Meltzner: CSU’s history of student activism is worth celebrating

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(Graphic Illustration by Falyn Sebastian | The Collegian)

JD Meltzner, Opinion Columnist

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by The Collegian or its editorial board.

College campuses often serve as a ground zero of sorts for national social movements that have lived on into the 21st century.

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Some notable examples of collegiate activism may come to mind first: the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, The Harvard University student strike of 1969 against the Vietnam War or even the tragic shooting at the Kent State University protests. But what about Fort Collins’ own Colorado State University? It may seem odd to consider a former agricultural school in Northern Colorado as a hotbed of social activism and protest, but it’s the truth.

CSU has long been embroiled in the social movements that have changed our nation and has a deep history with student unrest on campus, covering everything from a beer-in to protest campus beer laws all the way to the arson of Old Main during protests of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia.

Looking back on CSU’s history, there is a deep theme of student unrest and activism, and both have positively and negatively impacted the University.”

Colorado State University students parade in protest for climate change from Moby Arena to the Administration building Oct 08. The protest was based around a cleaner campus and the equal pay to the working students who are overburdened. (The Collegian | Grayson Reed)

The early days of CSU student activism developed quickly into full-fledged on-campus movements that grew in intensity, culminating with intense protests that occurred from 1968-70. Student activism for social justice at CSU became so prominent that it even garnered the attention of national activist groups, specifically the Denver chapter of the Black Panthers.

To grab the attention of major groups like this, happenings at the University must have been significant. In fact, in the spring of 1968, African American and Mexican American students launched a crusade aimed at then-CSU President William Morgan in hopes of changing the University’s poor history of representing minority groups.

Paul Chambers of the Black Student Alliance and Manuel Ramos of the Mexican-American Committee for Equality wrote a letter to Morgan detailing a list of demands primarily focusing on University support of the recruitment and hiring of minority students and faculty. 

The BSA also took issue with the way (b)latant ethnocentrism pervaded the curriculum and teachings of professors at the University. To counteract this perceived injustice, the BSA requested the establishment of a College of Ethnic Studies that would include a department of Afro-American studies among others.

This challenge to the University’s curriculum and faculty echoes across history to the current day, when established teachings of history and race are being challenged across the nation. While this instance of campus activism represented a structured, peaceful call for change, the peace protests that occurred in May 1970 represent the destructive side of campus activism.

On the second day of a student strike protesting the events at Kent State along with the American invasion of Cambodia, arsonists set fire to Old Main, CSU’s first significant building. The fire was not contained, and after more than 90 years, Old Main was no longer standing, completely destroyed by the flames.

Looking back on CSU’s history, there is a deep theme of student unrest and activism, and both have positively and negatively impacted the University. There have been instances of real change and real destruction, which doesn’t seem all that foreign to the protests and social justice movements that have unfolded in America over the past few years.

Colorado State is a place where change is fought for, where students are empowered to speak up and where a real difference can be made.”

Colorado State University community members gather outside the Administration building for the Call Out CSU protest Sept. 17. The protest was in response to incidents of hate speech on campus during the fall 2021 semester. (Michael Marquardt | The Collegian)

America has undergone a resurgence of social activism, with movements such as Black Lives Matter consuming the nation in the last few years on a scale unseen since the anti-war and peace movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. So are the students of today maintaining the activist traditions of students of the past?

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CSU students have not forgotten their rich history of standing up for what they believe in. In 2015, students organized campus protests in solidarity with students fighting racism at the University of Missouri.

Students marched and gave speeches at the CSUnite procession and rally in the spring of 2018 in response to incidents of bias on campus, most notably the fake noose found in Newsom Hall, where Elijah Thomas, a Black resident assistant, lived. In February of that year, then-University President Tony Frank released a campuswide announcement condemning racism, stating, “A Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazi.”

CSU has been no stranger to student activism over the years, and that cycle shows no signs of stopping as students today continue the fight for social justice reform. While there have certainly been instances of activism hurting the school, CSU’s history of activism should be celebrated for what it says about the school: Colorado State is a place where change is fought for, where students are empowered to speak up and where a real difference can be made.

Reach JD Meltzner at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @jd_meltzner.