Political, Religious, and Social Activism at U.S. Colleges and Universities

In a new line of research, I am exploring the landscape of political, religious, and social activism at U.S. colleges and universities. Specifically, along with Oklahoma State University graduate students Dhruba Das and Jericho McElroy, I have constructed a comprehensive database of political student groups (such as College Democrats and College Republicans), religious student groups (e.g., groups associated with the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim faiths), and social activist groups (such as LGBTQ student groups) across the nearly 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities. Drawing on political opportunity structure and resource mobilization theories in social movement studies, we are examining how sociopolitical context and school resources shape students’ ability to mobilize and form these organizations. I am also supplementing this quantitative work with ethnographic and interview-based work on student activism on select U.S. college and university campuses. A first article stemming from this project is forthcoming in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2020. “Mobilizing for Religious Freedom: Educational Opportunity Structures and Outcomes of Conservative Christian Campus Activism.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change 44 (forthcoming).

Colleges and universities in the United States are common sites of social movement activism, yet we know little about the conditions under which campus-based movements are likely to meet with success or failure. In this study, I develop the concept of educational opportunity structures, and I highlight several dimensions of colleges and universities’ educational opportunity structures – specifically, schools’ statuses as public or private, secular or religious, highly or lowly ranked, and more or less wealthy – that can affect the outcomes of campus-based movements. Analyzing a religious freedom movement at Vanderbilt University, which mobilized from 2010 to 2012 to demand the ability of religious student organizations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and religious belief, I argue that Vanderbilt’s status as a private, secular, elite, and wealthy university ensured that conservative Christian activism at that school was highly unlikely to succeed. The findings hold important theoretical implications for the burgeoning literature on student activism.