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

In a new line of research, I have been exploring the landscape of political, religious, and social activism at U.S. colleges and universities. Specifically, along with Penn State University sociologist Gary Adler and Oklahoma State University graduate students Dhruba Das, Jericho McElroy, and Jessica Schachle, 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 Black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American, and LGBTQ, student groups) across the nearly 2,000 U.S. colleges and universities. Drawing on political opportunity structure, educational opportunity structure, threat-based, and resource mobilization theories in social movement studies, my colleagues and I have been examining how sociopolitical contexts, school characteristics, and student body 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. Recent articles stemming from this project have been published in Sociology of Education, Sociological Forum, Socius, Sociological Inquiry, and Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change.

Coley, Jonathan S, Dhruba Das, and Gary J. Adler, Jr. Forthcoming. “Creating Sacred Spaces: Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim Student Groups at U.S. Colleges and Universities.” Sociology of Education. (Online first in 2022.) (external link)

Why are some schools home to Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Muslim student organizations while others are not? In this article, we draw on theories of student mobilization, especially recent theoretical insights on educational opportunity structures, to understand the factors associated with the presence and number of minority religious student organizations at U.S. colleges and universities. Analyzing an original database of minority religious student groups across 1,953 four-year, not-for-profit U.S. colleges and universities, we show that schools that are located in liberal, pluralistic contexts and that are large, wealthy, and not affiliated with Christian denominations exhibit greater odds of having at least one minority religious student organization. Similar factors are associated with the overall number of minority religious student organizations at a school. Our article represents the most comprehensive study to date of minority religious student organizations and sheds light on issues of unequal access to student organizations more generally.

Schachle, Jessica, and Jonathan S. Coley. Forthcoming. “Making Space: Racialized Organizations and Student of Color Groups at U.S. Colleges and Universities.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. (Online first in 2022.) (external link)

A growing body of scholarship demonstrates the positive role that Asian, Black, Latinx, and Native American student groups play in the lives of students of color. Yet, we currently know little about the prevalence of student of color organizations and the characteristics of colleges and universities that are home to one or more student of color organizations. Analyzing our original database of officially recognized student of color organizations across 1,910 four-year, not-for-profit U.S. colleges and universities, we find that although a slight majority of U.S. colleges and universities are home to Black student groups, most U.S. colleges and universities lack Asian, Latinx, and Native American student groups. Drawing on recent insights from racialized organization theory, and employing logistic and Poisson regression, we also show that schools that have higher percentages of students of color, offer ethnic studies majors, and maintain centers devoted to issues of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion are more likely to have at least one student of color organization. A similar set of factors is associated with the overall number of student of color organizations at any given school. Our study advances scholarship on student of color mobilization within higher education and sheds light on issues of unequal access to student organizations more generally.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2021. “Creating Secular Spaces: Religious Threat and the Presence of Secular Student Alliances at U.S. Colleges and Universities.” Sociological Forum 36(3): 649-667. (external link)

Why are some U.S. colleges and universities home to secular student organizations while others are not? Recent literature suggests that threat can inspire mobilization when groups perceive challenges to their rights or their social standing. Developing the concept of religious threat, I consider whether Secular Student Alliances (the country’s largest association of student groups comprised of atheists, agnostics, and other religious skeptics) tend to be located at schools where secular students feel threatened by evangelical Christians. Through a logistic regression analysis of Secular Student Alliance presence across the 1,953 four-year, not-for-profit U.S. colleges and universities, I first show that colleges and universities located in states and counties with a high percent of evangelical Christians, and colleges and universities where activist-oriented evangelical Christian organizations are located, are more likely to be home to Secular Student Alliances. Through qualitative content analyses of 47 Secular Student Alliance newsletters from 2014-2017, I then show that student leaders indeed frame their groups as a way to counter threats posed by evangelical Christians. The article contributes to social movement theory on the mobilizing effects of threat and represents the most comprehensive study to date of secular student mobilization.

McElroy, Jericho R., and Jonathan S. Coley. 2021. “Gun-Free Zones? Political Opportunities, Resource Mobilization, and Shooting Sports Organizations at U.S. Colleges and Universities.” Sociological Inquiry 91(2): 398-425. (external link)

Although the general public often thinks of schools as “gun-free zones,” a growing number of U.S. colleges and universities recognize shooting sports organizations, enabling students to participate in rifle, pistol, shotgun, skeet, and trap sporting events. Building on recent scholarship that employs political opportunity and resource mobilization theories to analyze sports, we assess the roles that states’ political characteristics and schools’ resources play in the presence of student shooting sports organizations. Drawing on a comprehensive database of 1,953 four-year colleges and universities in the United States, and employing logistic regression analyses, we show that Republican-leaning states, schools with larger, mostly white, and majority men student bodies, and schools with Republican student organizations serve as conducive environments for shooting sports organizations. This article represents the most comprehensive study to date of shooting sports in U.S. schools and contributes to literatures on the sociology of guns, the sociology of sports, and social movements.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2021. “Mobilizing for Religious Freedom: Educational Opportunity Structures and Outcomes of Conservative Christian Campus Activism.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change vol. 44(1): 175-200. (external link)

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.

Coley, Jonathan S., and Dhruba Das. 2020. “Creating Safe Spaces: Opportunities, Resources, and LGBTQ Student Groups at U.S. Colleges and Universities.” Socius.(external link)

Research shows that LGBTQ student groups facilitate LGBTQ students’ personal development. Nevertheless, we still know little about the prevalence of LGBTQ student groups and why some colleges and universities are home to LGBTQ student groups while others are not. Drawing on our original database of officially recognized LGBTQ student groups across all four-year, not-for-profit U.S. colleges and universities, we first show that LGBTQ student groups can be found at 62% of U.S. colleges and universities. Guided by social movement theory, and employing logistic regression analyses, we then show that LGBTQ groups are more likely to be present in favorable political contexts (Democratic-leaning states), favorable educational sectors (public and secular schools), and schools that have the human and organizational resources necessary to support them. The study advances scholarship on LGBTQ issues in higher education and holds important practical implications for students working to promote LGBTQ inclusion in U.S. schools.