The Student-Run Course

by Lee Altenberg

Full version for the SEAC-Earthworks Student Environmental Action Guide

© February 17, 1991

Among the most potent instrument students have devised to empower their activism is the student-run course, in which students create their own full-credit courses in which they can do research on the urgent political and social problems of the day, as part of real world campaigns to address them.

Students in the vast majority of universities have no power in setting the curriculum, and are forced to take classes which may be irrelevant to them, while their interests in urgent political and social issues can be addressed only outside the classroom. In a number of universities however (e.g. Stanford, UC Berkeley), students won programs where students create and run their own courses for full academic credit. A wide variety of programs -- "free universities" or "experimental colleges" -- burst forth in the late 1960s and many continue today. The programs which have proven most fruitful in contributing to lasting social change have had the following characteristics:

In their content:

In their administration:


Student-run courses:

Stanford Workshops on Political and Social Issues (SWOPSI).

This is the prototype program in student-run courses. It was organized by two grad students and one undergrad in 1969. Some of the direct fruits of different SWOPSI courses over the years include:

Some of the environmental publications students produced in SWOPSI include:

SWOPSI has been a catalyst to social activism in many other areas as well, with publications including:


  1. Build a constituency for the idea: a core of people who are committed to bringing it to fruition (this can be as few as 3 or 4); a body of students, faculty and staff who will offer support and do some work toward it. Find faculty who are involved in political and social issues (e.g. physicists consulting on arms control) who have no outlet within their departments to teach this side of what they do.
  2. Research ways the program could most readily be incorporated within the existing structure, and which administrators would be agreeable to having it under their auspices.
  3. Find out what economic resources are needed to launch the program, and research what resources within the university could be channeled to it, and what outside resources could be obtained (e.g. SWOPSI began with a Ford Foundation grant).
  4. Develop a campaign to get approval of the program with all of its essential components intact. What is required depends entirely on the responsiveness of the administration to student initiatives, and the rules of decision making within the university. The main components of a campaign would include, as they became necessary:
    1. A well researched proposal, including sections on the success of such programs at other campuses, a practical plan for instituting the program within the administrative framework. Especially important is to frame the proposal in terms of how the program will embody the stated goals of the university, and to draw upon the elements of the program that already exist within the university in different forms.
    2. Negotiation with the necessary administrators, compromising on secondary points, holding out on essential points, innovating ways to harmonize your and their interests.
    3. Publicity: getting local coverage of your efforts. Administrators will know that their actions with respect to the project will be of public interest; potential supporters will learn about it and be able to join your efforts.
    4. Getting endorsements from key constituencies: student government, faculty council, key faculty, interested student organizations, people at other campuses.

Once such a program is instituted, it will give to students an instrument for their own empowerment that will continue to work for generation after generation of student body. It is a project that will give birth to innumerable other projects, and can fundamentally alter the political landscape of the student community.




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