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Campus Organizing 101: Policy Demands & Structural Demands

This is the first in a series of primer articles about organizing and student power.

Until we are the ones with the power, we'll be making demands of those who do. Looking at the kinds of demands student groups campaign around, it's easy to lump them into two general categories:

Policy Demand:
A demand that seeks to instruct someone with power what to do.

Structural Demand:
A demand that seeks to change who has power in the first place.

Anyone involved in campus activism will know that American universities are littered with policy demands - from recycling, to divestment, to tuition control, to dorm renovations.

It's been my experience, and that of most folks I talk to, that a common feature of activist campaigns around policy demands is that they all start from the same position (disempowerment) and, once the campaign is over - successful or not! - that's where they all return. To think of it visually:

Policy Demands

What we want are demands (and campaigns) that leave us in a better position than when we started - we want the activism and organizing we did last week/month/semester to act as another foothold to support the work we're doing right now. That's crucial nomatter where you're organizing, but especially when you're organizing in an institution that has 100% turnover every four years. That's where structural demands come in. By chipping away at concentrated power, we gain more access to the levers of power, and more avenues for strategic action open up. We want our campus campaigns to graph out more like this:

Structural Demands

When it comes to institutional influence and power, we want to always start where we last left off.

While it's easy to get broad agreement with structural demands (people are in general predisposed to agree with arguments for more democracy and less bureaucracy), it's hard to mobilize people around it. Policy demands are what get people excited and motivated.

That's why it's best when the two kinds of demands are coupled. Take, for example, divesting your university endowment's holdings in ExxonMobil. A pure policy demand would be simply telling the powers that be to divest from ExxonMobil, or perhaps more broadly telling them to invest only in socially responsible enterprises. A purely structural demand would be to democratize the investment decision process. Clearly, the global injustice of what ExxonMobil does is going to rile people's emotions much more than the comparatively tiny injustice of your fellow students not having a say in how their tuition is being invested.*

These two types of demands work best when they're advocated together. The structural demand provides the radical teeth to a campaign, while the policy demand provides the motivation and passion to mobilize large groups of people.

So adding a structural demand to an ExxonMobil divestment campaign means that if (when!) you win, it'll be that much easier to divest from Wal-Mart, or Lockheed Martin, or Israel. You'll have students and faculty on the investment committee, or you'll have divestment decisions up for a campus-wide vote. Even if you can only get a token non-voting student member on an investment advisory committee, that's still a slightly taller soapbox than what you had before, which will come in handy for the next campaign.

There's much more that can be said on the subject. Though this is way beyond the scope of this blog post (but well within the scope of the book I'm working on), it's worth pointing out in closing that 1) university elites will react much more strongly against structural demands (and consequently campaigns will be harder to win), and 2) the nature of structural demands, if you want to do it right, requires that campaigns be waged in a fundamentally different way than purely policy campaigns (think prefigurative politics).

*I should note that one of the few times that structural demands alone work great is when an abuse of power scandal rocks the campus - embezzlement by an administrator, illegal/abusive conduct by campus police, denials of tenure or firings for political reasons, etc.


Hey Patrick, Great post -

Hey Patrick,

Great post - concise, focused, even useful visuals!

I'm glad you've started these posts off with the distinction between policy- and structural- reforms - it is an important one.

Another is directing all of your efforts towards building campaign (or fundraising) infrastructure versus building the kind of self-sustaining organizational infrastructure necessary for pushing the next reform on the campaign progression towards a system-wide change, such as is envisioned and articulated. I'm curious what you'll have to say about what is effective and when in that regard, as well as how you would superimpose the two visuals above.

I find it surprising that you only mention prefiguration in a parenthetical, but then follows in text is a note on when one-off structural reforms seem to make immediate sense. I don't know if I agree about the abuse of power example being so strong a case for immediate structural reform, fortuitous as that would be. For instance, most of the furore around the UCLA tazing incident, or later the 'Don't taze me bro' one in Florida, did not result in either immediate policy-related reforms (those campuses curtail the use of tazers, despite their noted health risks) or structural reforms at the campus level (changing or creating the representative structures whereby campus security has some input or oversight from the people (students) being 'secured'); the university-system level (chronicle of higher ed expose leads to DOEd structural reform, something like previous example) or even the economic level (universities are pressured by students to stop procuring/purchasing tazers or othersuch equipment, market change leads to companies stop producing them).

Keep these coming...good practice in the way of thinking!
Dave Shukla

Hey Dave! Glad you liked it.

Hey Dave! Glad you liked it. I agree, there's a ton more to say on this topic, which - work schedule permitting - I'll be able to tackle in upcoming blogposts. I literally winced when I put prefigurative politics in parentheses, since as you well know it's a hobby horse of mine. :) The all-important question of "what to build?" that you bring up will probably be my next post (though now that I think about it, I might have to lay a bit more groundwork before getting there).

The tazer incidents you brought up are good ones, and despite horrific acts (and policies) being thrown into the limelight like they were, all too often nothing meaningful comes of it. Because these incidents are firmly - graphically - about the nature of power relations on campus, a well-formulated structural demand doesn't necessarily need to rely on a policy demand to get people riled up.

Student Turnover


Just a quick note: you wrote that there's 100% turnover in four years at a given college. Yet we both know people who haven't graduated in four years. So I guess you could just change it to an institution with a high rate of turnover.


Very true! So *almost* 100%.

Very true! So *almost* 100%. :) The larger point is that we need to organize as if the number was 100%.