Negotiating with student activists: Your cheat sheet

You can't eliminate all tension, but you can encourage mutual understanding

A new era of student activism has settled in on college campuses. As André Costopoulos, vice provost and dean of students at the University of Alberta, acknowledges in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, university administrators do not always do the best job at consoling these impassioned students.

Costopoulos identifies two primary communication barriers between student activists and college administrators.

First, he points out that students and staff have a vastly different perspectives on the pace of change. Undergraduate students are on campus for about four years—but a president or dean often stays with the school for five to ten years and members of the University Senate may be with the same institution for decades.

As a result, Costopoulos points out that students tend not to see the pace of change in the same way that administrators do. Student activist want change within the time that they are students, but administrators take a longer term view.

Secondly, Costopoulos argues that students tend to believe administrators have absolute power to make dramatic change immediately. Of course, this isn't the case—but Costopoulos pushes his fellow administrators to consider what is possible within the grounds of shared governance.

Finally, Costopoulos offers several general pointers for working better with student activists:

  • View student leaders and activists as a source of innovative ideas, because administrators can get stuck in old ways of thinking;
  • Harness the enthusiasm and fervor of student activists to mobilize skeptical stakeholders on campus;
  • Console student activists about the pace of change by encouraging them to view their actions as part of a broader movement and to celebrate progress in the right direction.

(Costopoulos, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3/19)

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