The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Protest shows colleges are once again becoming civil rights battlegrounds

University of Missouri students sang and danced in celebration of President Tim Wolfe's resignation on Nov. 9, after days of campus protests and strikes. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Protesters at the University of Missouri earned a stunning victory Monday morning when the school’s top administrator bent to their demands and abruptly stepped down.

“It is the right thing to do,” system president Tim Wolfe said, announcing his resignation in the face of spiraling unrest on campus, including student walkouts and a week-long hunger strike, over incidents of racism and his administration’s sluggish response.

In his speech, Wolfe was alternately contrite, confused and combative.

“Why did we get to this very difficult situation?” he asked “It is my belief that we stopped listening to each other. We didn’t respond or react. We got frustrated with each other, and we forced individuals like [hunger-striker] Jonathan Butler to take immediate action and unusual steps to effect change.

“This is not, I repeat, not the way change should come about,” he added.

[U. Missouri president, chancellor resign over handling of racial incidents]

And yet, on-campus incidents like the Mizzou protest are increasingly driving change across the country.

Take a look at Monday’s headlines. The Mizzou protest was the nation’s top story, but it was closely followed by a series of university-related controversies.

Hundreds of students rallied in solidarity with minority students at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., on Nov. 9. (Video: Facebook/John M. Hagedorn)

At Yale, hundreds of students marched to demand the university take action after a fraternity allegedly held a “white girls only” party. Video emerged showing Tuscaloosa, Ala., police Tasering and beating a university student. “Ithaca College president target of no-confidence vote after alleged racism on campus,” read a headline at Last month, it was “Brown University Students Stage Die-In, Demand Greater Recognition for Native Americans.”

And by Monday afternoon, the Mizzou protest had launched a second, spinoff debate over the treatment of a student photographer trying to take photos of the protesters.

[Video shows protesters and professor barring media coverage]

It was as if American colleges had become the front line of the culture war: a battleground for civil rights akin to the occupied campuses of the 1960s.

“There is clearly something happening this semester,” said Angus Johnston, a historian of American student activism. “It’s building to a higher pitch over the course of this semester, in the past few weeks. It’s definitely booming.”

Johnston said student activism has been “on the upswing” for several years now. The Mizzou hunger strike may be the most dramatic of recent examples, but it is part of a broader phenomenon with roots in previous protests, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement, he said.

“I would trace the current rise back to 2009,” he told The Washington Post in an interview early Tuesday morning. “Before Occupy Wall Street there was Occupy California and there was a wave of building takeovers in 2009 through 2011. They were mostly put down, there were a lot of arrests, there was physical violence against protesters and things died down a little. But with Black Lives Matter and anti-rape protests and the continuing salience of anti-tuition and economic accessibility, we are definitely seeing an upswing again.”

Although the Mizzou protests are not affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, Johnston said they should be seen in the same context, particularly the involvement of the university’s football players.

On Saturday night, 31 African American members of the MU football team appeared alongside Butler in a message posted to Twitter announcing the athletes were going on strike until Wolfe stepped down or was removed. The next day, coach Gary Pinkel sent out another tweet throwing his entire team’s support behind the boycott.

The boycott, which could have cost Mizzou more than $1 million, was widely cited as a significant factor in Wolfe stepping down. The system president mentioned it in his resignation.

[Why Missouri football players are going on strike]

“The involvement of football players was an extraordinary development,” Johnston said, but it built upon growing athlete involvement in the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly in Missouri, where African American teenager Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson.

“Last fall and winter we had a big string of Black Lives Matter protests, die-ins and that kind of stuff,” he said. “And you had college athletes participating: wearing T-shirts and engaging in moments of silence before games.”

Several St. Louis Rams players entered the field with their hands up in homage to the slain Brown. Several current and former Mizzou players made similar statements.

“This is, in some ways, taking that kind of collective action to the next level,” Johnston said of this weekend’s football boycott.

