Privilege, Social Media, and the Modern Social Movement

Fifty years ago, Ira Magaziner and a well-organized coalition of students changed the nature of education at Brown University. Their strategy: interpersonal organization to generate mass participation. Thanks to their efforts, the University now boasts an Open Curriculum and lacks distribution requirements. Today, Brown students organize primarily through social media and gather in lesser numbers. Considering the contexts of student activism in the 60s and today reveals that differences in participation result not from disorganization created by social media but from fundamental changes in the goals of student movements.

Magaziner and his peers shared privileges that both narrowed their focus and facilitated their organization. At that time, nearly all Brown students came from the same context. They were white and upper middle class. They had read the same books for their high school AP courses. They had even grown up listening to the same music. “To [university presidents] [Henry Merritt] Wriston and [Barnaby] Keeney, diversity … meant geographic variety,” writes Brown Professor Luther Spoehr in Rhode Island History. These students represented one cultural background and its cadre of social concerns. They centered their efforts on resistance to the Vietnam War and rights for African Americans, women, and students.

Magaziner’s investment in his cause was more intellectual than emotional. He and several classmates wrote a 400-page report identifying curricular problems and proposing solutions for a Group Independent Study Project. From there, he and a cohort of 20 student organizers “set out to mobilize the whole student body. If we had large numbers, we could achieve greater results with moderate tactics,” he wrote in a recent essay.

Differences in participation result not from disorganization created by social media but from fundamental changes in the goals of student movements.

As president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, Magaziner was perfectly positioned to rally his peers. At that time, the structure of the UCS gave it a comprehensive reach. While today, students self-nominate and collect signatures to join, in the 1960s, each residential area elected its own representatives. Magaziner coordinated with representatives to get into buildings and gather small groups of students for preliminary discussions. He presented details of the report and followed up with whoever seemed interested.

This small start yielded massive results, namely, a large network of students that could be called upon to assemble at the drop of a hat. By November, upwards of one thousand students — more than a quarter of Brown undergraduates — regularly attended rallies on the Main Green. A petition demanding a joint student-faculty committee to evaluate the curriculum garnered signatures from over half the student body.

Victory arrived in April of 1969. In a scene almost like a grand finale, nearly 80 percent of Brown’s student body gathered on the Green to hear the curricular committee’s decision. The resulting academic freedom produced a climate of intellectual passion that members of the Brown community from freshman to high-level administrators still celebrate.

Victory has yet to come for the 65 black students who walked out of their Brown and Pembroke classes in the fall of 1968, when Magaziner’s movement was in full swing, demanding that black enrollment represent its proportion of the national population. Despite a petition of support from Magaziner’s network and promises from the administration, Brown’s black students still comprise only 6.8 percent of its undergraduates compared to a national proportion of 13.3 percent.

Students walked out of class again in protest on November 16, 2016, seeking to call attention to this failure and to demonstrate solidarity with groups most at risk following the election. Approximately 400 students participated, carrying signs and chanting from Wriston to the Quiet Green. By marching, the students participated in the national #OurCampus and #SanctuaryCampus movements. They demanded increased protections and resources for underrepresented student groups and a paid committee of three students to oversee their implementation. Curricular reforms, including more professors of color, new courses, and increased funding for centers for students of color were represented, but were hardly the main focus.

The November walkout highlighted many characteristics of modern campus movements. Students rallied according to information on a Facebook page, and, though members of various advocacy groups spoke, there was no obvious leader. The advent of social media enabled both these changes, but they have less to do with systems of disseminating information and more to do with the emphasis of identity politics on inclusivity and collaborative leadership. It is more a categorical change between generations than an organizational one.

The demands of young activists reflect concern over not only internal problems but a comprehensive range of changes in the structure of society itself. They demand reforms that are more complex and perhaps less immediately palatable to administrators than Magaziner’s academic campaign. The still-unsatisfied 1968 demands of black students for proportional enrollment are proof that change in defiance of the trajectory of structural oppression is more difficult to enact.

Rather than comparing the success of Magaziner’s campaign with modern movements and attributing the differences to social media, it is necessary to consider them together. Such evaluation yields a new context for Brown’s New Curriculum. Magaziner’s success resulted from incredible hard work and dedication, deep thought and careful organization. But it also resulted from a kind of privilege no longer standard for each student at Brown.