In 2020, radical change seemed all but inevitable at Princeton — and beyond — as COVID sent students away from campus and a racial reckoning rocked the country. Even as colleges went virtual, a 2021 article from the National Education Association titled “Student Activism on the Rise” declared that “young people are more engaged now than they have been in generations.”
Princeton has a long history of activism — students have protested the war in Vietnam, apartheid in South Africa, and more recently Title IX regulations, gun violence, and the name of the Woodrow Wilson School, now known as the School of Public and International Affairs. But despite the return of in-person learning and the removal of COVID-era measures, undergraduates and young alums say that interest in activism has cooled, with few exceptions, such as the graduate student unionization push.
“I do think that the professional and the social pressures definitely negatively incentivize students not to really speak up or get involved in these issues.”
— Eric Periman ’23, former president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine
“The first thing that jumps to mind when I think about Princeton activism is just the scale — it’s a lot smaller, and I think that points to a sense of apathy, political apathy, in the student body,” said Alex Norbrook ’26, a Divest Princeton co-coordinator.
In May, Norbrook was one of about 35 students who participated in a Divest Princeton die-in to protest a meeting between energy company BP and the University’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative. Aaron Serianni ’25, the group’s former co-coordinator, said it was the first die-in in recent memory on campus; nearly a decade ago, in 2014, PAW reported that more than 200 students conducted a die-in to protest racism and racialized violence.
Students acknowledge there are factors that cross generations that make activism challenging.
“As students graduate, institutional memory disappears,” said Amber Rahman ’24, co-president of Students for Prison Education, Abolition, and Reform (SPEAR), which is currently one of the most active advocacy groups on campus (alongside Divest Princeton).
Hannah Reynolds ’22, like several other alumni, is still involved with Divest Princeton, and said the group works with students at other schools where she has found larger numbers of students committed to activism.
Princeton activists also attribute indifference here to University policies having a chilling effect.
Divest Princeton co-coordinator Eleanor Clemans-Cope ’26 said the administration is “quite hostile” to activists, and student groups “have almost a necessarily adversarial relationship with [administrators] because we’re pushing them to support our goals in a way that they do not currently.”
Thomas Dunne, former deputy dean of undergraduate students, disputed this in an interview conducted shortly before he left Princeton for a position at Harvard.
“I definitely don’t see it as our goal … to somehow dissuade [student activism] or minimize it,” said Dunne. “I actually see it as something that is a sign of a vibrant intellectual community.”
Dunne said Princeton has been more intentional over the past few years in its approach to student activism. For example, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students website lists four Princeton administrators who are “free expression facilitators,” charged with liaising with activists, upholding “the University’s commitment to freedom of expression and [ensuring] University guidelines governing free expression are followed.” (The program has been in place since 2018.) In addition, the University offers once-a-semester informational lunches.
Clemans-Cope attended one of those sessions and found it helpful to learn about Princeton’s rules, but on the other hand, she said past movements taught her that disruption is an effective tactic, so “it’s part of our responsibility as activists to go after those rules — to break those rules — to pursue our goals, in spite of the fact that people are telling us that we can’t break the rules.”
That can be another drawback for students who worry that prospective employers and others might be dissuaded by a Google search that reveals associations with controversial topics.
“I do think that the professional and the social pressures definitely negatively incentivize students not to really speak up or get involved in these issues,” said Eric Periman ’23, former president of the Princeton Committee on Palestine.
To combat this, and to prevent burnout among already busy students, Norbrook said a new group, tentatively called the Princeton Progressive Coalition, is in the works to build up the activist community on campus and share resources. While the idea is still taking shape, Norbrook said one of their first tasks will be to create a “disorientation guide” to inform new students about current activist issues and student groups, as well as to provide information about “power structures in the University.”
“I think the narrative needs to be changed around changemaking itself,” said Norbrook. “The experience of … doing something disruptive is really valuable, and it really sits with you for the rest of your life.”