Student Activism Across the Past 5 Years
What Higher Ed Leaders Need to Know About Evolving Challenges
Student Activism Trends
EAB analyzed student activism activity across the past five years, which included
activism data points related to protests, petitions, and demands.
The EAB dataset includes:
Demands have spiked in 2020:
Student activists are asking us to do more, faster:
- Demands address wide range of university areas, requiring broad collaboration and buy-in from across the institution
- Students expect a fast response that outlines actionable next steps rather than just “empty words”
- Activists are less willing to negotiate; more likely to demand accountability
Common Drivers of Activism at all Universities
From 2015 through 2020, the most common drivers of activism at all universities are as follows:
Political Events/External Speakers
Cost of Attendance
Gender Rights/Sexual Assault
Three Focal Points of Student Unrest Across Past 5 Years
It is important to note that while COVID-19 did not become an issue in the US until Spring 2020, it is still one of the top 3 causes among activists across the past five years.
Dig into the Data
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Common Racial Justice Demands
2020 has brought about an upswing in demands from student activists. Some of today’s most common demands have been raised consistently for decades, dating back as far as the 1960s. These reoccurrences highlight higher education’s failure to make significant progress on these concerns for decades.
At the same time, the current cultural moment reckoning and unrest over racial injustice have spurred many new demands, urging institutions to go further than ever before to dismantle racism and its effects.
Below are some the racial justice demands presented to institutions in 2020. As you review this list, take note of demands that have yet to emerge on your campus and consider how your team would respond to a similar demand or how you can address the matter with student’s proactively.
- Increase faculty and staff of color
- Increase diversity-focused training for the campus community
- Add a diversity-focused course requirement
- Increase transparency and student representation in university decision-making
- Remove symbols of oppression on campus
- Hire BIPOC mental health providers specializing in racial trauma
- Increase access to reports filed against campus police officers, faculty and staff
- Pay reparations to Indigenous Peoples whose land the university is currently occupying
- Implement anti-racist curriculum plans
- Defund campus police or invest in alternative campus safety initiatives
- Prioritize black-owned business when selecting auxiliary providers
Responding to Racial Justice Demands Requires University-Wide Action
Racial justice demands often require multiple departments to coordinate to take action. In contrast with other types of demands, which have relatively a singular focus, racial justice demands commonly span campus departments ranging from housing, athletics, health services, academic affairs, campus safety, and beyond.
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Politics & Free Speech
In the hyper-polarized U.S. political climate, there is no shortage of causes or key moments for politics-focused activists. Regardless of ideology, these student activists advocate before, during and between election cycles. Our analysis showed that student activism centered around political topics spiked in the two years following the 2016 presidential election.
Common Political and Free Speech-Based Demands
Below are some the demands related to free speech or political events presented to institutions in 2020. As you review this list, take note of demands that have yet to emerge on your campus and consider how your team would respond to a similar demand or how you can address the matter with students proactively.
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COVID-19 has increased the reach of student activism. New activists are reviving familiar controversies surfaced by COVID-19, a virtual-first environment has inspired activists to enhance their digital advocacy skills and following, and as the pandemic has shone a light on inequities, activists are feeling an unprecedented sense of urgency.
Social justice activism has reached a new level of urgency because the pandemic has highlighted existing inequities and disproportionally impacted minority groups.
COVID-19 revived controversies around graduate student rights and student athlete unionization, sparking unrest that will persist beyond the pandemic.
The number of students participating has grown with the shift to increased digital activism, forced by COVID-19, and the effectiveness of digital platforms.
With the growth of digital activism, activists on different campuses are more commonly collaborating and sharing strategies.
Common COVID-19 Demands
COVID-19 presented student affairs leaders with challenges unlike any before. Protests, demands, and petitions related to COVID-19 have been prevalent across the past year.
Below are some the demands related to COVID-19 presented to institutions in 2020. As you review this list, take note of demands that have yet to emerge on your campus and consider how your team would respond to a similar demand or how you can address the matter with students proactively.
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Are you able to address evolving activism challenges?
Use our briefing to inform institutional leadership about the evolving challenges in student activism
and five key recommendations to better prepare to activism.