Presidents seek open dialogue with student protesters

'Part of our job as educators is to encourage students to find their voices'

As students seek administrator support in dealing with racial tension on campus, presidents across the nation are finding that engaging in a conversation is the best way to make progress, Sarah Brown and Katherine Mangan report for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Since the start of the academic year, a number of college and university officials have stepped down following student protests over the handling of racially sensitive issues. University of Missouri's president and system chancellor and Claremont McKenna College's dean of students all resigned; a Yale University lecturer removed herself from her teaching role; and Ithaca College's president announced his retirement at the end of next year.

Student protests spread to more than 100 campuses nationwide

As classes resume after the winter break, leaders at colleges nationwide are again considering how best to respond to student demands.

Last week, Oberlin College president Marvin Krislov announced he was rejecting a list of demands from students that included hiring more black faculty, firing nine faculty and staff members, and creating "exclusive black safe spaces."

Krislov said there is an educational benefit to inviting students to strategic planning discussions, but he emphasized that "they also need to understand how the institution works, about shared governance, and the important role of the faculty in issues like promotion and tenure."

"Part of our job as educators is to encourage students to find their voices and help them channel them productively to bring about change or improvement," he added.

As protests spread, students aim to oust leaders at other campuses

At Towson University, interim president Timothy Chandler signed a pledge to address concerns of black students and others after hours of reviewing, editing, and negotiating in his office.

The original demands had "a level of unreality" that necessitated some discussion, Chandler said.  "That was really what was most important to them, to be heard."

Discussion revealed that "we were actually much closer together than it appeared" from the original demands, according to Chandler. "But I'd never have known that if I hadn't sat down and discussed it with them, and they would never have known either."

And at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill an initial list of 50 student demands presented to Chancellor Carol Folt in November evolved into a series of more practical proposals after a set of meetings attended by students from various campus organizations, protestors, and senior administrators.

Conversation "gives you a better chance of changing people's minds and educating them than by refusing to have those conversations," Chandler notes (Alvarez, ABC11, 11/19/2015; Brown/Mangan, Chronicle of Higher Education, 1/23).

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