The Protest Generation Wants Its Education Back

Jeff Bryant

Protests in North Carolina against HB2, the state’s infamous “bathroom law,” limiting protections for LGBT people, have made national headlines recently.

But there’s another wave of protest actions going on in the Tarheel State you should know about. This movement is indicative of a national-level fight for education justice and civil rights throughout all of public education.

In Chapel Hill some 100 people, mostly students, shut down a meeting of the state university system’s board of governors. The board chairman had to adjourn the meeting when about 20 protesters took over the agenda as soon as newly appointed systemwide President Margaret Spellings began to speak.

“Hey, hey, ho ho, Margaret Spellings has got to go,” they chanted. Police had to clear the room.

The Chapel Hill action is just one example of widespread objections to the recent appointment of Spellings to oversee the entire UNC system.

As a television news report explains, the Chapel Hill meeting had originally been located at UNC-Asheville, about a four-hour drive away. But the board changed the meeting site “because even larger protests were expected” there, and Chapel Hill was said to have better “security.”

Earlier in the school year, as the UNC campus paper The Daily Tarheel reported, the campus greeted Spelling on her first official day at work with a massive protest as faculty joined hundreds of students in walking out of class. “Other walkouts were coordinated with other UNC-system schools,” the newspaper reported. “According to Ignite NC, a progressive grassroots organization, more than 5,000 students protested across six campuses.”

According to one reporter, student protesters at these events are “driven by various issues, including House Bill 2 . . . Spellings has said the law will be followed on UNC campuses, though there is no enforcement planned.”

Anyone who has been paying attention to K-12 education—where student protests have been raging for some time and have increased every year—could see this coming from a long way off.

At a time when public education is increasingly being operated as a business-oriented, market driven enterprise, and democratic input into the system is being treated as a nuisance, students themselves are more disenchanted with capitalism and are demanding a say  in their education destinies.

Margaret Spellings—”A Line In The Sand”

“Stagnation in economic activity due to a trickle-down economic philosophy is causing communities to rise up,” Derick Smith told me at the Chapel Hill protest. Smith is an adjunct professor of political science at North Carolina A & T in Greensboro, one of the historically black colleges and universities.

According to Smith, while North Carolina “has long been heralded as having one of the best state systems of higher education, we’ve been dismantling and corporatizing it.”

Smith says historically black colleges, in particular, are a target for dismantling. “We’ve always lagged in funding and had too little attention from the state,” he says. “Now our very existence is being challenged.”

The Spellings appointment, according to Smith, is where supporters of public education are “drawing a line in the sand.”

As you may recall, Margaret Spellings was the U.S. Secretary of Education under President George W. Bush.

Smith ticks off a list of objections to her appointment that includes the selection  process, her previous service on the board of a for-profit university, and her advocacy for No Child Left Behind, the federal education law passed during the Bush administration. NCLB was enormously controversial and was recently largely rewritten in new federal legislation.

“Her track record gives those concerned about the corporatization of higher education something to worry about,” Zoë Carpenter wrote for The Nation shortly after news of Spellings’ appointment.

Carpenter recounts how Spellings, under Bush, tried to bring NCLB’s “focus on performance metrics and accountability” to higher education. Carpenter notes that Spellings often refers to students as “consumers” and lauds the “aggressive, outcomes-based approach” of for-profit education companies. Carpenter notes that Spellings, post-Bush, served on the board of a parent company of the for-profit chain University of Phoenix, and “also chaired the board of the Ceannate Corporation, a student loan–collection agency.”

Carpenter also recalls accusations of homophobia cast at Spellings after she used her position in the Bush administration to admonish the chief executive of PBS for “a brief, unaired scene on a show called Postcards From Buster that depicted a same-sex couple.”

“A Hatchet Person”

“She is in this for for-profit driven purposes,” Ajamuito Dillahunt, one of the student protesters in Chapel Hill, told me in a phone conversation a few days after he helped shut down the board of governors’ meeting. Dillahunt is a freshman at North Carolina Central University, another historically black institution in Durham, where he plans to major in political science and history.

“She refers to students as customers,” he said, “and colleges as enterprises.”

“Education isn’t a business,” he continued. “It’s a human right.” Dillahunt is particularly concerned about the connection between the “business” of college education and increasingly burdensome student debt.

Dillahunt also objects to the way Spellings was selected to serve as new system president after popular system leader Tom Ross was mysteriously ousted without explanation. Emails that became public after Ross’s firing revealed that members of the board of governors were so unable to explain their actions they had to rely on talking points crafted by a PR agency to respond to critics.

“There was no faculty or student involvement in her selection,” Dillahunt explained, so in addition to his objections to the business mindset Spellings represents, he also sees an absence of democracy in how university governance is operating.

“When we shut down the meeting,” Dillahunt argued, “we didn’t interrupt something that was really a democratic process,” noting that the board had changed locations to thwart protests and had at first not allowed students to enter the building. “We’re demanding inclusion in a process that is about our education.”

