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On Working with Administrators: Five Principles for Student Activists

by David Hicks

David Hicks is a FIRE summer intern.

At FIRE’s sixth annual CFN Conference, past-FIRE intern Luke Wachob talked about his student group’s work at James Madison University to bring his school from a FIRE “red light” to a “green light” rating by changing unconstitutional speech codes on the campus. He highlighted the willingness of JMU’s administrators to work with, rather than against, students to reform these policies. After years of cooperation, JMU administrators and students are now able to stand together in their respect for free speech.

Like the students at JMU, I have had positive experiences working with the administrators at my college. A leadership development program has given me the chance to work directly with the president of my college, seeing much of the behind-the-scenes work that most students think little about. Additionally, I have partnered with the dean of students and other administrators to question policies as part of my work for the student government. Conversations with these people have taught me a lot about how and why administrators make the decisions that they do. Reflecting on the experience of myself and others, five rules stand out to me as being invaluable when working with an administration. 

1. Don’t be hostile. Let’s get the record straight: Administrators are not all bad. Some are. But some, like those at JMU, or at the University of Virginia, or at George Mason Law, are not. My suggestion is that you assume goodwill when approaching these leaders. Even if your college’s policy is totally unconstitutional, individual administrators should be approached with an attitude of cooperation before one of opposition. 

2. Offer an alternative. Everybody’s a critic. Taking the time to evaluate what can be improved in a policy or procedure, and offering a tangible way by which it may be improved, will increase the chances of your issue being addressed. A strong alternative shows administrators that you understand your school’s policies and will make taking action easier on their part.

3. Listen. This should really be an everyday principle, but it’s particularly important in exchanges with administrators. When an administrator is explaining their perspective, listen closely. College administrators are serving a lot of disparate groups, and listening is the best way to understand how they envisage their role within those tensions. 

4. Educate yourself. Research, research, research. Investigate the policies at benchmark institutions. Study the history of your institution, particularly how and why relevant policies came to be. Talk with your faculty and peers to better understand how the rule you are challenging is affecting others. Know your rights. When you meet with an administrator, come prepared with the facts and be ready to present them in a clear but respectful way. Doing the research on all facets of your particular issue is necessary to facilitate productive dialogue.

5. When appropriate, go public. If you find yourself working with administrators who are themselves disobeying the above principles, it may be time to take your discussion to the public forum. Use the media and word-of-mouth to create awareness for the issue you are trying to tackle. A bit of public pressure is a good way to discourage someone from employing the bully pulpit. And don’t forget to contact FIRE.

These rules work. Don’t believe me? Check out Braum Katz’s explanation of how he successfully employed them to achieve a green light at The College of William & Mary or read other stories from students advocating for speech code reform at FIRE’s Student Spotlight page. While FIRE obviously encourages students to apply these rules directly in defense of First Amendment principles, they can really be used to advocate for any issue. Regardless of how you choose to apply them: be persistent, and good luck! 

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