This May 4th will mark the 32nd anniversary of the Kent State riots and the death of four protestors by National Guard fire. Chances are there will not be much media coverage of the rallies and activities on the campus this year as 32 is not a dynamic number (unlike 30). The reality however is that there is no better time to reflect on military and governmental power and it's effect on dissent and speech. With this year marking the US's War on Terrorism, there is no time like the present to reflect on the "consequences" of dissenting viewpoints. Thus we have pulled this article on present-day activism at Kent State University from our archives. Though the research and statistics are a bit stale, people enacting change and fighting for what they believe are still there protesting, rallying, and empowering.
In November 1968, the Oakland, Calif. police recruiters were on the Kent State Campus. In protest of this allegedly racist and violent police force, African American students and others walked off campus to set up a university in exile. Students returned only when the administration set in motion efforts to recruit more students and faculty of color and create an Afro-American Studies program (what is today known as the Pan-African Studies department).
On May 3, 1970, the Kent State University ROTC building was set on fire. Students cut the fire hoses when firemen came to extinguish the blaze. The world watched the building burn to the ground. Kent State students did not want military presence on campus. They thought it was encroaching on their freedom to be students.
Police actions, building occupations or bullets flying on campus today are not a typical occurrence today -- at least not at Kent State University. Students are taking action throughout campus, though. Whether it is to make memorials of the parking spaces where four students were killed by the Ohio National Guard more than 30 years ago or to ensure that our campus and society offer the same opportunities and advantages to students of all races, there are voices being raised over issues students feel are important. Animal rights, freedom for political prisoners, racial equality, queer rights, and other causes are being championed by students through rallies, forums, and bulletin boards throughout campus.
The 1960s were a unique time in American history, especially in terms of student activism. The '60s presented a time of action that is yet unparalleled. Today, there are still student activists raising their voices to fight the ills of society and the world, but they are dispersed over many causes. The Vietnam War is long over and the nation's call for civil rights has at least partially been answered. There is no common cause to link students to each other, but dedicated activists are still trying to foster a community around changing the world.
Though there are no national issues to link students to a cause like there was in the '60s, students are active nationally and locally. The apathetic label that "Generation X" has so often been tagged with has proven itself false. Researchers, professors, and students have found college students today are almost as active as their predecessors. Community issues get students fired up today, though.
Students don't have body bags to identify, says Robby Stamps, a Kent State graduate student in journalism and mass communications. Stamps protested at Kent State on the historic May 4, 1970, and was one of the 13 students wounded by Ohio National Guard gunfire.
"There is no national issue that is pervasive," says Jerry M. Lewis, Kent State emeritus professor of sociology who taught at Kent during the Vietnam era and was witness to the May 4 slayings. "So, activists of today, and there are some, tend to work on local issues which are important to them but certainly don't have the pervasiveness that existed in the '60s."
In 1990, undergraduate college students were asked to list the major events in their lives. The Persian Gulf War, the Challenger Explosion, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Rodney King affair, and AIDS were the seven most frequent answers. But, as reported in The Review of Higher Education, a journal of the Association for the Study of Higher Education, there were only seven choices.
"Students in the late '60s perceived political and social events as dramatically affecting their lives," says Tom Hensley, professor of political science at Kent State who taught during the height of student activism. "And it did. We were in a period of incredibly profound change and we were involved in events that dramatically did affect students lives. Certainly, the Vietnam War was literally a matter of life and death for male students."
Though our generation was presented with war on Iraq in the Persian Gulf in 1990, it was largely a technological war with few American casualties.
Despite the lack of a life-shaping or culture-defining moments or events, students today work as hard and feel as strongly as students of the '60s who concerned themselves with anti-war and civil rights issues, Lewis says.
In fact, one issue that may hinder student activism today is that students work too hard, that is, in their part- or full-time jobs.
"Most students have to work," says senior Kim Larson, co-chair of the May 4th Task Force and president of Kent's chapter of Amnesty International, a human rights organization that fights to release prisoners of conscious. "Back in the '60s many students didn't have to [work]. College is no longer just a place to become enlightened. Now it's just a rite of passage, and you go there because you're not going to get a job if you don't go to college, basically. In the past, you went to college if you wanted a scholarly education where you learned about all the philosophers. I think a lot of the problem is really just environment. I think a lot of the problem is that students just don't have time."