There is also an even more direct line between Ferguson, Black Lives Matter and what happened at Mizzou: Jonathan Butler.

[Black grad student on hunger strike in Mo. after swastika drawn with human feces]

Butler, the hunger-striker and leader of the Concerned Student 1950 movement that ousted Wolfe, told The Post that he and some of his fellow demonstrators had protested in Ferguson. Butler said it had been a crucial education for him.

“I’ve been involved in activism work for several years now,” he said, but he got more serious “after I got a chance to protest and do some organizing in Ferguson when Mike Brown was murdered. I got more into the protesting, demonstration aspect of activism.”

At the same time, the MU administration’s quiet response to Ferguson helped spur Butler and others to begin taking action.

“There was national coverage, so for the school to not cover that or really address that, and we are only two hours away, I think was a huge mistake on their part and contributed to the current cultural environment that we have,” he said. “It just shows that there are racially motivated things — murders, assaults, other things — that happen and we are just going to sweep them under the rug.”

Although the Concerned Student 1950 movement — named after the year in which a black student was first allowed to attend Mizzou — wasn’t affiliated with Black Lives Matter, it shared a similar desire, Butler said: “The movement toward affirming black lives and being unapologetic about our existence and the fact that we do deserve to have safe environments for ourselves.”

That movement has been the driving factor behind a series of protests — and counter-protests — at universities around the country. In May, a Duke professor drew outrage after accusing African Americans of failing to integrate into American society like other minorities. And in September, an op-ed in the Wesleyan University student paper criticizing Black Lives Matter drew a fierce backlash, including calls for the paper to be shut down.

Most recently, Yale’s hallowed campus has become home to heated screaming matches and impassioned protests over allegations of a “white girls only party” and insensitive school administrators.

[A clash between administrators and students at Yale went viral. Why that is unfortunate for all concerned.]

But race is just one of a trio of issues that are igniting American college campuses, Johnston said. The others are sexual assault and the soaring cost of higher education.

“Over and over and over again, those are the three big ones,” he said. “In all three areas, it’s not so much that the situation is getting worse as it is that people are coming to feel that the situation has become intolerable. And it hasn’t become intolerable because it’s deteriorating. It has become intolerable because it has not been improving.”

Last school year, accusations of sexual assault and administrators turning a blind eye launched another Ivy League school into the national spotlight. For months, Emma Sulkowicz famously carried around the mattress on which she said she was raped by a fellow student, only for the school to do nothing.

But Sulkowicz herself became a target of protest, pictured in “rape hoax” posters plastered around campus. And the man she accused ended up suing the school for allegedly failing to protect him from a “harassment campaign.”

Add these incidents to raging debates about “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions” and it appears universities are more contested, controversial places now than they have been for decades.

[Columbia students claim Greek mythology needs a trigger warning]

But Johnston, the student activism historian, says that we aren’t at the level of the late 1960s, when students occupied Columbia University’s library to protest against the Vietnam War (1968) and Harvard’s University Hall to denounce racism (1969).

At least, not yet.

“We’ve got a level of student activism which is like 1965 right now, but people are freaking out about it like it’s 1970 and The Weathermen are blowing up townhouses in Greenwich Village,” he said.

In 1965, the student movement was only beginning to make its presence felt, Johnston explained. The Vietnam War casualties began to accelerate as the year went on, however. By 1966, deaths had tripled. So, too, had protests. “Suddenly it was cool to be a student activist,” Johnston said.

“I think that’s the feeling that I have right now,” he added, “that we are seeing something similar to where we were in about 1965.”

If 2015 is the calm before the storm, then the storm is bound to be mighty.

Johnston noted, however, that social movements don’t follow an easy and predictable arc. Instead, they go “up and down and there are lulls and there are periods of activity that seem like they are going somewhere and then they don’t.

“But there is a trajectory,” he added. “You can sort of measure a trend line, and it’s pretty clear to me that the trend line is going up right now.”