What to do before the next student protest

What you can do now to prepare

Protests are less likely to break out if your campus builds a culture of balanced communication and inclusion, two experts write in Business Officer Magazine. But when they do, schools need to have a response plan already in place.    

In an interview with the magazine Felicity McGinty, the vice chancellor for student affairs at Rutgers University, and Mary Ontiveros, the vice president for diversity at Colorado State University (CSU) share advice for how to prepare for the next student protest.

Open the lines of communication

McGinty encourages college leaders to communicate before, during, and after a protest to help build trust with students. McGinty makes ongoing efforts to hold open conversations with students and understand their concerns, such as:

  • Attending campus events to get to know students outside of class;
  • Holding open office hours for students; and
  • Using social media to keep up with student issues.

Here's your student protest dictionary

McGinty also encourages fellow administrators to serve as liaisons between students and the governing board. One way to do this, she says, is to give students an opportunity to present their issues to the board and listen to the board's response first-hand.

"[Students] are very idealistic with regard to some of the changes they demand... and they may not always understand that some of those changes could result in them having to pay more in tuition or might impact their student experience," McGinty says. "So students would benefit from understanding the nuance and underlying issues at play in... our [governing] boards."

Ontiveros agrees that it's important to build understanding between students and governing boards. "We feel [governing boards] really need to understand what's happening with diversity issues in particular," Ontiveros says.

Assemble a response team

McGinty recommends establishing and training a response team before protests happen.

"It's important to have a team of people whom you can mobilize quickly to help manage a variety of protest situations, both behind the scenes and out front," McGinty says.

She suggests the following individuals should be on the team:

  • The dean of students;
  • One or more representatives from student affairs;
  • Directors of cultural centers;
  • A representative from the business office;
  • A representative from your campus police force; and
  • Attorneys with expertise in free speech issues.

Improve your business office's communication

Train the team—and the campus

Once you've assembled the team, you'll need to train them—and other campus community members—to handle future protest situations. According to McGinty, most institutions don't adequately train faculty, staff, and administrators on how to de-escalate tension.

The response team should be trained on "the kind of language to use that won't add fuel to the fire," she says. 

How do other colleges prepare for and respond to campus protests?

In an attempt to ensure students are all treated fairly, Ontiveros says her team identified five core principles to guide their interactions with students:

  • Inclusion;
  • Integrity;
  • Respect;
  • Service; and
  • Social justice.

CSU also tries to ensure that every student knows about the principles; their outreach strategy includes printing the principles on lanyards and T-shirts as well as announcing them to all prospective students and guests.

Establish ground rules

McGinty also recommends creating guidelines for dealing with issues that come up frequently in student protests, such as the line between free speech and hate speech.

At Rutgers, McGinty says they've established the following guideline: "If a student group or other group invites a speaker, and the speaker abides by all of our rules, unless that individual is creating a significant safety concern, we must honor free speech and allow space for that discourse." 

What protest policies do other institutions have in place?

Finally, Ontiveros recommends keeping a pulse on student attitudes through campus climate surveys.

Every other year, CSU administers a campus climate survey, from which they have an opportunity to identify and address issues before they lead to protests.

Ontiveros recalls that in CSU's first climate survey, 25% of respondents reported being harassed in some manner. "That was an eye-opener," says Ontiveros. After the survey, CSU created new training sessions for managers—and saw an improvement on its next survey two years later (Abraham, Business Officer Magazine, accessed 12/8).

4 things you should know before administering a campus climate survey

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