce and restrict the immediate impact of faculty collective bargaining and Long-term actions to organize student unions. Until the day when student unions are operational ( and that day is at least years away), certain actions can and should be taken to restrict faculty collective bargaining: permitting third party student observers to speak and protect student interests during negotiations, publication of the proposed contract before ratification by the two parties with public hearing held on its provisions and approval required by the university's governing board on the basis of the educational merits of the contract, and restrict the negotiable issues to exclude specific university governance issues. This final restriction could be dangerous because the very issues we would want to keep faculty collective bargaining agreements away from now are likely to be the very issues we would want student unions to deal with.

6. Basis of the student community of interest, organizing drive and of student unionism — (or how to sneak the student union in through the back door). The question here is on what basis and on what issues the student union movement should exist. I have contended that in order to tap the basic community of interest among students it is necessary that the primary goal be radical educational reform and that all other issues or programs be secondary or complementary to this goal. A few student union activists, however, believe that the student union can be organized on the basis of peripheral issues such as tuition, financial aid and other economics (a misapplication of the labor union model) or by luring students into a political movement by offering irresistible consumer service programs (a perversion of unionism).

A disappointing example of this mistake is being made by the otherwise comprehensive and advanced Student Organizing Project at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Representatives of this Project led a workshop on student unionization at the 1974 NSA Congress in which they spoke supportively of "the back door way of getting people into the union" and that the union should try to go as far as possible toward "being everything to everybody." Unless we resolve that developing student unions is going to be a very long and very difficult task and forget about easy, instant solutions, we might as well scrap the whole idea and go back to tinkering with student governments because, otherwise, we'll be wasting our time.

7. Blind, Unthinking (Mis-) Application of the Labor Union Model.

In addition to trying to apply labor issues (economics and working conditions) to students and the idea of mandatory (closed shop) dues, we should be ever vigilant to learn from (and not repeat) the mistakes of labor unions and other organizations and institutions.


The philosophy and strategy of student unionization outlined in this article is extremely ambitious and will take years to conceive and years to develop and probably decades before it succeeds in radically transforming the educational system in society. The author of this article believes, however, that this is the only way in which these goals will be accomplished, and that if, through this process; we could develop an educational system which is responsive to the needs of humanity and the planet and which also truly reflects the ideals of education, learning, and the active participation of students, it seems that it would be well worth the effort, the work, the patience and the risk.

Student Power in Columbus, Ohio!

I've been in Columbus, Ohio, at the National Student Power Convergence since Friday afternoon. (My trip started with a van full of organizers trekking out from Boston for an epic 14-hour drive.)

The workshops have been fantastic, but as is often the case with these conferences, it's the people you meet, talk, laugh, and drink with that make it all worth the trip. Thankfully there was no shortage of phenomenal, inspiring student and youth organizers — at least 200 so far. Many of them are organizers at the top of their game (many with amazing victories under their belts, along with a host of USSA execs past and present), and others are just at the start of their journey.

Probably the most interesting part of this convergence is that it wasn't organized under the umbrella of a large national organization. These were students from across the country that coordinated and put together 5 days of programming based on what they perceived the needs of the current student movement to be. This manifests itself in a number of ways.

  • The planning process was the most transparent and welcoming of any I've ever seen. Let's do this more often (hooray for Google Docs!)
  • The call for programming was sent far and wide, and the resulting proposals have driven almost all the workshops and plenaries on the schedule (and due to the fact that there wasn't larger organizational forces at work, there's a wonderful diversity of topics).
  • The culture and tone of the convergence is pluralistic. We have a huge swath of the left here, from Obama fans, to CLASSE organizers from Québec, to newspaper-toting Trotskyists, to anarcho-communists: and because there isn't an overall ideological stance imposed on the convergence, there are a lot more contested spaces and interesting political conversations and minglings.

I presented my workshop this morning to a pretty packed room, and had a number of fascinating discussions during and afterward about how student power organizing is progressing on individual campuses.

There are still two more days to NSPC12, so join us in Columbus or watch us online:

Video streaming by Ustream

From Student Debt to Student Power

I recently sat down with The Daily Agenda to chat about student loan debt and how it relates to larger activist movements on- and off-campus.

Patrick St. John is a graphic designer by trade and student organizer by love. Patrick has been organizing and agitating since high school; as an undergraduate at Moravian College, he continued to agitate for student rights and power as both Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper and later as student government president (where he advocated abolishing the position).

Like so many other young Americans, he left school thousands of dollars in debt. During his off hours Patrick is still organizing and writing a book on student power. He blogs at forstudentpower.org.

