Top 10 Activist Campuses

Tehran’s Number One! At least, they are in our annual roundup of the top activist campuses.

Photo: AP/Wide World Photos

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On February 15, 2003, millions of college students were among anti-war protesters who filled downtowns from Auckland to Warsaw — the largest demonstration in human history. The looming war with Iraq also prompted a March 5 national student strike called “Books Not Bombs.” But from defending affirmative action to battling budget cuts to protecting workers’ rights, this year’s protests were as diverse as they were dramatic. Here, our 10th annual roundup of the top 10 activist campuses.

1. University of Tehran: Not to dis American students, but their Iranian counterparts earn our top spot for unflinching dissent in a nation where speaking out can lead to imprisonment, or worse. Outraged that reformist history professor Hashem Aghajari was sentenced to death for questioning why clerics alone should have the power to interpret the Koran, students from Tehran University began a month-long protest in November. After two weeks, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was moved to demand a Supreme Court review of Aghajari’s case. (His sentence was eventually commuted to 74 lashes and eight years in prison.) But the protest still grew to 10,000 students, until riot police violently dispersed the longest opposition demonstration since the 1979 revolution. Come spring, emboldened students were calling for the resignation of President Mohammad Khatami — and facing retribution from paramilitary vigilantes.

2. California Community Colleges: On March 17, after California announced it was cutting $530 million from community colleges and hiking tuition by 120 percent, 10,000 students marched on Sacramento. Two weeks later, 4,000 students chanted, “Educate! Don’t Incarcerate!” as they marched in Los Angeles, railing against cuts that would deprive 200,000 students of an education. Despite a $35 billion budget shortfall, Governor Gray Davis restored $245 million to the colleges and scaled back tuition increases to 50 percent. “The students should be proud of their involvement in the process,” says Peter Ragone, communications director for the governor, “and proud of the fact that their voice has influence.”

3. New York University: With a penchant for getting arrested, NYU activists were among the nation’s most theatrical anti-war opponents. In October, eight students rushed the stage of MTV’s Total Request Live, flashing their “No War in Iraq” T-shirts before being hauled off camera. The following morning, five students staged a nine-hour sit-in at Senator Hillary Clinton’s New York office, presenting her with a petition against authorizing war in Iraq. Later that month, 11 NYU protesters were arrested at the United Nations after slipping their guide and disrupting the General Assembly with anti-war chants. In November, more than 1,200 students walked out of their classrooms in a show of anti-war solidarity.

4. Howard University: Howard hosted Black Tuesday, a massive protest organized by a dozen historically black colleges to urge the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action. Kicking things off with a teach-in and poetry slam on March 31, students then marched on the court, where thousands camped for the night. The next day, 6,000 students — 2,000 from Howard — rallied. “I’m tired of hearing people say that the civil-rights movement is dead and that this generation is doing nothing to help,” organizer Andrea Van Dorn told the Howard Hilltop. “We are here to show the world that we are united and there are still activists.”

5. University of Michigan: Since it was Michigan’s admissions policy being reviewed by the court, 16 busloads of students convoyed from Ann Arbor to join Black Tuesday. On a higher note, 4,000 Wolverines rallied in April to protest the nation’s drug war — which this year saw John Ashcroft take time off from Al Qaeda to raid Internet bong distributors and head shops in “Operation Pipe Dreams.” Many who demonstrated smoked up; thanks to Ann Arbor’s progressive pot laws, only one student was arrested for possession.

6. James Madison University: When the governing board at the public James Madison University in Virginia voted 8-to-5 in April to ban the distribution of the so-called morning-after pill at the campus health center, sophomore Krissy Schnebel swung into action. Under her direction, activists collected 2,714 signatures in two days, far surpassing the 10 percent needed to bring a bill to the student senate. Schnebel then wrote a bill condemning the ban; it passed by an overwhelming 54-to-6 margin. Students are hopeful that the governing board will reverse itself when classes resume this fall. Schnebel’s activism also resulted in more than 50 threatening phone calls. “They first started off very angry,” she says. “I was a ‘whore,’ I was a ‘slut,’ I was going to ‘pay for my sins.’ And then towards the end, a lot of people called me asking me if I needed help finding God. It just got really strange.”

7. University of Chicago: Taco Bell is the most popular vendor in the U of C’s food court, but campus activists still scored one of the first victories of the national “Boot the Bell” campaign. Because Taco Bell’s tomato suppliers are said to exploit migrant farmworkers, Chicago students lobbied the university to sever ties with the chain. On Halloween, 60 students, many dressed as tomatoes, marched on the administration offices. In November, U of C’s food-services manager declined to renew the Taco Bell contract.

8. St. Joseph’s University: Boring commencement speakers are a rite of passage. But nearly 100 newly minted graduates from this Catholic university in Philadelphia decided that a bigoted speaker — Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who in April earned himself a place alongside Trent Lott by comparing gay sex to bigamy, incest, and polygamy — deserved a walkout. St. Joe’s students wore gay-pride rainbow tassels on their mortarboards and were joined by 30 faculty members as they commenced to walk on Santorum’s speech.

9. UC Berkeley: True to form, 1,500 Cal students rallied at Sproul Plaza as the Iraq war began, demanding that Baghdad University be declared a sister school and that Berkeley refuse to provide student records to federal authorities. And 98 students were later arrested as they staged a four-hour sit-in, effectively bringing school business to a halt. “In many cases the students did not walk,” says police captain Bill Coo-per, “so the officers had to drag them out.”

10. Yale University: Yale’s endowment is more than $10 billion, yet many of its 5,000 clerical, hospital, and technical employees are paid less than $9 an hour. Demanding that workers be provided a living wage, 400 Yalies were among the 800 people arrested for blocking a New Haven intersection last September. Labor turmoil continued in March, when Yale’s graduate student teachers went on strike, holding up posters that said, “50% of the research, 40% of the teaching, 0% of the voice.” Five hundred undergrads braved a snowstorm to show solidarity in a “Classrooms in the Streets” protest, attending outdoor teach-ins on labor issues rather than regular classes.

Stephen Baxter, Jennifer Hahn, Marin Heinritz, Colleen O’Brien, Wasim Salfiti, Jaideep Singh, and Elaine Zelmanov.


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