Student activists encounter difficulties organizing at a private institution


Daily file illustration by Catherine Buchaenic

Despite challenges at a private institution, Weinberg sophomore Vivica E Lewis said social media presents new opportunities for activism.

Rayna Song, Reporter

Student activists face additional challenges at Northwestern compared to at a public school, because of transparency issues and other complications that come with a private institution.

“In general, private institutions like Northwestern aren’t beholden to their communities like public institutions are,” said Medill sophomore Alex Harrison, who is involved with Students Organizing for Labor Rights.

Harrison said he has been helping with fundraising efforts at SOLR, which aims to build solidarity with campus workers. The money raised goes toward those experiencing financial difficulties.

He added student activism at a private institution, such as NU, might be more challenging than activism at a public school, partly due to the lack of transparency around the Board of Trustees.

Among 60-plus Northwestern trustees, only between 12 and 36 have voting power every year. The University does not disclose to the public which trustees are designated as these annually-elected Charter Trustees.

“Groups like Fossil Free NU, whose demands would be achieved by a board-level decision, are unable to effectively pressure any kind of vote, because how do you pressure a vote if you don’t know who’s voting?” Harrison said.

Another difference between private and public institutions lands on graduate worker unions. While some state laws require public universities to honor graduate worker unions, students at private institutions have their right to unionize determined by the National Labor Relations Board.

“Even if a group like Northwestern University Graduate Workers has a majority of workers sign onto a unionization drive, they’re very unlikely to actually enter a contract negotiation with the university,” Harrison said.

NUGW told The Daily the biggest issue with organizing at a private institution as a graduate worker union is that the right to organize is always threatened, while graduate workers at public institutions have had the right to organize for years.

NU’s administration has engaged in anti-labor union busting ever since NUGW began organizing, NUGW said.

“What recent years have shown is that even in cases in which they are legally obligated to come to the bargaining table, private institutions will not do so unless they are forced to,” NUGW said. “NUGW’s aim is to continue building our power so that… the administration is compelled to recognize our union and bargain in good faith.”

However, NUGW said the union remains optimistic, since graduate worker unions at some private institutions, such as New York University and Brown University, have been recognized and have negotiated with their employers.

“The ultimate goal is gaining official recognition from the university and writing these protections into a collectively negotiated contract,” NUGW said. “This does not mean that graduate workers are powerless until then.”

Through organizing, NUGW said they have “won a full five years of guaranteed funding, reduced burdensome fees for Doctor of Musical Arts candidates, helped reverse a discriminatory international student fee, and most recently… won paid medical leave for graduate students.”

Weinberg sophomore Vivica E. Lewis agreed that student activism can be difficult at private institutions.

Lewis, the Associated Student Government’s co-deputy officer of justice and inclusion, said the group mainly focuses on advocating and supporting students with marginalized identities, such as students of color and LGBTQ+ students, as well as bringing these concerns to the administration.

“At institutions like NU, there are so many hoops to jump through before real changes can be enacted,” Lewis said. “I see myself and other students get frustrated with our administration because we feel shut down or not taken seriously at times.”

It can be overwhelming and confusing to create change on campus, and each decision takes a long time and lots of coordination, Lewis said.

Lewis added social media presents new opportunities for activism since students can find out about protests and events through Facebook and Instagram, although some people are “performative allies” that make social media posts, like the black square on #BlackoutTuesday, and do nothing else.

“I also think activism can be as simple as correcting misconceptions in classes, questioning curriculum when it’s not inclusive… and educating others when they have questions,” Lewis said. “So I try to incorporate these smaller forms of activism into my daily life.”

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