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Professional Opinion

Are you ready to work with student demonstrators?

Campus protests can be a learning experience for both sides
University Business, March 2016
Douglas A. Hicks is senior advisor for academic initiatives and professor of religion, and former provost and dean of the faculty, at Colgate University. Suzy M. Nelson is vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University.
Douglas A. Hicks is senior advisor for academic initiatives and professor of religion, and former provost and dean of the faculty, at Colgate University. Suzy M. Nelson is vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University.

In recent months, students have confronted societal problems such as climate change, race relations, social class inequity and sexual violence with protests and sit-ins at colleges across the country. It’s a chaotic process, and how an administration responds to a protest is vitally important to a school’s ability to alleviate the issues that spark it.

Having worked together as the dean of the faculty and dean of the college at Colgate University, we’ve watched student activism heat up at our fellow institutions. Following a weeklong sit in for racial justice on own campus a year ago, we believe we have useful insight.

Our focus here is to share how senior administrators might respond to student protesters: to engage students with humility and respect, to take their concerns seriously, and to facilitate reasonable and decisive action aimed at making our campuses better for all.

We don’t have all of the answers, but we offer a framework.

Focus on the big picture

Let the students speak, and let them know that you hear them. Listen—really listen—to their concerns, fears and the hopes that reach to the core of their being. As an administrator, understand that you are an actor in the process. Instead of reacting only to what students do or say, proactively work with them to propose short-term and long-term solutions. Tap your own sources of professional and personal support.

Remember that you are the public face of the university. Be prepared for the demonstrators, other students and the public to make assumptions and false claims about you. Be open and empathetic. Avoid becoming defensive.

Even in the most heated moments, convey respect to students who are taking passionate initiative to apply what they are learning to improve the world.

Respect brings progress

First, learn who is speaking on behalf of the students, and request that a small, consistent group be appointed to engage with you. Protest leaders may need to enlist input from others, so develop a time frame that allows them to communicate with their stakeholders.

Clarify, with as much precision as possible, the students’ agenda. That very act will help build trust, and will allow you to focus the university’s efforts to address the protesters’ concerns.

Determine who in the senior administration will engage directly with the protest leaders to address the substantive issues. Remember the limits of what senior leaders can do, and communicate openly about the parameters of your university’s shared governance system. Convene ongoing, face-to-face discussions with the student representatives. Start by creating and agreeing upon ground rules for dialogue and find areas of agreement. Even in times of intense emotion and disagreement, we made the most progress when dialogue was grounded in respect.

Don’t make promises you can’t keep

Create an accountability structure for commitments that the university makes. Set in place a long-term road map that includes public communication at regular intervals.

Be sure that whatever resolution you reach, you agree with the demonstrators on how to announce the changes that will be made. Both sides also need to determine how ongoing communication will continue among the key actors to sustain the momentum and accomplish the agenda created in the agreement.

As difficult as they are, campus protests are a natural and healthy expression of college life. They are an indication that students are thinking about what they are learning, and they are applying that knowledge to the world they know.

To work with demonstrators and others in leading your university toward a more just and inclusive educational community is an honor.

These are the moments to seize if you became an educator and administrator to have a positive educational and social impact on your university and students.

Douglas A. Hicks is senior advisor for academic initiatives and professor of religion, and former provost and dean of the faculty, at Colgate University. Suzy M. Nelson is vice president and dean of the college at Colgate University.

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