understanding how protest works: mizzou edition

There is a lot of writing on the resignations at Mizzou. Much has to do with race, others with college sports. In this post, I want to briefly touch on what social movement theory has to say about the effectiveness of the Concerned Student 1950 protest, which culminated when the Mizzou football team boycotted their game.

  • Leverage: A lot of college protest is ineffective because it does not impose any real costs on administrators. For example, there were many Occupy Wall Street camps at colleges a few years back. My opinion is that the movement did not succeed for a number of reasons, one being that OWS did not actually force any real costs on their target. In contrast, strategically chosen boycotts can be highly effective. It has been reported that Mizzou gives up about a million dollars per forfeited game.
  • Broad social support: The protest was the not the strategy of a single person, but of a wide range of people on campus. For example, the football players were able to recruit both black and white players. That does a lot to undermine the target of protest.
  • Authority erosion: College protest often works when student activists successfully erode the authority of the leadership by challenging their ability to have others recognize their authority. While many made fun of the safe space at Mizzou’s campus, it is an effective disruption of the leadership’s ability to direct others on campus.

Bottom line: There is a lot to be learned about the mechanics of protest from the Mizzou boycott. Social movement scholars should use college protest as an opportunity to study how movements succeed and fail.

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Written by fabiorojas

November 12, 2015 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. The campus is our turf, and I’m fascinated by the way this campaign emerged. (Here’s one take:
    I think it’s worthwhile to think about the range of organized interests that ultimately supported the hunger striker against the president. Timothy Wolfe came into the job with weak support on campus, which Concerned Student 1950 exploited effectively. Don’t expect the football team to support a starving graduate student activist on most campuses. Don’t expect the coach and athletic director to support striking football players. And don’t expect the faculty to call for a walk-out rather than something like engaged discussion.


    David S. Meyer

    November 12, 2015 at 2:35 am

  2. Social movement scholars must also be careful about confounding effects. For example, the politics outdoors article posted by David Meyer ascribes the cutting of graduate student health care support to President Wolfe. Not so. It was a choice of the Campus leadership to marginalize the graduate students, not the President’s Office. It is both tragic and true that Wolfe responded poorly to the concerns of minority students from one of the UM System campuses — Columbia. But there wasn’t much of a social movement on the other three campuses for which he had putative responsibility as system president, so one can see where he might have been confused about what his role was. He probably saw this as a campus-level social issue and that the campus administrators should have had first rights and responsibilities to respond to students’ distress.

    The departure of the Chancellor (Columbia Campus CEO) was unrelated to the hunger strike, football team, and the 1950 group. He was actually well ahead of the curve on the racism and intolerance issues and considered an ally of the social movement. Alas, he was under pressure from faculty and staff for administrative issues. The temporal confluence of his departure and Wolfe’s has created a confounding of cause and effect.



    November 12, 2015 at 3:28 pm

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