20 of the Most Important College Protests and Social Movements

Social movements across the nation’s college and university campuses have recently caught national attention. Students are gathering together to focus on a common goal that could help shape laws, change policies, and impact history.

But social movements on college campuses have been going on for decades. In the 1960s, opposition to the Vietnam War and the importance of civil rights were among the top issues. Today, a strong opposition to hate speech and the presidential election has sparked demonstrations among some of the nation’s higher educational institutions.

We researched college campus protests in the United States and listed the 20 most important college protests and social movements in history.

#1 – The Berkeley Free Speech Movement

University of California at Berkeley

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Berkeley Free Speech Movement - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In 1964, students on the USC Berkeley campus promoted the right to free speech and academic freedom. The Free Speech Movement (FSM) was recognized across the globe as a campus phenomenon, inspired by the civil rights struggle and later fueled by a strong opposition to the Vietnam War. For one of the first times in American history, a wave of student activism and involvement was ignited. At the time, student-run groups received backlash and reprimand for engaging in any kind of off-campus politics, and USC was no exception. Students disagreed with the established policies and decided to take actions into their own hands. The movement widened and grew as USC students showed their desire for free speech. The movement lasted approximately sixty days, with over 700 arrests when individuals occupied the administration buildings. The Free Speech Movement goes down in history as one of the most important college protests.

#2 – Morningside Park Protest

Columbia University

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Morningside Park Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In 1968, protests broke out at Columbia University after institution officials announced plants to build a gym in Morningside Park that would offer only limited access to residents of nearby Harlem. This racially charged protest was birthed out of the already aggravated student body regarding Columbia’s research ties to the Vietnam War. In April of 1968, a large crowd of students occupied the campus buildings and demonstrated for approximately one week. Officers showed up with tear gas and approximately 150 students were injured. Over 700 arrests were made, and the recreation center was never built.

#3 – Teach-In Anti-War Social Movement

University of Michigan

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Teach In Anti War Social Movement - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
To protest American intervention in Vietnam, an anti-war protest broke out at the University of Michigan in March of 1965. The protest was decided to be a “teach-in,” as a way to make a statement yet educate the university’s students. Teachers brought awareness of the Vietnam War to the classrooms and held demonstrations following classes so there was minimal disruption to the university. The teach-in at University of Michigan was the first demonstration of its kind, and after receiving national press, prompted many more teach-ins throughout the country, including those at Rutgers, Columbia, and University of Wisconsin.

#4 – The Student Debt Protest

New York University

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Student Debt Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests

In 2013, graduating students at one of the nation’s priciest institutions of higher education–New York University–formed a student debt protest in Washington Square Park. The demonstration was to call on the current president, John Sexton, to do something about the accumulation of debt of his graduating students. The protest was also designed to make sure that the upcoming NYU president, Andrew Hamilton, was aware of the debt problem. Students took to Twitter with hashtags like #HamiltonGetReady and #YouAreNotALoan. Teach-in events accompanying the protest prompted the university to offer counseling services so that students could talk about their financial debt situation. Little changed following the protest.

#5 – Keystone XL Pipeline Protest

Georgetown University

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Keystone XL Pipeline Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests

In spring of 2014, President Obama considered the creation of the Keystone XL pipeline and as a result, students at Georgetown University assembled to protest. The university hosted students from other colleges and acted as the head of the demonstration. The location of Georgetown’s campus allowed students an easy march toward the White House, stopping at Secretary Kerry’s place of residence along the way. Students unfurled a mock oil spill in the middle of the street that drew national attention. Upon arrival at the White House, leaders spoke to rally the crowd regarding the consequences for carrying out the construction of the pipeline. While hundreds of students were arrested, Obama ended up vetoing the pipeline plan a year later.

#6 – Protest Against Insensitivity

Claremont McKenna College

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Claremont McKenna Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In November of 2015, Mary Spellman, Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students at Claremont McKenna College resigned in response to a protest that took place the day before. The protest centered on the idea that Dean Spellman had not provided a safe space on campus for students from marginalized backgrounds. She had earlier emailed a Latina student stating she would work to serve those who “don’t fit our CMC mold.” Spellman later apologized for the choice of words, but her remarks were a tipping point for students who had worked on pressing the campus for greater diversity among staff and faculty.

