Occupation therapy?

It is hard to say when exactly the idea of student occupations was born, but some trace it to student protests in Columbia University, New York, in 1968 against the university’s alleged involvement in a defence think tank; these protests involved the occupation of several campus buildings, from which the students were eventually evicted by police action.

In the years that followed, student occupations became a common weapon in protests, to the point where they was almost a reflex action. Unhappy with President Nixon’s re-election? Occupy the administration building! Want to end the Vietnam war? Occupy the university library! These actions were often fun, though whether they achieved anything very much is another matter.

During the more conservative years that followed from the 1980s onwards, student occupations became very rare. But now, it seems, they are back; so much so that there is even a website dedicated exclusively to student occupations, starting with British university occupations in protest at Israel’s offensive against Gaza, and more recently the wave of occupations prompted by British government funding cuts in higher education.

I must now confess that, rather many years ago, I too participated in an occupation or two. Of course the occupations had no effect whatsoever on the grand political issues at they were directed, but I would not say that they were pointless: they produced debate and political analysis amongst the occupiers, some of it not uninteresting. But until recently I would have said that, as a society, we have moved on: we have very different opportunities for registering our views these days. Also, my concern (as I have stated before) is that these occupations actually help to turn the wider public against universities, something that we cannot afford right now.

I would not dismiss the intentions and motives of at least some of the protestors; but I think their methods are misguided, not least because they give opportunities to some whose motives are rather less clear.

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11 Comments on “Occupation therapy?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    I am all in favour of students occupying libraries, and more especially, lecture theatres since many seem to otherwise have a distinct aversion to them.

  2. Vincent Says:

    While not a formal part, this might be the most useful aspect of the University experience for the student. They are actively taking control over their own lives. Something which might stress the little darlings that believe they are in place to teach rather that educate them. Hopefully having two or three of these protesters at a tutorial might lift same to a debate. It might also translate into later life. Look at the moment, you couldn’t toss a penny in central Dublin without hitting a Political leader, radio presenter, Professor or head of whatever you’re having yourself that wasn’t a candidate for a scaffold in the seventies.
    I’ll bet there is a file on most of the current top echelon sitting well under RIC headquarters over in the Phoenix Park.

  3. copernicus Says:

    “Also, my concern (as I have stated before) is that these occupations actually help to turn the wider public against universities, something that we cannot afford right now”

    The occupations and vandalism in London in recent days, have certainly turned off the people I know who were originally sympathetic to students’cause. But realising the fact the students do not pay any upfront fee, and payback the loan only when they start earning £21,000 and the loan is written off after 30 years, have made the general public not to look kindly at the students’ tantrums. The fact that other all public (and private) institutions outside the finance sector are suffering because of the cuts have also made the public realise that universities cannot be exceptions. One of those whose view has changed to outright hostility to students’ actions said to me watching students’ vandalism of the police van in Whitehall London the other day:” if this is what students and universities are all about, let them face the economic reality that all of us are facing”. I could not argue with her, who had had no opportunity to go to university, whose income is modest, and who is contributing by way of taxes to the funding of universities.

  4. cormac Says:

    1. I think the student sit-ins of th 1960s had a very real ifluence on poitical debate in the US.
    2. Not sure wat you mean by ‘even a website’ Ferdinand. It’s a lot easier to organize a website tha a protest!

    • copernicus Says:

      The sitins and protests during Vietnam era< Kent State universities for example, did attract strong response from the authorities as I witnessed then. As long as Nixon was there in late and early 1970s, he did not yield that easily to students.

      The current protests, the vandalism in particular at least in London is more violent than anything I witnessed then in late 1970s in Ohio.


    • Cormac, you wrote: ‘I think the student sit-ins of th 1960s had a very real ifluence on poitical debate in the US.’

      I cannot help feeling you are confusing protests with sit-ins/occupations.

      • copernicus Says:

        Not clear what these protests are for,and how they influenced the debate. I was living and working in MidWest there at that time, the only protests of any signficance at that time were about Vietnam War. It was conscription to the army through social security number pick was the main reason for the protests in the universties, as many men of within certain age preferably in 20s were picked. Full-time university course recruitment was high as this provided a certain degree of protection. The direction of political debate about Vietnam did not change until Nixon got mired in Watergate Scandal, and was weakened thus.

  5. Conor Says:

    I thought the Columbia occupations were to protest the proposed redevelopment of Morningside Park as a University gym, an even more admirable motivation since the students were valuing social solidarity over their interests.

  6. Stephen Baker Says:

    Have you any idea how patronising this post is?

    Also, an you substantiate this remark?

    …these occupations actually help to turn the wider public against universities…

    Or did you over hear a few patrons complaining in a pub again?


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