We interview Patrick about the state of student debt and the prospects of breathing new life into the student movement.

DA: As student debt has now climbed to over a trillion dollars, who exactly benefits from having so many students owing so much money?

Patrick St. John: It’s always important to ask that question, because it’s certainly not the students and it’s clearly not the faculty. However one winner is the administration, including the Board of Trustees. The size of university administrations have soared over the past 40 years, far outpacing the regular growth of faculty and support staff.

There has been an increasing emphasis on running the university like a business. As a result you get a ton of administrative overhead and you get administrators who are more interested in growing the bottom line than in education. Right now a lot of campuses, especially the higher profile universities, hire President’s that have no experience in the classroom. They come from business backgrounds, or sometimes from the military or politics.

Often times funding decisions are not based on the consideration of the students or even the professors, but either the university in its quest for prestige or the vanity of big donors. You see this dynamic where trustees and other wealthy donors make donations that go into physical projects like new buildings, new facilities, or new sports stadiums. You can’t bolt a plaque onto a scholarship; but you can bolt a plaque onto a building. In the University of California system, the Regents have made it quite clear that they prefer tuition dollars over state-issued dollars, because they have much freer range in their use — so we see on campuses across the state massive physical projects, either completed and unused, or frozen in mid-construction. It’s yet another predictable result of the people most affected by university decisions having the least amount of say in making those decisions.

You also predictably see an increase in official corruption, with Trustee boards often including the heads of the very businesses the college contracts with (usually banks and construction firms).

DA: Do you detect any sort of change in what is being taught in our universities because of the increased role of private corporations in higher education?

PSJ: It’s a funny kind of feedback loop. On one end, as parents and students see rising increasing tuition combined with a sluggish economy, you see an emphasis on the “career ready majors”: the majors that are guaranteed to get a good-paying job above all else. Students begin asking themselves, “why am I taking this literature class when I could be taking another economics class?” It has that sort of effect.

On the other end of the feedback loop, universities are trying to attract more — and wealthier — students by touting the fact that “if you go here, we’re sure that you will get a job after you graduate.” There is actually an interesting case where a woman who attended a for-profit school went through school and of course racked up a ton of debt. When she graduated she sued the school because the school had essentially promised, through their advertising materials, that she would get a job. Her lawsuit failed, but the point she made is here to stay.

DA: Student loan debt rates are set to double in 8 days if Congress (at the time of this interview. It now appears that Congress will freeze student loan rates for one year). How meaningful are the Democrats’ proposals to stop this from happening?

PSJ: It’s a smart political move for Obama because he might be able to re-energize many of his supporters on his left flank. But we all need to be clear: this is not a fight between progressive and conservative policy positions. This is a fight between conservative and very conservative policy positions.

The interest rate on student loans is already too high, even at the current rate. For comparison, it’s roughly 450% more than the rate the Fed loans money to banks. The President is trying to spin this so that he can attach it to his “usual hope and change” mantra, when in reality it’s just a holding position. It’s keeping the conservative status quo intact in the face of something even more conservative and more corporate.

But there is a lot that he could do. He could lobby and push to allow student loan debt to be dischargeable in bankruptcy court. This could actually energize lots of students and alumni, those who are most pro-Obama but least likely to vote. There are many Democratic Senators and Congresspeople who are more progressive than Obama on this. So it’s not like this is something out of nowhere. It doesn’t tackle the systemic problem of why higher education is so unaffordable, but consumer-side student debt reform would be a step in the right direction.

DA: Among the four demands put out by the Occupy Student Debt movement was “a one-time debt forgiveness, or “jubilee.” What would this entail?

PSJ: Wiping away all current student debt would be wonderful, and not just because I’m saddled with it myself. It’d be a huge boon for the economy, and it’s a much more helpful use of government funds than throwing trillions at banks. While it has a snowball’s chance in hell of happening, it’s still a useful demand to organize around, for two reasons. First, it engages students in a concrete way and encourages them to start thinking outside the box in terms of what is possible. Second, the act of pushing and agitating for a debt jubilee allows you to change the tone of the conversation. And it’s always a plus when you can tell conservatives that the thing you’re agitating for is right there in the Bible!

In America’s fragmented and decentralized system of higher ed, students may actually find more success tackling this issue at private colleges and state university networks. If you can establish, one way or another, a certain slice of the student population who can have their debt eliminated by the university, such as those with low-incomes, who do public service, and so on, that’s a foothold, or fulcrum, that can potentially be used to widen that slice until it encompasses all students.