#7 – Sexual Assault Awareness

Columbia University

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Sexual Assault Awareness - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
As a sophomore, Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz had been allegedly raped, but the school neglected to expel the accused. The woman took matters into her own hands and carried her mattress everywhere she went, including graduation, in protest. The demonstration brought sexual assault awareness to campuses around the country. The student received backlash from some male students, but also support. She was able to spark conversation and move officials to help victims of sexual assault. In 2014, dozens of Columbia students carried mattresses around the school’s campus and a month later a group called Carry That Weight organized similar protests around the nation.

#8 – The Kent State Protest

Kent State University

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Kent State Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests

In April of 1970, President Richard Nixon went on national television to announce the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and need to draft 150,000 soldiers in order to expand the Vietnam War effort. His announcement provoked protests on campuses throughout the United States, including Kent State University in Ohio. Protesters launched a huge demonstration that included setting fire to the ROTC building. The protest prompted the Ohio governor to dispatch 900 national guards to campus. During the protest, an altercation took place and 28 guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of students, killing four and wounding nine. A grand jury later indicted eight of the guardsmen, but the charges were dismissed for lack of evidence. The Kent State shootings go down in history as the worst handling of a campus demonstration.

#9 – Racism Lives Here Protest

University of Missouri

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Racism Lives Here Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests

In 2015, a series of protests took place on the University of Missouri campus in relation to race, workplace benefits, and leadership. The first student protest occurred in September at an event called Racism Lives Here. In response to protests, hunger strikes, and a boycott of the university’s football team, the school’s president resigned. Students stated that the campus had been a hostile place and nothing had been done about it. The protest led other universities and colleges across the country to stand up for what they determined was wrong on their campus.

#10 –Women’s Activism

University of Georgia

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Women's Activism University of Georgia - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
A three-day sit-in in 1968 at the University of Georgia prompted national attention due to the unequal treatment of female students. According to protesters, the dress code and curfew rules were stricter for women than men, and women–not men–were banned from drinking or living off campus. Students protesting for equal rights occupied the Academic Building and demanded change. Two years later, following the Kent State shooting, additional protests occurred on the University of Georgia campus. Alarm was brought when students unsuccessfully attempted to burn down the military building. Today, the university welcomes peaceful protests and demonstrations.

#11 – Love Trumps Hate Protests

University of Texas

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University of Texas Love Trumps Hate - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In response to the inauguration of President Donald Trump, college and university campuses across the nation hosted protests and demonstrations. The University of Texas was one of the institutions, and among the first wave to hold anti-Trump parades and walk-outs. Students held signs reading: Love Trumps Hate and Students Against Trump, standing in solidarity after the inauguration. Similar protests took place at Temple University, Ohio State University, Florida State University, and Wayne State University. Students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill joined in solidarity tweeting #LoveTrumpsHate hashtags and sentiments that read: We are not free when some are oppressed.

#12 – The Harvard Strike

Harvard University

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Harvard University Strike - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In April of 1969, over a span of two weeks, students at Harvard University who were opposed to the Vietnam War and its Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) presence on campus began to protest. A series of demonstrations kicked up and students began to occupy University Hall, one of the college’s oldest buildings. University administrators called in the police, who used tear gas and clubs to clear demonstrators out of the occupied buildings and off school grounds. Since many of the protesters were Harvard students, the forceful removal by the police led to more demonstration.

#13 – Occupy Wall Street

University of California, Davis

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Occupy Wall Street UC Davis - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
After the Occupy Wall Street movement took hold in 2011, students at university campuses began to join in with peaceful protests of their own. Students on the University of California Davis campus demonstrated in solidarity. After asking protesters to leave the area, university police sprayed the group of peaceful protesters with pepper spray while they were seated on a paved pathway in the campus quad. Video footage went viral and the photos became internet famous. Two years later, a judge ruled that the university pay each pepper-sprayed student $30,000 each. After the incident had occurred, large protests formed against the use of pepper spray on college campuses.

