An 2001 article from the Wall Street Journal. How well has it held up? Note that, despite listing a half dozen issues that engage college students, they fail to mention climate change.

What omission will seem similarly surprising a decade from now?

When Protests Proceed at Internet Speed


In the 1980’s, U.S. higher-education institutions struggled over whether they should divest the stocks they owned in companies that did business in South Africa because that country engaged in apartheid. Colleges, including Macalester and Williams, where we serve as presidents, formed committees of faculty members, students, and others to deliberate and discuss what constituted socially responsible investments. Boards of trustees adopted statements of principle guiding their investment policies.

It’s difficult to determine how much influence the divestiture movement had on political reform in South Africa. But many corporations unquestionably felt the heat that colleges’ stock-divestment policies generated, and the white South African government worried mightily about the impact apartheid would have on that country’s economic future. Most observers have characterized the divestment moment as a remarkable example of effective collective action by higher-education institutions.

Although groups dedicated to the principle of social responsibility have remained active — often through churches and state pension funds — issues like apartheid, which affect people far beyond the boundaries of a campus, have faded from the radar screens of most colleges. Until now. The time may well have come to reawaken, or re-create, those committees and to dust off those policy statements. The second coming of social responsibility is upon us.

This time, however, social activists have different types of concerns and, more important, employ different methods of communication and consensus building. That means that college leaders must develop different ways to respond to those concerns.

Investments in tobacco, nuclear-energy, genetic-engineering, and other companies remain potential targets for student protests and shareholder action. Today, however, students are also questioning another significant aspect of higher education: how colleges raise and spend their cash. The issues include fair pay for campus workers and purchasing from environmentally aware companies.

But at the top of the list these days is the “sweatshop” issue: the role that colleges play in the marketing of clothing bearing their name or image. Because colleges license apparel with their logo on it, and that apparel can be made in overseas factories with abusive labor practices, higher-education institutions have become a focal point in the struggle to improve conditions for foreign textile workers. Student activists, worried about corporate control of the global economy, and spurred by labor leaders with their own complicated agenda regarding the relationship of workers and management, have employed a mixture of opinion mobilization and 1960’s-style protests and sit-ins to provoke responses from institutional leaders.

Yet much more has changed than the issues and the players. The Internet has significantly raised the stakes in dealing with them. The same instant and private communication that has allowed dissident groups to stay active in China has fostered a national network of student activists and other advocates of social change, who are linked through e-mail lists and Web sites. Although the quality and reliability of all Internet material needs to be viewed with a skeptical eye, dedicated groups of such activists can quickly assemble rich archives of information, analysis, and advocacy — and put significant pressure on colleges to respond at a speed that was unimaginable just a few years ago.

The Internet is also a superb vehicle for mobilizing supporters and planning political action in diverse locations all across the United States and even the world. For example, the Seattle World Trade Organization protests, like those at the World Bank meetings in Washington, were largely coordinated through e-mail. As one of us can personally attest, the president at any institution that becomes involved in the sweatshop issue can count on receiving hundreds of e-mail messages — usually espousing an anticorporate position — from remote spots around the globe.

In a sense, we are only experiencing an evolution of the telephone networks and direct-mail campaigns long familiar to activists. Administrators’ unease about such developments can also be seen as an extension of familiar complaints about “outside agitators.” Still, the Internet has vastly expanded communications capabilities. It is now much easier for far-flung student groups to provide one another moral support, to share strategic and tactical ideas, and to assemble information — or propaganda, depending on one’s point of view — to bolster their case. In the new environment, ideas move fast, and issues become urgent almost overnight.

As the sweatshop example suggests, such waters are deep, and often turbulent, ones for college administrators to wade into; we can be pulled into the undertow before we know it. Many issues today lack the moral clarity of, say, the civil-rights movement — although no doubt even those moral issues seem clearer in hindsight than they did to those who were acting at the time. Tactical choices — for example, in the sweatshop case, deciding which monitoring organizations a university should join — can quickly be invested with overwhelming moral and symbolic importance. Activists read those choices as litmus tests of an institution’s good faith.

Further, when passions erupt at Internet speed, facts and evidence often lag far behind. Campuses can quickly divide between a relatively small group of intensely committed and engaged activists, and a larger group who may feel more mildly pro or con, but are mostly unfamiliar with the issue or confused. It can be exceptionally difficult to preserve space for the intellectual and moral reflection needed to find some level of reasoned consensus.

But finding the space to raise, debate, and resolve such issues is vital. The communications free-for-all brought about by the Internet makes it more important than ever that colleges provide students and others with a broader perspective, a context within which to think through an issue. Moreover, thoughtful debate on vexing social problems, with attention to argument and evidence, is a wonderful educational opportunity.

At the same time, you’ve got to be ready to act. In fact, each college should develop a deliberative council or committee — one with both real and perceived legitimacy — to coordinate activities and help build consensus around a proper course of action for the institution. Such a committee needs to include members of all key campus constituencies, including faculty, students, staff, and trustees — the kind of apparatus that was erected, often in the face of passionate arguments, during the conflicts over policy toward South Africa. Updating, rehabilitating, and re-energizing those structures makes sense.

An effective committee can help raise campus awareness of an issue, improve understanding of the issue’s various dimensions, and help place that issue in the context of a college’s many responsibilities and goals. Both Macalester and Williams created such committees last year to help guide deliberations over sweatshop issues.

Depending on the issue, promoting space for reflection may also call for arranging public debates and other forums on campus, enlisting the analytic and leadership skills of knowledgeable faculty members, and making available to students and others on the campus an array of background materials on the subject in dispute. In addition, faculty members from various disciplines might bring social-responsibility issues into the classroom to create a more comprehensive learning experience. In the specific case of the sweatshop issue, thoughtful discussions can be part of the curriculum in a wide range of departments: economics, philosophy, political science, history, sociology, and other fields.

Whatever the forum for discussion and debate, college leaders should ensure that those with committed views have a chance to be heard. But we must also safeguard the ability of those who doubt or disagree with those views to raise questions and put forward alternative analyses without being made to feel vulnerable.

Finally, we should never get so caught up in all the activity surrounding certain issues that we lose sight of colleges’ most fundamental social responsibility: to educate students and, through research efforts, to contribute to new knowledge. We need to remind student activists and others who push for social change that those are the main ways we make the world better.

Indeed, the clearer we are about how education and research contribute to social change, the more likely we will be able to keep demands for direct action to improve the world in context. We can then do our proper part without losing perspective on our capacities and our most important role.

Michael S. McPherson is president of Macalester College. Morton Owen Schapiro is president of Williams College.

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