The moment Abbey Bako, a student at Rhodes College in Memphis, found her activist voice came after she received several emails from the campus safety office in one weekend last winter about reports of sexual misconduct. Many students connected the episodes to fraternity formals taking place at the time, and Ms. Bako felt an urge to do something.
Some weeks later, she and a group of friends, who call themselves Culture of Consent, asked students to boycott fraternity parties, using the hashtag #AskForBetter on social media. The fraternities, she said, canceled parties in response and promised to support assault survivors.
Ms. Bako, 21, said she was a “pot stirrer,” but not particularly an activist, during high school. “I don’t think I knew what activism was,” she said. “I’m from a small town in Louisiana, where the status quo is status quo, and if you ask too many questions in religion class, or in class in general, you become known as ‘that girl.’”
Today, she is one of many protesters, mainly women, who have organized around sexual assault at schools across the country, winning major concessions and putting pressure on administrators who struggle to balance the concerns of their students with longstanding university practices.
In just the last few weeks, activists have helped shut down fraternities at Swarthmore, ousted a dormitory leader at Harvard who had signed on as a lawyer for Harvey Weinstein and pushed Princeton to review the way it handles sexual assault complaints. Administrators have initiated talks with the protesters to address their concerns.
“Are these difficult spots for presidents to be in — the answer is absolutely,” said Marjorie Hass, president of Rhodes College. “We have multiple constituencies whose voices and concerns we’re trying to be aware of at the same time.”
Encouraged to speak out by the #MeToo movement, most of the protesters said they did not portray themselves as activists when they applied to college but discovered their calling when they got there. They see themselves on a continuum from the college protest movements of the 1960s, but are different from older generations of protesters because their gaze is focused inward, more on their own campuses than on larger societal ills.
The activists organize across institutions, sharing demonstration tactics like putting tape over their mouths and circulating similar slogans like #DartmouthDoBetter and #HarvardCanDoBetter. And they chronicle their actions on social media, using it to share organizing tips and form instant coalitions.
Protests today move so fast, university presidents said, that they often have reporters calling them before they are even aware of what is going on.
Some observers said that for all their efficiency and outspokenness, this new generation of student protesters lacked the edge of their predecessors. Dr. Hass said she found the activists to be “really impressive people,” but at the same time, a bit risk-averse.
“A lot of the models of the past are not the ones students necessarily feel comfortable with,” she said. “I don’t see, for example, today’s students going to jail. Sometimes it’s the opposite. They want to be confident there won’t be any negative consequences for their actions.”
The protests have split campuses, to some degree, along generational lines.
Janet Halley, a legal and feminist scholar at Harvard, said she supported the right of students to demand that Ronald Sullivan Jr., a fellow law professor, be removed from his dormitory position for representing Mr. Weinstein. But she thought it “cowardly” of the university not to be more forceful in defending the legal principle at stake.
“We’re living in a hyper-polarized time,” Dr. Halley said. “If we can all be fired because of people who can be offended, there’s going to be a gigantic housecleaning around here.”
At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania last month, two fraternity houses stood eerily empty as people gathered from across the country for graduation festivities. Students had recently published graphic accounts of sexual abuse by fraternity brothers, prompting an uproar on campus. On April 27, as protesters occupied one of the houses, Phi Psi, Swarthmore’s president suspended fraternity activities. Fraternity members said days later that they were disgusted too, and that they were closing voluntarily.
Even some of the protesters were surprised at how quickly the houses shut down. “People at Swarthmore have been trying to get rid of fraternities since the 1980s, and even before then,” said Daria Mateescu, a rising senior.
But protesters like Amal Haddad were also shocked to receive emails telling them that Swarthmore had hired an external investigator to look at “potential conduct issues” during the protests, and that they could face disciplinary action.
A college spokeswoman, Alisa Giardinelli, said Friday that Swarthmore was committed to “a safe and supportive environment.”
Campus activism has also intensified in the wake of the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the Trump administration’s redrafting of federal Title IX guidelines on sexual assault, which would give more due process rights to the accused.
This spring, a Princeton student was fined about $2,700 for writing “Title IX protects rapists” on paving bricks. A GoFundMe campaign quickly raised enough money to pay the fine.
Rebecca Sobel, 21, who graduated from Princeton recently, said the graffiti episode led to conversations with classmates and made her realize that there was widespread frustration with what they felt was a lack of clarity in Title IX proceedings on campus. Students, for instance, did not know how to present evidence. They felt they were not protected from retaliation for making a complaint. And it was unclear what violations would result in which outcomes.
Students camped outside the administration building for more than a week, sometimes in torrential rain. They registered their protest with the university, which sent “open expression monitors” to watch over it.
Since then, students and faculty have begun meeting to discuss changes. “We don’t want to look at this as us-versus-them,” said Ben Chang, a Princeton spokesman.
At Harvard, Danu Mudannayake, 21, who will be a senior in the fall, became an almost accidental leader of the protests against Mr. Sullivan.
Ms. Mudannayake, who hopes to be a film director, grew up in London. Her father is an Uber driver, and her mother works behind the counter of a gas station; neither went to college. “I wasn’t someone who tried to go out and organize sit-ins and teach-ins,” she said.
But the Sullivan affair made her uncomfortable in a way she could not ignore.
She said she believed even people accused of doing bad things were entitled to a strong defense. But she felt there was a conflict between Mr. Sullivan’s role as a lawyer and his role as a faculty dean, along with his wife, of a student residential house. The job of a faculty dean is part intellectual mentor, part den mother. Representing Mr. Weinstein, she said, compromised his more nurturing role.
Ms. Mudannayake lived in the dormitory next door to Mr. Sullivan’s. But at a forum to discuss the Sullivan controversy, she listened to victims of sexual assault talk about their experiences and decided she had to get involved.
“I cared a lot about the issue, but just had not done much,” she said. Because she had not suffered as others had, “I felt I was someone who was in a position that I could use my voice.”
Protests erupted at Harvard, sowing deep divisions. Students who wanted Mr. Sullivan out stood in front of the administration building with tape over their mouths. Meanwhile, 52 Harvard Law School professors signed a letter saying that pressuring Mr. Sullivan to resign was incompatible with the university’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas.
After a “climate review” of the dormitory, Harvard did not renew Mr. Sullivan’s post as faculty dean, which he had held for 10 years. He has also stepped down as Mr. Weinstein’s lawyer.
Rakesh Khurana, the dean of Harvard College, said Mr. Sullivan had been absent when students needed him; he did not explicitly link Mr. Sullivan’s removal to Mr. Weinstein. By that point, Ms. Mudannayake had Dr. Khurana in her email contacts.
She was joined in the protests by Remedy Ryan, 20, who said she had become an activist about a year ago, when she got involved with a group opposing sexual violence, Our Harvard Can Do Better.
“I think when I came to college, I was kind of looking for some sort of activist group,” said Ms. Ryan, who is from Riviera Beach, Fla. “That was shortly after the whole #MeToo movement had started to pick up. It was obviously on my mind when I joined.”
As for Ms. Bako at Rhodes, her profile has only grown. To her astonishment, Dr. Hass, the college president, called her in the middle of finals period, asking if she would work with the college on preventing sexual assault. They have already started meeting.
“The #AskForBetter was our way of taking the #MeToo movement to the next step,” Ms. Bako said. “It was not only ‘me too,’ but ‘here’s what I want to follow after that, these are our demands, what we want. Listen to us.’”