Campus Organizing

Students On The Move

By A. S. Zaidi


From October 31 to November 2, 1997, hundreds of students from around the nation gathered for the Democracy Teach-in Organizing Conference at the University of Chicago. Co-sponsored by the Center for Campus Organizing (CCO), the Alliance for Democracy, and the United States Student Association.

The first Democracy Teach-in in August 1996, which drew 55 activists, led to teach-ins at 45 campuses in October 1996. The 1997 organizing conference drew 250 activists. Over 100 campuses are expected to participate in the March 1998 teach-ins and the May 1 Day of Action to End Corporate Dominance. The CCO has helped build momentum, creating e-mail discussion lists and an invaluable bimonthly, Infusion.

Last fall, activists attended workshops such as "How to Investigate Your University," "Student Activist Radio," and "Using Campus and Community Media" in order to learn the nuts and bolts of campus organizing. In a plenary session, there was a roll call of universities, at which students described their campaigns. These included recycling, democratizing trustee boards, and research into military and corporate contracts with universities. University of Florida students have established a "War Department" to deal with their current crisis.

Judging from the sit-ins and building takeovers, the upsurge in graduate student organizing, and the spate of publications on the academic labor crisis, it appears that our campuses are no longer the "hotbeds of social rest" that Abbie Hoffman once decried. It’s about time. Tenure and affirmative action are under fire, public education is being privatized, and higher education in general is subject to the exigencies of the military. Tuition at public colleges soared 256 percent from 1980 to 1995.

In his address to the conference, Richard Grossman noted that corporations have the State at their disposal. Grossman predicts that this situation will continue until we reform laws that allow corporations to pollute, exploit, and do what they are constituted to do, i.e., maximize profits. Insofar as it claims to nurture the life of the mind and spirit, the university is surely an appropriate place to challenge corporate power. Activists will need to foster a sense of empathy and shared struggle in places that have been characterized in large measure by competition and isolation.