The anti-sweatshop movement at the University of Pittsburgh took on a new tone after police charged a student with multiple felonies for spray painting the inside of the Cathedral of Learning.
But the March 30 incident in Oakland is only the most recent development in a larger story about student activism -- and why students like Danial Mohammad Khan-Yousufzai, the Pitt student accused of the vandalism, feel strongly about factory workers thousands of miles away.
"We live in a capitalist society," Mr. Khan-Yousufzai, 21, of New Jersey, said. "And you're asking them not to use money," referring to the low living standards for sweatshop workers.
Police say Mr. Khan-Yousufzai spray painted a 12-foot by 41/2-foot section of the "common area" with the letters "WRC" -- an acronym that stands for the Worker Rights Consortium. He was found sitting on a bench with spray paint "all over [his] hands, shoes and pants," according to the criminal complaint.
Mr. Khan-Yousufzai would neither confirm nor deny the accusations, but he said such behavior "should not be condoned."
Facilities management originally said the cost of the damage could be between $65,000 to $100,000, but on Friday -- six days after the complaint was filed -- university spokesman John Fedele said the actual cost was just $365, which could considerably downgrade the charges against Mr. Khan-Yousufzai.
Since last September, a Pitt student group called Americans for Informed Democracy has been lobbying the university to affiliate with the WRC, arguing that it will improve conditions in factories that produce clothing that carries the Pitt logo.
Leaders of AIDPitt say that unlike the Fair Labor Association -- the organization Pitt is currently affiliated with -- the WRC is not funded by the companies it investigates, interviews workers away from factory management and better protects freedom of association rights.
Mr. Khan-Yousufzai said he is not a member of AIDPitt, but was frustrated with Pitt's refusal to affiliate. Locally, Duquesne, Carlow and Carnegie Mellon universities are part of WRC, along with Temple and Penn State universities.
"They're really frustrated, so I'm going to be frustrated with them," he said. "[AIDPitt] is doing what they could under the conditions they're under. This isn't about me."
Mr. Fedele said the university is still satisfied with its affiliation with the FLA, but administrators were meeting with AIDPitt.
He declined to comment on the details of their meetings.
Activists take on sweatshops
Student activism has a rich history in the 20th century and gained steam as more middle-class college-age people started attending universities, according to Pitt history professor Rob Ruck.
"When it really takes off is after World War II and I think the catalyst is the civil rights movement," Mr. Ruck said. "The university environment, when it's at its best, is making people think about things, and get at the contradictions in society."
But Mr. Ruck said the student activism on display at Pitt right now is less intense and more fragmented than it was in the 1960s, partly because current students don't have the benefit of a robust economy.
"Economic hard times also can mobilize people ... but look at the average student at Pitt today. I bet they work a lot more hours per week than students did in the '60s."
He said the marked increase of debt among college-age people doesn't leave as much time or energy to take on social justice causes, but that doesn't mean students aren't making a political impact.
The garment industry might seem like a surprising place for student activism to bubble up. Supply chain networks are dense and complicated, often including many diffuse subcontracting agreements between companies and the businesses that actually hire factory workers.
Without external organizations, it isn't necessarily obvious how universities are supposed to ensure fair labor practices.
Mark Anner, the director of Penn State's Center for Global Workers' Rights, said one of the keys to the success of the anti-sweatshop movement has been the marriage between student activists and organizations like the WRC, which can offer universities a tangible avenue for reform.
"What's impressive about this movement is that it's very well organized, it has strong institutional support, it has the support of the WRC that does good, well-grounded research," Mr. Anner said.
That's precisely how Amy Kessel, a senior who started Temple's Coalition of Students Against Sweatshops, helped persuade Temple to affiliate with the WRC.
"Looking around our campus bookstore, and not knowing what condition these clothes are made in, and being an institution of higher learning ... we just started questioning a lot of it," she said.
Like students at Pitt, Ms. Kessel began with a letter-writing campaign to Temple officials -- which was initially ignored.
"We had some disagreements because they were satisfied with their relationship with [the FLA]," she said.
But after a few months of negotiating, the university affiliated with the WRC last month, becoming one of the more than 180 colleges and universities to make such a move.
Richard Rumer, Temple's associate vice president of business services, said the university affiliated with the WRC "based on the fact that a lot of universities around the country have affiliated, and based on the students' request, we decided the time was appropriate to affiliate."
And it's not just students at Temple who have had success persuading their universities to make changes to the way they approach university-licensed apparel.
At Penn State, students were instrumental in persuading the university to sever its contract with Adidas, after 2,600 factory workers in Indonesia were denied severance pay, according to Mr. Anner.
"It's not often the case, but in an email to students, [administrators] were very clear that students played an important role," he said.
However, he noted that Penn State expressed hesitation before severing its contract with Adidas because officials worried such a move would open the door to constant demands to sever contracts with other companies.
Mr. Anner said the student anti-sweatshop movement has been making progress since the early 1990s largely because there is a direct institutional link between sweatshops and university apparel.
"If you look back at student movements over the years, you see a combination of an issue that seems more direct and distant but a connection to the home organization or institution that contributes to the problem," he said.
And although there are plenty of worker abuses in other industries -- in technology for instance -- "universities don't sell iPhones and brand them."
This is the sentiment expressed by several members of AIDPitt--the understanding that Pitt has some control over the lives of distant others makes students feel as though they can make a difference, however small.
"I have such strong feelings -- affection -- for Pitt and I want the apparel I wear to represent that -- to come from ethical conditions," said Viveka Mandava, president of AIDPitt. "In general, universities have so much leverage over the garment industry, it's important to harness student voice and student power."
But despite the success of the anti-sweatshop movement over the past couple decades, Mr. Anner said, it isn't surprising that universities like Pitt are reluctant to affiliate with the WRC.
"There's a balancing act between wanting to publicly come out and doing the right thing, and a concern with control," he said. "The sense is that if they affiliate with an organization and they make recommendations they don't agree with, they lose some administrative control."
Alex Zimmerman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman