The 10 Most Politically Active College Campuses
Published on October 1, 2020
Colleges have long been hot spots for political movements and demonstrations. In fact, protests have been woven into the fabric of college campuses for hundreds of years. Historians may recall the Great Butter Rebellion, which took place at Harvard University in 1766. At that time, students sparked a food fight to protest being served butter that "stinketh" — and, really, who could blame them?
Two hundred years later, campus protests set a new precedence. Students at the University of California, Berkeley, staged monthslong free speech protests in 1964 and 1965, through which they insisted the university lift its ban on campus political activities.
In 1968, San Francisco State College's Black Student Union organized a strike calling on the school to admit more Black students. Then on May 4, 1970, the fateful anti-Vietnam War protest took place at Kent State University, where the National Guard killed four students.
Many of these student protests — though riddled with tragedy — led to positive changes.
Many of these protests — though riddled with tragedy — led to positive changes. Even today student activism remains alive and well on college campuses.
The University of Missouri protests against racism in 2015 became a pivotal moment that inspired other protests across the country. In 2019, college students around the world participated in a global climate strike to pressure leaders to be more proactive with their climate change policies.
If you're looking to attend a college that values student activism and social awareness, consider applying to the schools below.
Top 10 Politically Active College Campuses
1. American University
Located in the nation's capital, AU tops many "most politically active campuses" lists — and for good reason. Students and faculty have demonstrated on this campus since the 1960s, starting with a protest against the Vietnam War.
More recently, over 100 AU students spoke out against the forced removal of a Black student who had been suspended in September 2019. News stories reported that six police officers entered the student's room under the guise of a wellness check. Student demonstrators spread the phrase #HandsOffGianna on social media and presented university administration with a list of demands to combat campus racism.
Students aren't the only ones getting involved. This June, AU alumni joined in for a virtual Black Lives Matter rally over Zoom.
2. Claremont Colleges
The Claremont Colleges are a group of private undergraduate institutions based near Los Angeles. The largest school, Pomona College, enrolls about 1,600 students. Even though their student bodies are small, these colleges impress when it comes to demonstrations.
Twenty years ago, Claremont students marched from Pitzer College to Pomona, demanding the schools commit to better working conditions for cafeteria employees. Two decades later, over 200 students painted signs with slogans such as "Put your money where your mouth is!!!" when Pitzer withheld scholarship money from an undocumented DACA student.
Earlier this year as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the U.S., student demonstrations successfully urged Pomona to allow around 100 low-income, first-generation students to stay on campus.
3. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
UNC-Chapel Hill boasts a long history of student demonstrations, dating back at least 60 years. Early protests fought for civil rights and rallied against the Vietnam War. Later demonstrations include campus food workers' 1968-69 strike and student marches against South African apartheid in the 1980s.
One lighting rod for controversy was UNC's Silent Sam statue, an 8-foot-tall commemoration of a Confederate soldier. Protests against the statue went on for decades until August 2018, when students set out in the middle of the night to topple the statue — and succeeded.
4. Columbia University
The New York City-based Ivy League institution made national headlines in 1968, when students protested against what would essentially be a segregated gym. "Stop Columbia's Gym Crow," posters read — a clear play on the discriminatory Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Student activism at Columbia continues today. Hundreds of doctoral students went on strike this spring to advocate for canceled rent during the pandemic. They also demanded an increase in research stipends and an extra year for their degrees to make up for lost time due to COVID-19.
After Black Lives Matter protests spread across the U.S. this summer, many students called on colleges to rename buildings named for historical figures with ties to slavery. Columbia was one of these schools, agreeing to rename a residence hall originally christened for Samuel Bard, a slave owner and doctor.
5. Harvard University
Harvard didn't make this list purely because of the Great Butter Rebellion of 1766 — though the incident certainly set a precedent for student demonstrations in the centuries to come.
The past decade has witnessed a sharp rise in student activism at Harvard. In 2011, Occupy Harvard called for the university to confront class inequality. In 2017, students demanded the institution make divestments from companies that support the prison-industrial complex. And just last year, Harvard graduate students picketed over low wages and high healthcare costs.
6. Yale University
Like Harvard, Yale boasts a track record of student activism. In 2015, students made the news for protesting after what they considered an insensitive response from a Yale lecturer concerning a Native American Halloween costume.
Despite being historically rivals, in 2019 activists from both Yale and Harvard joined forces to call attention to climate change. Students stormed the field at the historic Harvard-Yale football game, calling on their universities to divest their endowments from high-polluting companies.
7. Syracuse University
At Syracuse in upstate New York, students ensure their voices are always heard. After the 2016 election, an estimated 1,000 students declared Syracuse and SUNY-ESF "sanctuary campuses." Demonstrators held signs that read, "Education! Not Deportation!" and marched to show that undocumented students were safe on campus.
In fall 2019 and again the following spring, students at Syracuse took serious measures to protest campus racism. Not only did protestors transform a campus gym into a demonstration base for 10 days, but they also later slept in an administrative building to grab the attention of campus leaders.
8. Texas Christian University
TCU's tradition of student activism dates back to 1963, when students petitioned for the campus library to open on Sundays. In the 1980s, their focus took a more global turn when Students for a Democratic South Africa rallied for the university's divestment in South Africa during apartheid.
This June, TCU students, faculty, and staff joined many across the country in protesting police brutality. But those weren't the first anti-racism demonstrations on campus in 2020. Just a few months earlier, students called for the removal of a faculty member who had allegedly physically and verbally abused a student.
9. University of Virginia
UVA has found itself in the national news several times over the past decade. In 2014, Rolling Stone published a story about the brutal sexual assault of a UVA student at a fraternity party. Though the article has now been discredited and retracted, many students still gathered to protest sexual violence on campus.
In 2017, Charlottesville — where UVA is based — made headlines again, this time for a far-right rally called "Unite the Right." One year later, UVA students organized the "Rally for Justice," a counterprotest and demonstration against racism. This year, students staged a "die-in" against the university's plans to hold on-campus classes in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak.
10. University of Missouri
For Columbia-based Mizzou, 2015 was a big year. Anti-racism demonstrations had been occurring on Mizzou's campus since 2014, when unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in nearby Ferguson. But these protests escalated in 2015.
A student group called Concerned Student 1950 camped out on a campus lawn to protest the administration's lackluster response to these racist incidents. Later, the football team went on strike in support of the activists, prompting the university president to step down.
Mizzou students rallied for many other reasons as well that year. Graduate students staged a walk-out when they were told without warning that the university would no longer subsidize their health insurance. Students also demonstrated against laws that would eventually lead to the end of abortion services in Columbia.
This September, student-athletes took the torch once more and planned a march and sit-in against police brutality.
Feature Image: Michael B. Thomas / Stringer / Getty Images News / Getty Images North America