#14 – Ferguson Rallies

St. Louis University

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Ferguson Rallies St Louis University - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson and the months of rioting that rocked the region, students at St. Louis University stood for four minutes of silence in solidarity with the Brown family. Brown, an 18-year-old male, had been killed by a police officer just a few months earlier. The incident sparked outrage and gathered national press. Peaceful protests continued throughout the year with students occupying the university in demonstration. The Black Lives Matter movement was ignited after the shooting . Yearly protests continue at St. Louis University and other institutions across the nation.

#15 – The Yale Protest Against Racial Insensitivity

Yale University

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Yale University Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In November of 2015, students at Yale University protested against what they saw as racial insensitivity at the Ivy League institution. Hundreds of Yale students marched after tensions rose when school administration sent a letter regarding Halloween costumes. The letter urged students to avoid insensitive costumes like those featuring blackface, turbans, and mock Native American headdresses. Controversy began when a university lecturer objected to the call for sensitivity. She is quoted as writing: “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious … a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive?”

#16 – Third World Liberation Front Strikes

San Francisco State University

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Third World Liberation San Francsico State - 20 Most Important College Protests
In 1968, the Third World Liberation Front rose as a coalition of ethnic groups on college campuses in California in response to education reform. The demonstration lasted from November of 1968 to March of 1969 and became the longest student strike in American history. San Francisco State College, now San Francisco State University, led the strike in an effort to raise awareness of third world student access to higher education. The University of California, Berkley, housed a further establishment of the Third World Liberation Front, which became the second longest student strike in history.

#17 – Hate Speech Protest

Cornell University

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Hate Speech Protest Cornell University - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In an effort to protest hate speech surrounding the United States’ 2016 presidential election, nearly 1,000 students, faculty, and area residents rallied at Cornell University. They called the demonstration the People’s Walkout. The rally was assembled as more than criticizing the President-Elect, but something bigger. A student organizer is quoted as saying, “A lot of students are scared and they don’t know what to do and this is a protest that is just trying to bring our whole community together in solidarity to figure out what do we do next.” Students dressed in black and marched through the Cornell campus. While the protest did block traffic and disrupt classes, the rally remained peaceful.

#18 – Sanctuary Campus Protest

Syracuse University

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Syracuse Sanctuary Campus Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In a response fueled by the 2016 presidential election, approximately 1,000 students at Syracuse University and neighboring SUNY declared themselves a “sanctuary campus.” The protest message was to inform immigrants, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community know they are always welcome on the campuses. The protesters were motivated by the tone of the presidential election and other issues like the Dakota Access Pipeline and Black Lives Matter. Organizers delivered speeches, and a march took place across the quad. Approximately 80 other college campuses throughout the U.S. took part in a show of solidarity.

#19 – Take Back Our Campus: Resist White Supremacy

University of Wisconsin

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University of Wisconsin - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
In response to a University of Wisconsin student attempting to start an alt-right group on campus, a group of 70 protesters marched for the fight against white supremacy. The demonstration, entitled “Take Back our Campus: Resist White Supremacy,” gathered in late January 2017 to march from Library Mall to Bascom Hall voicing their demands. Before the demonstration ended, the group walked to the Student Activity Center to speak with the university chancellor, Rebecca Blank. Part of the political change they hoped to achieve was to have administration make changes to policies. Chancellor Blank did address the group and listened to their concerns.

#20 – Anti-immigration Protest

Stony Brook University

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Stony Brook University Anti-Immigration Protest - 20 of the Most Important College Protests
On February 1, 2017, Stony Brook University students marched on campus in a demonstration to protest against the president’s executive order barring refugees, immigrants, and individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries. Protesters were opposed to the immigration order and marched alongside students directly impacted by the presidential move. Stony Brook was one of many United States college campuses to organize protests against Donald Trump’s speeches, immigration policies, and declaration of building a wall along the Mexico and United States border.

BDP Staff
April 2017

This concludes our list of the 20 most important college campus protests and social movements in the United States.

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