But in terms of the big picture, if the person on the street or your local representative rejects the idea, you already have them talking about student debt. You can change the conversation, which is I think one of the lasting legacies of the Occupy movement: changing the political narrative not necessarily to get some 12-point plan through, but to create openings for individuals and groups to push for actual change.

DA: In an article that you wrote for ForStudentPower.org, you say that:“when electoral democracy is this broken, it's never that straightforward, and we are demobilized by thinking it is. We need to throw out the old playbook and pick up a new one (or two).”
What is the new playbook and what does it have to say about building a more vibrant democracy?

PSJ: Right. So if the framing of the problem is that the laws on the books are simply incorrect, by either mistake or malice, and that the solution is simply to correct the laws, then our paths of organizing are pretty limited. We have a sort of knee-jerk deference to people in power that often comes along with a very warped idea of how change comes about. Hopefully the protests in Québec right now will disabuse students of that deference. Québec tuition has been consistently among the lowest in the Western world for decades now, the only reason being that students and allies took to the streets in mass numbers and prevented every attempted increase, even minimal ones.

It’s also about changing the facts on the ground until elites catch up. If you look at the labor movement, workers didn’t wait until the Wagner Act in 1935 to actually start organizing unions. Everything from basic union recognition to the 8 hour work day, those were examples of Congress catching up with the facts on the ground. Huge swaths of the American workforce had fought for and won an 8 hour work day by the time Congress made it law. Many African-Americans didn’t wait until the Civil Rights Acts to eat at whichever lunch counter they wanted, or sit wherever they wanted on the bus. Through radical, direct action to change the facts on the ground, everyday people were able to spur sweeping historical changes.

All the wonderful things liberals like about the New Deal and Great Society got done by a Democratic President because he had immense pressure from his left flank in the form of more progressive Democrats, socialists, communists, and anarchists — with youth in the mix in all these groups.

Unfortunately, through the fog of history, a lot of liberals think that you do not need a far left to get liberal reform done. You absolutely do. Change doesn’t come about by voting for a specific person, change comes about when whoever happens to be in office is pressured by the people to do what’s right. Obama famously told bankers in a private meeting in 2009 that he was the only one standing between them and the pitchforks. Given the state of things, and the track record of both the banks and Obama in the years since, it seems clear to me that we need a hell of a lot more people with pitchforks.

For people wanting to get involved in this fight, one of the most exciting developments is the upcoming National Student Power Convergence this August in Ohio. Students and youth from across the country will be there, and it’s where we may get a glimpse of the future of student organizing.

Read the rest of the interview at The Daily Agenda! >

Quebec Student Unions: History, Structure, and Strategy

Simon Gosselin, François Carbonneau, Richard Huot & Caroline Bourbonnais came to the Students for a Democratic Society 2009 Northeast Convention to speak about radical student unionism in Québéc.

They make important distinctions between the situations in Québéc and the U.S. - but just as important are the commonalities we all face as students in universities, and it's those commonalities that demand we learn what we can from their past and current struggles (especially because they have a much better knack at winning). Below is the first of 8 segments: you can view them all in a row here on YouTube.

"Alternatives to Traditional Student Government"

I was recently forwarded this article. It was written in '75 by a Dean of Students, but I think it deserves a hard look. As we craft what our future universities will look like, we should be open to the lessons and advice of the past. I also got a kick out of him mentioning student syndicalism -- to think that a Dean would even mention such a concept, even in the '70s! -- Patrick

Alternatives to Traditional Student Government

(DON CREAMER is dean of students, El Centro College, Dallas, Texas.)

What is the future of student government? One does not need to be a mystic nor a soothsayer to predict with frightening accuracy the essential work of most student government organizations. Likely, sporadic tinkering with local issues of some inane nature will occur, but three things almost universally will come to pass. These things happen almost everywhere, and they happen with tiring regularity.

First, students will attempt to re-write the constitution. Unfortunately, this venture likely will succeed, thus giving next year's junta all the more reason to re-write it again. Second, students will quarrel about quorums. Are enough of us here (according to the current constitution, of course) to decide on whatever issue has bubbled to the surface? Third, students will argue about "territorial rights" and exclusive domain prerogatives. This argument usually boils down to the question, "When are we ever going to get our own sandbox to play in around here?" When these symptoms become apparent to the leadership of an institution concerned with education, then it is time for a change.


The Road to Detroit: the 2007 SDS National Convention

sds 2007 national convention
I hope to see you all there this weekend! I'll be driving up with some friends Friday afternoon/evening. If you still need a ride, there are still some seats available if you live near large cities (NYC, D.C., etc.).

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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