Days after student and faculty protests rocked the University of Missouri, three Republican candidates for governor had something to say.
“We must stand up for the First Amendment, against pampered students who are there for seven or eight years and are still complaining about their surroundings,” Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder thundered at a GOP forum Nov. 14 in Platte County.
He called some of the university’s professors “tenured radicals,” and said that if elected “I would go on that campus, and I would confront those protesters, as Jay Nixon has been too cowardly to do.”
GOP governor candidates Catherine Hanaway and John Brunner quickly chimed in.
“Those students are being played by a faculty that has a liberal agenda, that has absolutely nothing to do with racism,” Hanaway said, to loud applause.
“These kids are telling me it’s so politically correct, you can’t talk, you can’t communicate,” Brunner said.
Two weeks after the resignations of the president of the University of Missouri System and the chancellor of the University of Missouri, an uneasy truce seems to have settled over the state’s largest college campus. Relative quiet seems to have returned to other campuses as well, although many underlying concerns about racial and gender attitudes and free-speech rights remain unresolved.
But political scientists and campaign professionals say that if student and faculty demonstrations expand and deepen this year or next, campus protests could become a key issue in next year’s elections. Indeed, that debate may now be inevitable in Missouri in 2016, when campus racial policies are likely to intertwine with a robust argument over the response to the disturbances in Ferguson.
“If journalists keep the story alive, and ask questions pertaining to student unrest and why, the issue will become an important issue that candidates will have to address,” said Kenneth Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University. “It will likely be an issue in the Missouri’s governor’s race, as well as Missouri’s U.S. Senate race.”
Days of rage
Campus protests were a major political issue half a century ago.
Ronald Reagan made criticism of student demonstrations a centerpiece of his 1966 campaign for California governor. “When the so-called free-speech advocates … were allowed to assault and humiliate the symbol of law and order and policemen on campus,” he told an audience that year, “that was the moment the ringleaders should have been taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown out of the university once and for all.”
In his announcement speech, Reagan accused campus activists of “neurotic vulgarities” and promised to return order to the state’s colleges. His sharp criticism of campus protesters likely led to his surprise victory, and one of the most important political careers of the 20th century.
“It’s well known among political observers that Reagan rode the tide of the general public’s dissent over protest activity on campuses,” said Robynn Kuhlmann, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri.
For Reagan and his supporters, college protests reflected a broader breakdown of traditional American values.
“In his mind, the rambunctiousness of the students with respect to political issues overlapped with countercultural mayhem,” said Todd Gitlin, a professor of journalism at Columbia University in New York and author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.”
Other politicians soon followed Reagan’s example. In 1970, then-President Richard Nixon referred to campus activists as bums.
“The boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world,” he said. “Going to the greatest universities, and here they are burning up the books, I mean storming around about this issue. I mean, you name it, get rid of the war, there will be another one.”
Those messages held strong appeal for many Americans, Gitlin said, particularly as more students began attending college. “You begin to get this class resentment,” he said.
And, Kuhlmann said, “protests, in general, are the least liked forms of political participation in the United States.”
That resentment and anger may still exist, at least in Missouri.
One recent poll suggests wide disapproval of recent campus protests in the state. The survey, conducted by Remington Research Group for the political website Missouri Scout, found a solid majority of voters disagreed with the protesters’ actions at MU.
Only 20 percent of those surveyed agreed with the actions, the poll found, while 62 percent disagreed.
62 percentof Missouri respondents to a recent poll disagreed with protesters’ actions at MU
20 percentapproved of the protests
84 percentof Republicans disapproved
42 percentof Democrats approved
Responses were split among racial lines — a majority of African-Americans said they agreed with the protests, while a strong majority of whites disagreed with the events. But responses were also deeply split among political partisans, illustrating the potential impact of the controversy in next year’s elections.
Fully 84 percent of Republicans surveyed said they disagreed with the students’ actions, while a mere 5 percent agreed with them. Democrats appeared much more tolerant of the protests: 42 percent agreed, while 34 percent disagreed.
Those numbers may explain why Republican governor candidates have emphasized their concerns about the protests at Missouri, while Democrats have downplayed them. Democrat Chris Koster, the party’s likely nominee for governor, called for a task force to “address issues raised” by the protests, but did not directly criticize the actions of protesting students or faculty.
Kinder and Hanaway, by contrast, explicitly referred to Reagan’s campus statements during their remarks Saturday.
“We have student protesters and radical faculty now running (the University of Missouri) into ruin,” Hanaway said. “If I were governor I would do precisely what Ronald Reagan did when he was governor of California … I’d be there, I’d confront the protesters, and I’d restore order.”
Trump: ‘Crazy’ demands
As news of the Missouri protests spread, students on a handful of other campuses launched their own demonstrations. That suggested the political debate over campus activism might spread to other states, and eventually to the presidential campaign.
Donald Trump called the Missouri students’ demands “crazy,” their protests “disgusting,” and said the resigning officials had set a poor precedent. Ben Carson, also a leading GOP presidential candidate, criticized “political correctness” on campuses.
Other GOP candidates said they were less familiar with the events at the university.
Democratic presidential candidates expressed some support for the Missouri students who demonstrated. “It’s time to address structural racism on college campuses,” Sen. Bernie Sanders said in a tweet.
Yet when asked during last Saturday’s debate if Missouri’s protests could provide a template for other schools, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was vague.
“Obviously, I believe that on a college campus, there should be enough respect so people hear each other,” she said. “It’s really a question for all of us to answer.”
But the focus on the Missouri protests by presidential candidates in both parties faded after the terror attacks in Paris. “Given the war on terrorism, it will likely remain a more minor issue on the national level in the presidential race,” Warren said.
Kuhlmann agreed. “Unless campus protests gain their momentum, it will more than likely be the focus of state-level officials and candidates,” she said. “This is especially true as new crises overcome old ones so easily in our modern times even if the old ones aren’t resolved. One example is the recent series of ISIS attacks and the attention to refugee placement in states.”
Others said the current protests differ in important ways from the 1960s demonstrations that Reagan used to his advantage. The current protests are less widespread, and involve different concerns — there are fewer demonstrations about the military, for example. And the concerns of minority students, while significant, are complaints of long standing.
“Institutional responses to student protests of the past … have not resulted in steady progression,” wrote Lori Patton Davis, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. “At best, it is a case of three steps forward and two steps backward.”
Some conservatives have questioned the sincerity of the demonstrations. “This is the theater of the absurd,” conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham said. “This is not about learning or justice. This is about rabble-rousing and division.”
But others said a multichannel media world will allow protesting students to send their concerns across the nation, ensuring some discussion of current campus issues in the campaigns to come.
“Social media can easily make it clear that they aren’t alone — that students elsewhere feel the same way they do and that those students are taking action and making change,” wrote columnist Libby Nelson for Vox.com.
“The protests at Missouri,” she wrote, “will not be the last.”