Talk, Not Tear Gas: Colleges Soften Their Approach to Student Protests

November 12, 2014

By Mary Bowerman and Peter Schmidt at  The Chronicle of Higher Education

When students staged a sit-in at Colgate University’s admissions office in September to protest racial intolerance on campus, perhaps the biggest news was what didn’t happen.

No students were arrested or removed from the building. No one accused the campus police of heavy-handedness or administrators of trampling free-speech rights.

Instead, the sit-in ended with an agreement between protesters and administrators on a 21-point plan to make the institution more welcoming for minority students.

“We tried to relate to the students on a human level,” says Suzy M. Nelson, vice president and dean of the college at Colgate. “The first day we just listened to their experiences and tried to put ourselves in their shoes.”

A student walk-out to protest tuition increases at the University of Indiana at Bloomington last year similarly ended peacefully with pledges of cooperation by both sides. More recently, Syracuse University administrators have maintained peaceful relations with students who, in recent months, have staged a sit-in and other protests over complaints against the institution’s leadership. St. Louis University similarly kept things calm last month as hundreds of people marched onto its campus in the odd hours of the morning to protest the fatal shooting of two black teenagers in that area by police officers.

How college administrations deal with student protests has changed substantially since the campus unrest of the 1960s and 70s, or even since violent clashes three years ago between police officers and Occupy Wall Street-inspired student protesters at the City University of New York’sBaruch College and the University of California’s Berkeley and Daviscampuses.

Ada Meloy, general counsel at the American Council on Education, says “there have been changes from the confrontational days,” and now administrators are much more likely to seek to engage student protesters in civil discourse.

Angus Johnston, who teaches history at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College and edits the blog Student Activism, says that among college administrators, “there is a recognition that it’s not appropriate to treat students as if they are the enemy. It’s counterproductive.”

Especially when students are protesting against a hostile climate on the campus, Mr. Johnston says, if college administrators have the police crack down on them, “from a PR standpoint it looks really bad.” Instead, he says, administrators are focusing on “trying to find common ground and responding in a nonpunitive way.”

New Guidance

The shift in college administrators’ thinking is reflected in a new guide to dealing with student protests scheduled to be released this month by the Education Law Association and Naspa—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

An advance copy of the guide provided to The Chronicle encourages colleges to prepare ahead for any possible student protests, establish clear lines of authority for dealing with student unrest, encourage civil discourse with protesters, and ensure that speech policies are applied fairly and respect students’ rights.

“Our intent is not to stop discourse or the exchange of ideas or debate. What we really want to do is help campuses manage their environment to avoid disruption or harm unto others,” says Jeffrey C. Sun, a professor of higher education at the University of Louisville who was the publication’s principal author and editor.

William Creeley, vice president of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group, says the Naspa document “is written from a risk-management posture,” but he nonetheless is “pleased that they are considering these issues.”

“This document,” he says, “recognizes the legal limits on administrative power to silence student speech.”

Among its recommendations, the Naspa guide suggests that colleges have their police forces adopt the community-focused approach increasingly used by other law-enforcement agencies, and train their officers to be familiar with their institution’s mission and culture and to build good relations with students and student leaders. The guide suggests that colleges facing serious threats to campus safety tap into networks of state and local agencies established in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to coordinate responses to emergencies.

Looking Online

The Naspa guide also urges colleges to monitor and otherwise use social media to keep tensions on their campuses from escalating. It includes an account of how, during a November 2012 outbreak of racial unrest at the University of Mississippi, students using Twitter spread misinformation that fueled tensions. A committee reviewing the incident, which involved racially charged verbal confrontations, was able to use Twitter, Facebook posts, and video footage to determine what had transpired, the guide notes.

Harold (Pete) Goldsmith, dean of students at the University of Indiana at Bloomington, says that, in the wake of last year’s protests, administrators there continue to monitor social media to try to remain aware of students’ concerns.

Administrators at both Colgate and St. Louis Universities set up websites to keep students, faculty members, and others updated on their progress in carrying out plans to deal with concerns raised by student protesters.

Jeff L. Fowler, a spokesman for Saint Louis University, says his institution sees fighting the spread of misinformation via social media as a major prong of its efforts to maintain order on the campus and assure parents of the safety of students enrolled there.

Mr. Fowler says his institution is in the process of planning for any protests that might follow a pending grand-jury decision in the August killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager, by a police officer in nearby Ferguson, Mo. He says his university has put in place an internal call center and social-media teams, and has installed web cameras at various locations.

“There is no way,” he says, “to plan for every possible scenario. We found out previously this could go in a hundred directions. Our primary goal is to be prepared as we possibly can be and have the right people on campus.”

Peace Through Professionalism?

Ironically, one of the trends that many student protesters rail against—the growth of college administrations—may have played a role in helping to smooth out relations between such protesters and campus officials.

The way administrators deal with student protesters “is not shoot-from-the-hip anymore, like it was 30 or 40 years ago,” says Mark E. Boren, a professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and the author of Student Resistance: A History of the Unruly Subject(Routledge, 2001). “They have policied this whole thing,” Mr. Boren says, as college administrators have become more professionalized and likely to communicate with one another to solve problems.

Some of the emerging consensus on how to deal with student protests is a response to past mistakes. For example, after the 2011 clashes on California campuses, which involved a highly publicized incident at UC-Davis in which a campus police officer pepper-sprayed sitting students, a university investigation attributed the violence partly to a lack of systemwide policies and a clear command structure for dealing with protests.

“The images out of UC-Davis were so stark and disturbing that I think they really prompted a re-examination of university policies, and we are seeing the fruits of that shift toward strategies of negotiation,” Mr. Johnston says.

Kori V. Strother, a senior at Colgate and a founder of the Association of Critical Collegians, the student group that started the sit-in there, says administrators helped defuse any tensions by communicating with students directly, without involving the campus police or threats of discipline. “From Day One,” she says, “the administration addressed it as a peaceful protest” and focused on dealing with the students’ concerns, taking the approach, “Let’s not attack the students but have meaningful conversation.”

Schools: Colgate University Indiana University – Bloomington