The University as a Space—and a Tool—for Left Organizing

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.” These opening words of the Port Huron Statement defined a student movement for a generation that would become known for both its vision for a better world and its activism to make it a reality. This “Agenda for a Generation” was one of the longest, most ambitious, most detailed, and most eloquent manifesto of the American left in the twentieth century—written by undergraduate students sensing an impending revolutionary moment. The movement that followed—with participation from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and others—brought the concept of “participatory democracy” into leftist discourse and identified the struggles against racism and against war as the defining fights of their time. The document and the movement are described as foundational moments in the development of the New Left.

Undoubtedly the movements of that era were successful when they incorporated the systematically oppressed and exploited beyond the halls of universities—the struggles could not have survived on student participation alone. As Freddie DeBoer and Amber A’Lee Frost have recently pointed out, it is important for the left to recognize the necessity of broad based movements and the centrality of workers in the struggle. Their primary argument is not debatable: the university cannot be the only site of radical organizing. But as the SDS Agenda for a Generation shows us, university organizing can also be formative and guiding. While universities by their very nature cannot be the primary site of left organizing, many of these same features cause them still to be important sites of left organizing. Instead of abandoning them or reducing their importance in our organizing, we must use them to our advantage.


Hubs for Organizing

Universities must remain important sites of our struggle for two main reasons, one which was true of SDS and SNCC in the 1960s and one which has emerged as a result of the political and economic projects of the late twentieth century. First, universities serve as an entrepot—a hub in which easily organized groups of people are omnipresent. Second, universities have become “anchor institutions” in many cities since the 1970s—playing key roles in (under)development projects and carrying disproportionate weight in local politics. Having strong radical organizations within the belly of the beasts has proven useful in affecting communities beyond the campus borders.

The centrality of young people to our struggle has been long recognized. As Frantz Fanon wrote: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.” He writes that we must learn and respect the fighters in generations which came before us, but acknowledge our own role in the continuation of the struggle. Molding activists when they are young proves easier too—when people arrive at college, or the workplace, at age 17 or 18, they come with their political persuasions still in flux. As is the case with countless students, arriving at school as a liberal, and then being organized, often results in the embrace of revolutionary socialism by the end of undergraduate careers. The youth, then, are an indispensable group for our organizing. And, in the most basic way, universities are important because the presence of young people in one place creates an ideal environment for this organizing. Just as union organizers would agree that organizing workers in a single workplace is easier than organizing those spread around several locations, the same is true of students. Not only does it take less effort to reach more people, the social and discursive nature of universities yields greater turnout for similar effort.

This is not to say that organizing students is sufficient—as DeBoer points out, only 7.5% of the U.S. population is regularly on a university campus. But rather to say that it is a necessary part of our struggle. University populations are increasingly energetic in demanding justice and equity. The inspiring unionization drives by graduate student workers since the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB) decision to classify graduate student teachers and researchers as employees, the conflicts between administrations and faculty that have often escalated to movement-building moments, and the upsurge in undergraduate student activism linked to Black Lives Matter and labor unions all create momentum that we must seize upon and therefore lend credence to the argument that universities should remain a central space for revolutionary organizing.


Fighting the Beast from Inside It

The presence of organizable populations alone may be enough to see the university as a valuable site for socialist movements, but the outsized role universities have played in the underdevelopment of their surrounding communities over the past quarter century (or longer) make organizing these populations even more critical. Universities often are some of the largest employers in their cities and states—and their long-standing resistance to paying living wages and providing adequate benefits has resulted in vast inequalities between the university elites (faculty and administrators) and low wage university workers (often subcontracted staff in food service, security, and janitorial services). This is combined with other, structural aspects of university-led underdevelopment: “Eds and Meds” (universities and hospitals) became “anchor institutions” in cities across the United States. Beginning in the late-1950s, universities began to promote “urban renewal” projects dedicated to “improving” the neighborhoods surrounding campuses. These developments resulted in the displacement of local residents and the gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods. These projects often altered their shapes during the neoliberal era, but the effects have been the same: dispossession and segregation.

In many places, such as Baltimore, behemoth institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and its health system became one of the largest investors in urban ‘development’ and emerged as the largest non-state employer in Maryland. The development projects planned by Hopkins—in concert with the City government and others—in the early and late 2000s faced swift resistance by community organizations. But the organizing by neighborhood groups was largely unsuccessful, and the development project went along anyway—resulting in the dispossession of over 2,000 residential homes in East Baltimore. At the same time, a coalition of workers and students within the Hopkins institution (organized and supported by prominent scholars such as David Harvey and Noam Chomsky, respectively) were fighting for living wages. Working together, this coalition was able to pressure the university administration through public humiliation and direct confrontation. After a prolonged struggle, the workers were successful and the university committed to wage increases. The success of the internal struggle for better working conditions and wages along with the failure of the external struggle against underdevelopment suggests that organizing within the university against the university’s role in the project may have been more fruitful.

This is a strategy that is currently being taken up by student organizations, workers unions, and equitable development advocates in Baltimore—and has been met with some degree of success. In addition to teaming up for equality for subcontracted workers at Johns Hopkins, these groups (which count among them two large workers unions, the campus Black Student Union, and the chapter of the new SDS) are currently pushing for broader changes—such as better workers’ protection policies in Baltimore City as a whole and more equitable housing development policies from Johns Hopkins. This strategy of pushing Hopkins from within—and pushing the City government and other stakeholders from without—successfully resulted in the recent passing of a displaced worker protection ordinance in Baltimore.

This victory, significant yet small, signals that this strategy could be used to win other battles against underdevelopment in which universities play a key role but are not necessarily themselves the primary site of struggle. In this way, building strong left movements on campuses—among workers, faculty, and students alike—can have tangible results beyond the boundaries of the universities themselves. As primary stakeholders in university actions, these populations make powerful allies—particularly undergraduate students, who serve as important sources of revenue for colleges and universities. It is obvious that simultaneously fighting ‘in the belly of the beast’ and outside of it gives more opportunities for the success of left movements.


A Space and a Tool

Universities, then, are both important spaces and tools for our organizing. The space of a campus allows for easy access, and the populations of students and workers on it are groups traditionally most open to anti-systemic ideas. Moreover, influencing power centers within universities themselves—notably students and faculty—allows for more sites of struggle when conflicts arise in broader communities. In this way, left organizing on campuses becomes an important tool for influencing the trajectories of community development and for engaging in harm reduction on local scales.

For these reasons, ongoing calls to de-emphasize universities in our struggles are well-intentioned, but misguided. While there is no doubt a tremendous need to emphasize workers’ struggles—and primarily low-wage, vulnerable, and informal ones at that—allowing university organizing to fall by the wayside will prove to be a strategic error. Centering the most vulnerable groups of people in our organizing does not require ignoring other critical spaces and tools. So long as universities play a role in the underdevelopment of their communities, there will remain a need to fight them on many fronts. For this reason, we must continue to work on and with university campuses. And, like in the struggles of the last century, we may just find clarifying voices and visions for a better world along the way.


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