Something awesome happened last week: a small handful of student activists decided to take on not only injustices that they had faced, but university-wide gaps in both student conduct policies and faculty training policies that facilitate these terrible injustices.
A 13-hour sit-in in Cheadle Hall by sexual assault survivors and their supporters resulted in Chancellor Yang agreeing to meet their demands, including the publishing of sexual assault statistics, cultural sensitivity training for faculty and staff, and changes to the university code of conduct. In spite of the country’s slow, stumbling trod toward improving university sexual assault problems, the students who refused to leave Cheadle Hall and demanded to negotiate with the head of the university himself took it upon themselves to kick-start the change they recognized was necessary and overdue.
Despite having a chancellor who’s actually in tune with and receptive to student needs, the success that the student activists—as well as everyone affected by the upcoming changes they enabled—witnessed was still incredible and arguably improbable. Their tenacity, courage, and sense of justice produced considerable and meaningful changes to a vital yet structurally deficient system and was accomplished in an almost unprecedented manner.
The University of California, Santa Barbara has a proud history of successful progressive activism and social engagement. We were a hub of passionate anti-Vietnam War activity in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. A take-over of North Hall by the Black Student Union in 1968 resulted in the creation of Black Studies and the hiring of more black staff and faculty, among other demands. A hunger strike by 39 members of El Congreso in 1989 led to the creation of the Multicultural Center and an ethnic studies General Education requirement. UCSB often has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation and plays a crucial role in county and House of Representatives elections.
While student activism still exists in many forms on campus today, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen as sudden and stunning a victory for students as last week’s. We might not be facing the prospect of being drafted, but there are still serious issues and injustices that students have to face—from tuition increases to local violence to indirect discrimination. The agreements to change the way UCSB handles sexual assault cases is an unambiguous reminder that, despite being one of the lower rungs on the social-hierarchy ladder, we have the power to drive the change that needs to happen—if we want to.
We may still be confronted by considerable challenges as students, but that doesn’t always translate into the passion and determination that was present in Cheadle Hall. Issues like tuition hikes don’t faze enough of us to generate the type of forceful activism that results in an overhaul of sexual assault policies or the creation of new academic disciplines. Whether tackling these problems in an effective way seems too monumental a task or if we just can’t be bothered to care enough about the issues that adversely affect ourselves or some of our peers—directly or indirectly—important change often comes only as a result of our own efforts. Those who traditionally have the power to effect change—such as university administrators and elected officials—may have many of our best interests at heart, but that doesn’t always translate into suitable action and policy when they have other priorities. It takes those who are most affected by certain policies and structures to understand when and why the system is failing us.
And to overcome this distance between our rung of the ladder and those above us, we sometimes need to shrug off the feelings of futility and apathy. Real, significant, student-benefitting change has and always will originate in serious student activism like that of our campus’ sexual assault survivors, BSU, or El Congreso. It’s those who are wronged by a problem or policy who can catalyze the necessary change, be it through accepted standards over time or in more extreme forms like last week’s sit-in.
We’ve just witnessed the capabilities and effects of serious, resolute student activism—a successful, albeit momentary, revival of our activist past. It’s time for UCSB to renew its traditional role as activists for student and educational issues. When injustices like the ones our current and former peers rectified go too far, let’s not be afraid to take the initiative ourselves.