In fact, students are spending more of their time working than participating in extracurricular activities. The annual survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, reported in 1997 that 40.3 percent of freshman get a job to help pay college expenses while 6.2 percent take on full-time jobs.
Students may be taking on more jobs than in previous years because the amount and nature of financial aid offered to students has changed. There is a definite shift in the balance between grants and loans offered to students, says Mark Evans, interim director of student financial aid at Kent State University. Students' annual loan limits have increased while federal and state grants have not. Evans cites that between 1990 and 1998, federal loans have increased from $25 million to $78 million, while federal and state grants increased from $12 million to $15.5 million.
Larson says students must choose whether to be activists or complete school in four years. She did. Larson has recently completed her sixth and final year at Kent because she chose to work and be active on campus.
"We can't compare ourselves to the people of the '60s anymore," she says. "I think that has limited students by trying to compare ourselves to those activists when you can't possibly do it. The environment is totally different. The social problems still exist, but yet it's a different environment you are working in."
But being an activist does not always mean taking to the streets and protesting, says Stamps.
"Students don't have the leisure time today that we had back then," says Stamps. But that is no reason not to be active, Stamps says. There are many things students can do individually to support causes. Stamps believes if students purchase socially conscious products, do not eat red meat or binge drink they are making a profound impact on our world.
Others agree that the nature of student activism should change to reflect the modern environment.
"My opinion is that student activism is good, but I think student activism needs to take on new forms," says Timothy Moore, assistant dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Kent State. Moore was a freshman at Kent in 1969. "It shouldn't be so much confrontational on a physical level. Getting out and having protest rallies would get people angry and lead to fighting and physical confrontation between so-called good guys and bad guys. We don't need verbal confrontations leading to violent confrontation."
The forums provided by groups like Amnesty International and Stand, an independent student newspaper, are a step in the right direction, according to Moore. Forums and discussions allow issues and concerns to be brought to light and allow people to make informed decisions without the threat of violence.
An article in The Review of Higher Education claims student activism today has nearly reached the pinnacle of 1969, the near height of campus unrest. The 1969 undergraduate survey found in 1969 that 28 percent of students reported participating in a demonstration as compared to 19 percent in 1976 and 25 percent in 1993. Though the number of reported student activists today is close to that of 1969, it is the local focus of activism today that leaves protest activities largely campus specific and nearly invisible to the public at large.
Many blame the media for the low-profile given to student activism. In a society that is largely dependent upon television and mass media for information, activism is rarely on the press' agenda.
"By the mainstream press, student activists are portrayed as silly radicals," says Nikki Morse, development director for the Boston-based Center for Campus Organizing, a national network for progressive campus organizations. Morse believes the media should talk more about actual student campaigns and victories. She believes the left-leaning press -- who should be actively supporting these progressive student movements -- should compensate for the mainstream media's ignoring student protest.
But being misrepresented or ignored is nothing new to student activists. In fact, it is a common myth that a majority of the student body in the '60s were activists. Hensley estimates that of the 20,000 students at Kent in 1969 there were 3,000 at the May 4 rally. Of those 3,000 students, 2,500 were spectators or "cheerleaders," leaving a core group of 500 activists.
"If anything should trigger student activism those events should because you had a dramatic increase in the Vietnam War and you had the campus occupied by 1,000 members of the Ohio National Guard," Hensley says. "So, if that is not going to trigger student activism then what is?"
Those who were activists of the time were not seen favorably. Hensley recalls that opinion polls after the May 4 shootings showed little support for students and relatively little public outrage over the shootings.
"A lot of us were regarded very negatively not only because of our position on the war," Stamps says. "It had to do with our long hair, the clothes we wore and the marijuana we smoked."
Possibly because of the negative stereotype placed on student activists, students have turned to subtler methods of effecting change. One thing that has gotten national attention is volunteerism. Though volunteerism rarely involves sit-ins or boycotts, some say it is a form of activism.
"People tend to forget that [volunteerism] is a form of political action because they are out there trying to solve problems," says Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida, Tampa and author of Young versus Old: Generational Combat in the 21st Century.
Volunteerism among college students is on the rise. UCLA, in their annual report of first-year students, reported that 74.2 percent of freshman in 1998 performed volunteer work in the past year and 42.1 percent donated their time for at least an hour a week. The survey also reported that only 21.3 percent of the students attended high schools where volunteering was a graduation requirement.