Derick Smith agrees. “Why is she the choice? Why didn’t faculty, students, and citizens have a voice?”

Instead of seeing a democratic process at work in Spellings’ selection, Smith sees “a political appointment … to be a hatchet person in destroying public education.”

The Protest Generation Rises

“Margaret Spellings isn’t going anywhere,” the board of governors chair told local reporters covering the Chapel Hill protest. He denounced the protesters for their “rudeness” and “lack of common decency.”

Maybe Spellings isn’t going anywhere, but neither are student protests.

According to a recent survey, college students’ interest in political action is historically high,” the Washington Post reports.

This past year, colleges across the country . . . were rocked by protests,” the article reports, highlighting in particular the forcing out of the chancellor and president of the entire University of Missouri system.

“This spring may be even more intense,” the Post reporter notes. “Almost one in ten [college freshmen] said they expected to participate in protests—the highest number in the 50 years the survey has been given. The students most likely to protest are black students, one in six of whom said they expect to demonstrate.”

Another poll of young people found them to be “frighteningly liberal.” As the Republican pollster The Intercept reports, Americans 18 to 26 are “so liberal that the hostility of young Americans to the underpinnings of the American economy and the American government should frighten every business and political leader.'”

“President Obama is not their favorite political figure,” The Intercept reporter notes, “Bernie Sanders is.”

A third survey, also in the Post, revealed younger people’s deep skepticism of capitalism at a time when privatization and business thinking is increasingly invading the public space. The fact that a majority, 51 percent, of adults between ages 18 and 29 say they do not support capitalism, prompts the Post reporter to surmise, “today’s youngest voters are more focused on the flaws of free markets.”

The resentment and discontent driving the protest generation emerging in colleges and post-college has a long tail of student protests in the K-12 level.

It Started In K-12

Beginning in 2012, students in metropolitan K-12 school districts across the country began speaking out in prominent, headline-earning protests, using their social media and organizing skills to send hundreds of their peers into the streets to protest.

To spur the protests, students in Philadelphia, Providence, Rhode Island, Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere formed student unions that developed attention-getting tactics, which spread to a national scale.

The rapid scaling up of student unrest prompted activist Hannah Nguyen to write in 2013, “Students all over the United States, from Portland to Chicago to Providence, are tired of feeling powerless when it comes to decisions that affect their education . . . [They’re] fighting back against threats to their education, such as budget cuts, high stakes testing, and school closings. From mass walkouts and sit-ins to creative street theater and flash mobs, these students are demanding that their voices be heard.”

In 2014, hundreds of high school students walked  out of classes in a suburban school district outside of Denver, Colorado,  making  national news. The slaying of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teen, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, set off a wave of student-led actions in schools calling for racial justice in both the education system and society at large.

In Chicago, “more than 100 members of the Chicago Students Union, alongside parents, teachers and elected officials, marched on Chicago Public Schools headquarters demanding the fair funding of schools and a democratically elected board of education.”

In Newark, N.J., students organized a two-day boycott and “shut down Broad Street, the busiest street in New Jersey’s biggest city, laying down and chanting for nine hours.”

The Guardian reported that “a spate of revolts against school dress codes appears to be gaining momentum across the United States, with students staging walkouts and other protests to complain at the way girls have been ‘humiliated.’”

This school year, The Christian Science Monitor has a review of student protests so far that highlights walkouts in Boston, where over 3,000 students left classes, and thousands of them gathered at the statehouse to protest school budget cuts and charter schools.

In Detroit “students staged walkouts in support of teachers who had been taken to court by the state-appointed emergency manager for staging “sickouts” over deplorable conditions in schools.” In Houston, students wrote an “amicus brief in a case demanding more equitable school funding in Texas.” And ongoing student unrest in Chicago and Newark continued unabated.

Students will Continue to “Do The Work”

Some college administrators may be adapting to the rising protest generation inundating their campuses.

As online news outlet Take Part reports, a recent survey of top college and university officials found, “Nearly half . . . have seen protests about social justice issues, including diversity and inclusion on campus. More than half of them said they’ve met with protesters more than once, and 55 percent say it’s helped elevate those issues to the top of their agenda.”

With this bigger picture in mind, it’s clear that leaders of North Carolina’s university system who believe they can just dig in their heels are delusional.

A local news outlet covering the protest in Chapel Hill recorded student leader Rachel Clay, a graduate of Appalachian State saying, “We never wanted Margaret Spellings to be the UNC system president. We didn’t have any input in that decision.”

The same news outlet quoted UNC-Asheville student Juliet Flam-Ross saying, “I don’t feel like I am being represented. I don’t feel like my friends are being represented. I don’t feel like historically black colleges and universities  are being represented. I don’t feel like they’re responding to HB2.”

Dillahunt assures me he has no intention of quitting his protests until student demands are met, and “we have a voice in our college education.”

He tells me, “Students have an obligation to uphold true democracy. We’re students. We do the research, and we do the work students have to do understand the issues. And we’ll continue to do that.”


This article originally appeared at The Progressive.

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