Fight disinformation. Get a daily recap of the facts that matter. Sign up for the free Mother Jones newsletter.

The 1996-97 academic year was a busy one for undergraduate activists, and campus battle lines — like those of the nation at large — were drawn predominantly around affirmative action and multicultural education. In Mother Jones’ fourth annual ranking of activist college campuses, we polled nearly 20 organizations that track student activism — and we did some sleuthing ourselves, revisiting some regulars (the University of Wisconsin), as well as finding a few newcomers (the University of Illinois). The following list ranks schools where students are taking a stand on issues that concern them — from campus politics to foreign policy.

1 University of Wisconsin, Madison
(4); (24,844); $3,032; 94/6; 29%

Borrowing a page from campus anti-apartheid protesters of the 1980s, Madison students continued their campaign against human rights abuses by urging the university to divest from companies doing business with Burma. In 1995 they launched the Internet-based Free Burma Coalition, and last spring they helped convince the university to unload $239,000 worth of stock in Texaco, which has business ties to Burma.

2 Mount Holyoke, South Hadley, Mass.
(1); (1,889); $22,200; 70/30; 72%

Students at this pricey Seven Sisters school staged sit-ins and a walkout last April to protest, among other things, the administration’s proposal to abandon its need-blind admissions policy (i.e., students are accepted based on merit rather than their ability to pay tuition). Although the proposal still passed, students at this 160-year-old women’s college gained commitments to establish an Asian-American studies program and to hire a Muslim chaplain.

3 University of Massachusetts, Amherst
(1); (18,000); $5,413; 84/16; 56%

A coalition of 150 students from U-Mass. and neighboring schools occupied a U-Mass. administration building for six days last March, protesting the university’s failure to implement a range of demands, from scholarship money to daycare services. Outside, hundreds more held vigils to show support. The school agreed to 19 of the students’ requests — including increases in financial aid and in minority enrollment.

Key: ( ) years the school has made it onto our list; ( ) total full-time undergraduate enrollment; $ annual undergraduate tuition and fee costs (not including room and board; for public universities, in-state rate is listed); x/x white-to-minority ratio; % of students who receive financial aid; * information not available.

4 University of Minnesota, Morris
(1); (1,928); $4,554; 85/15; 85%

Though not noted specifically for its on-campus activism, this Midwestern school has been lauded as a model for diversity — surprising for a campus in a largely white rural area of Minnesota. Started as a boarding school for Native American children in the 1800s, Morris boasts students who are committed to advocacy for people with disabilities, minorities, and gays and lesbians. It also has a minority graduation rate (39 percent) that’s significantly higher than the national average (26 percent).

5 Stanford University, Stanford, Calif.
(2); (6,550); $20,490; 51/49; 61%

The Taco Bell doesn’t toll for Stanford students, who nixed the school’s plans to open a franchise in the student union because of the restaurant chain’s ties to Burma. (Taco Bell’s parent company, Pepsico, has since decided to discontinue business with Burma; many credit the move to nationwide student protests.) Student groups also heightened disability awareness by decorating nearly 40 campus buildings with posters rating each building’s accessibility; soon after, the school began renovations to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

6 State University of New York, Binghamton
(4); (9,349); $4,044; 75/25; 72%

Activists on this SUNY campus were in an uproar when the president of the student association (who won in a runoff election) called proponents of diversity “white haters,” advocated the dismissal of professors for their liberal politics, and appointed six white men to the student judicial board. After students tried to force their way into a locked association meeting, a melee erupted between protesters and campus police. The resulting weeklong sit-in at the administration building, together with intervention by the Anti-Defamation League, brought a review of the electoral process and the removal of the president.

7 New School for Social Research, New York, N.Y.
(1); (2,836); $17,880; *; 60%

About a dozen students at the New School, which is best known for its continuing-education division, put their beliefs before their stomachs when they embarked on a two-week hunger strike this spring to protest the university’s “revolving door” for faculty of color. The students were angered by the New School’s recruitment of minorities for nontenured, short-term positions. The result: The administration promised to strengthen its affirmative action plan, grant some raises for part-time faculty, and add students to various college committees.

8 University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
(1); (26,738); $4,153; 72/28; 52%

During the last school year, students here successfully lobbied for a Latina/Latino studies program. And they’re destined to gain even more clout this coming year: As a result of their demands — and against the wishes of the administration — the Illinois Legislature voted to give one student member of the university’s board of trustees a binding vote (as opposed to the traditional advisory role).

9 University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
(4); (15,363); $2,161; 82/18; 48%

Students at UNC recently formed a Coalition for Economic Justice in defense of workers’ rights and rallied to protect campus housekeepers, who feared for their jobs while the university considered privatization. The upshot: The chancellor finally ended a five-year legal battle with the housekeepers by signing an agreement — worth $770,000 — that guarantees workers greater control over their jobs.

10 Howard University, Washington, D.C.
(2); (6,173); $8,725; 1/99; 71%

Last March when officials at this prestigious, historically black university decided to merge the college of fine arts with the arts and sciences department, dozens of students occupied a floor of the school’s administration building for two days. They argued that the merger would reduce the quality of the arts degrees and endanger the school’s intensive arts instruction. While Howard’s president decided to proceed with the plan, he promised student representation on a panel charged with implementing the merger.

Honorable Mentions

  • At the University of California at Berkeley, 22 students were arrested after chaining themselves inside the campus bell tower to protest the passage of Proposition 209, which effectively ended affirmative action in the state.

  • Student activism at the University of the District of Columbia was instrumental in keeping the school, which provides one of the only affordable higher education opportunities in the Beltway area, from closing.

  • Boston University wins a vote for its impressive food-salvage program, which routed 300,000 pounds of leftover food from campus dining rooms and restaurants to local food banks and homeless shelters.

Key: ( ) years the school has made it onto our list; ( ) total full-time undergraduate enrollment; $ annual undergraduate tuition and fee costs (not including room and board; for public universities, in-state rate is listed); x/x white-to-minority ratio; % of students who receive financial aid; * information not available.

Sources we polled:
Amnesty International; Anti-Defamation League; Campus Outreach Opportunity League; Center for Campus Organizing; Center for Global Education; Habitat for Humanity; Mainstream Magazine of the Able-Disabled; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; National Gay & Lesbian Task Force; National Organization for Women; National Rainbow Coalition; National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness; New Mobility magazine; Peace Corps; Sierra Student Coalition; Student Coalition for Action in Literacy Education; Student Environmental Action Coalition; United States Student Association; Zero Population Growth. Additional reporting by Gary Thill.

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.