Though these results look promising for the future of activism, they are not. Only 18.9 percent of those who claimed to volunteer felt they would continue volunteering.
Student interest in activism and volunteerism may dwindle in college in part because students feel a need to become economically driven upon entering college or because universities are increasingly promoting careerism.
"Generally, [students] don't have fire in their bellies and they aren't in the streets like students of the '60s," says MacManus. "They are driven more by economics than politics."
John T. Hubbell, director of Kent State University press and professor of history who taught during the '60s, places the blame more with society and universities than students. "In the '60s, there seemed to be among undergraduates more of a sense of doing something that was socially redemptive and that seems a little less so now. The difference was that when they were in high school the movie To Kill a Mockingbird was out and they all wanted to be like Atticus Finch. People came along a few years later and they wanted to be like LA Law, a bunch of money-grubbers and ambulance-chasers and divorce lawyers. I don't think it's an accident. I think during the Reagan years materialism and conspicuous consumption was encouraged."
"I am not sure that universities as institutions promote altruistic behavior," Hubbell says. "Why do we tell you to stay in school after all? We talk about wages. You'll make more money if you graduate from college or high school. We don't say, well, if you learn certain things, it will be helpful to you. I think universities as institutions [tend] to emulate corporations and become amoral and not altruistic."
Students today are more concerned with how they look than how they think says Moore. He believes students of the '60s and '70s were more concerned with obtaining a qualitative education.
"We are preoccupied with teaching them (students) how to make a living, and we've gotten away from teaching people how to live," Moore says.
Hubbell and Moore are not alone in feeling that colleges and universities should be helping to promote social activism. As reported in The Chronicle, 62.6 percent of full-time faculty members feel colleges and universities should be actively involved in solving social problems.
Larson, co-chair of the May 4th Task Force and president of Kent's chapter of Amnesty International, believes the university's lack of social bearing keeps students who would otherwise be active from participating in events.
"A lot of times, I think [students] don't really know how to get involved, and I know our campus does not really encourage involvement in the sense of getting involved in organizations," Larson said. "They make us (organizations) pretty hard to see."
With activist actions and battles remaining largely underground and universities seeking order over action, student activists get lost in the shuffle of a business-as-usual society. So, is it really that students are apathetic? Given that students are less interested in politics in its traditional definition (the Chronicle reported that only 13.7 percent of students frequently discussed politics and 26.7 percent felt that keeping up with political affairs was important), but students are far from disinterested in events that affect their lives.
"We have a totally different type of student now,"Larson says. "It's not that we are apathetic, but we live in a totally different time."
Today, as television serves as the script for history, individuals are becoming more isolated form one another.
"It was in their face," Larson says. "Right now we have the Internet and we have TV, all these things which really place people in a situation where they feel they are totally alone. People are alone in their bedrooms thinking, 'Oh, I feel the same way,' but they don't realize there are probably 2,000 other people that feel the same way they do."
Richard Flacks, professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, feels the stereotype of "Generation X" is largely overblown.
"The GenX image of apathy doesn't account for the fact that there is a good amount of protest activity and a good amount of service activism," Flacks says. "There are those who are cut off from the world, but that doesn't characterize the whole student body."
But there is hope for student activists across the nation. National organizations are springing up in hopes of creating a national student movement. But, just as campus activism is diverse, so are the national organizations.
"We know that student activists can be a catalyst for larger movements," says Nikki Morse, development director for the Center for Campus Organizing in Boston. "We're trying to lay the groundwork for this larger task."
CCO, through campus networks, attempts to link individual campus groups to groups on other campuses in an attempt to create a national network and thus a national agenda for progressive politics.
"You never know if any of these projects are going to click, where the idea of student activism begins to catch on like it did in the '60s," says Flacks. "People are out there trying to educate and get students to play that kind of role and there is more of this than there was 20 years ago."
Here at Kent State student activism is on the rise, according to Larson.
"I've noticed that people have kind of been opening their eyes more," she says. "I've seen a change on this campus in the last two years even. More and more people are getting involved. I am just really pleased with that. People are starting to see that the American Dream isn't all it's cracked up to be and that it's limited to only a certain type of person."