Opinion | Activism Thrives on Campus. What Happens After Graduation?

The encampments have been cleared, campuses have emptied; protester and counterprotester alike have moved on to internships, summer gigs and in some cases, the start of their postgraduate careers.

Leaving aside what impact, if any, the protests had on global events, let’s consider the more granular effect the protests will have on the protesters’ job prospects and future careers.

Certainly, that matters, too. After all, this generation is notable for its high levels of ambition and pre-professionalism. They have tuition price tags to justify and loans to repay. A 2023 survey of Princeton seniors found that nearly 60 percent took jobs in finance, consulting, tech and engineering, up from 53 percent in 2016.

A desire to protect future professional plans no doubt factored into the protesters’ cloaking themselves in masks and kaffiyehs. According to a recent report in The Times, “The fear of long-term professional consequences has also been a theme among pro-Palestine protesters since the beginning of the war.”

Activism has played a big part of many of these young people’s lives and academic success. From the children’s books they read (“The Hate U Give,” “I Am Malala”), to the young role models that were honored, (Greta Thunberg, David Hogg), to the social justice movements that were praised (Black Lives Matter, MeToo, climate justice), Gen Z has been told it’s on them to clean up the Boomers’ mess. Resist!

College application essays regularly ask students to describe their relationship with social justice, their leadership experience and their pet causes. “Where are you on your journey of engaging with or fighting for social justice?” asked one essay prompt Tufts offered applicants in 2022. What are you doing to ensure the planet’s future?

Across the curriculum, from the social sciences to the humanities, courses are steeped in social justice theory and calls to action. Cornell’s library publishes a study guide to a 1969 building occupation in which students armed themselves. Harvard offers a social justice graduate certificate. “Universities spent years saying that activism is not just welcome but encouraged on their campuses,” Tyler Austin Harper noted recently in The Atlantic. “Students took them at their word.”

Imagine the surprise of one freshman who was expelled at Vanderbilt after students forced their way into an administrative building. As he told The Associated Press, protesting in high school was what helped get him into college in the first place — he wrote his admissions essay on organizing walkouts, and got a scholarship for activists and organizers.

Things could still work out well for many of these kids. Some professions — academia, politics, community organizing, nonprofit work — are well served by a résumé brimming with activism. But a lot has changed socially and economically since Boomer activists marched from the streets to the workplace, many of them building solid middle-class lives as teachers, creatives and professionals, without crushing anxiety about student debt. In a demanding and rapidly changing economy, today’s students yearn for the security of high-paying employment.

Not all employers will look kindly on an encampment stint. When a group of Harvard student organizations signed an open letter blaming Israel for Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks, the billionaire Bill Ackman requested on X that Harvard release the names of the students involved “so as to insure (sic) that none of us inadvertently hire any of their members.” Soon after, a conservative watchdog group posted names and photos of the students on a truck circling Harvard Square.

Calling students out for their political beliefs is admittedly creepy. But Palestinian protests lacked the moral clarity of the anti-apartheid demonstrations. Along with protesters demanding that Israel stop killing civilians in Gaza, others stirred fears of antisemitism by justifying the Oct. 7 massacre, tearing down posters of kidnapped Israelis, shoving “Zionists” out of encampments and calling for “globalizing the intifada” and making Palestine “free from the river to the sea.”

In November, two dozen leading law firms wrote to top law schools implying that students who participated in what they called antisemitic activities, including calling for “the elimination of the State of Israel,” would not be hired. More than 100 firms have since signed on. One of those law firms, Davis Polk, rescinded job offers to students whose organizations had signed the letter Ackman criticized. Davis Polk said those sentiments were contrary to the firm’s values. Another major firm withdrew an offer to a student at New York University who also blamed Israel for the Oct. 7 attack. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law urged employers not hire those of his students he said were antisemitic.

Two partners at corporate law firms, who asked to speak anonymously since other partners didn’t want them to talk to the media, told me that participating in this year’s protests, especially if it involves an arrest, could easily foreclose opportunities at their firm. At one of those firms, hiring managers scan applicants’ social media histories for problems. (Well before Oct. 7, students had keyed into this possibility, scrubbing campus activism from their résumés.)

Also, employers generally want to hire people who can get along and fit into their company culture, rather than trying to agitate for change. They don’t want politics disrupting the workplace.

“There is no right answer,” Steve Cohen, a partner at the boutique litigation firm, Pollock Cohen, said when I asked if protesting might count against an applicant. “But if I sense they are not tolerant of opinions that differ from their own, it’s not going to be a good fit.” (That matches my experience with Cohen, who had worked on the Reagan presidential campaign and hired me, a die-hard liberal, as an editorial assistant back in 1994.)

Corporate America is fundamentally risk-averse. As The Wall Street Journal reported, companies are drawing “a red line on office activists.” Numerous employers, including Amazon, are cracking down on political activism in the workplace, The Journal reported. Google recently fired 28 people.

For decades, employers used elite colleges as a kind human resources proxy to vet potential candidates and make their jobs easier by doing a first cut. Given that those same elite schools were hotbeds of activism this year, that calculus may no longer prove as reliable. Forbes reported that employers are beginning to sour on the Ivy League. “The perception of what those graduates bring has changed. And I think it’s more related to what they’re actually teaching and what they walk away with,” a Kansas City-based architectural firm told Forbes.

The American university has long been seen as a refuge from the real world, a sealed community unto its own. The outsize protests this past year showed that in a social media-infused, cable-news-covered world, the barrier has become more porous. What flies on campus doesn’t necessarily pass in the real world.

The toughest lesson for this generation may be that while they’ve been raised to believe in their right to change the world, the rest of the world may neither share nor be ready to indulge their particular vision.

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