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To Engage Students, Listen

November 2016

By Janice Abraham

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The best way to quell campus unrest may be to tune into student concerns before dissatisfaction morphs into a list of demands.

In 2014, the White House invited the Center on Violence Against Women and Children, at Rutgers University, to pilot a sexual assault climate survey on its New Brunswick campus. One outcome was an assessment model for encouraging higher education institutions across the nation to become more proactive in combatting sexual violence. This continues as a priority focus for Rutgers, with a campaign led by student affairs to end sexual violence and to address key findings of the university’s climate survey.

Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for student affairs at Rutgers, thinks today’s students are especially concerned about how people are treated. “Students are challenging all of us to come up to speed on issues of equity and inclusion.” In this interview, McGinty discusses the importance of getting in front of student expectations.

How would you characterize the differences regarding campus unrest today compared to campus protests of previous decades?

I think student protests today may actually mirror more of what we saw in the ’60s and ’70s with regard to perceived racial and social injustices, versus what we saw in the ’80s and ’90s, when the majority of protests and expressive activity seemed to focus around issues that were more global in nature, like apartheid. What we’ve seen over the past five years is that the issues are much closer to home, with things happening here in the United States and in our surrounding communities.

That’s not to say students aren’t connecting with larger movements. Several years ago it was the Occupy Wall Street movement, where students were occupying spaces in their protest of income inequality and corporate greed. Over the past year or so, we’ve seen more protest activity related to concerns about issues of race and access for certain populations and about sexual violence and how institutions are, or are not, responding.

We’re also seeing students personalize their concerns. Ten years ago, I don’t think we would have imagined a student pulling a mattress across the campus of Columbia University to attest to feeling that her sexual assault complaint had been mishandled.

How should institution leaders respond to such personal kinds of protest? 

It’s incumbent upon us, as leaders, to be prepared, to be proactive, and to talk with students about their concerns, no matter the issue. To the extent that we can build trusting relationships with students, we can help guide and direct them to express themselves in a safe manner.

Are there best practices you would encourage your colleagues around the country to employ to be more proactive and responsive?

In my role I am already quite visible with students, but I hold open office hours for students every Friday from 10 a.m. to noon as another way to give students access. I also attend programs and meetings with them in off hours so that I get to know their issues outside, as well as inside, the classroom.

Having open conversations with students can go a long way toward helping them feel they don’t have to protest or take over a building to get the attention of administration. And, being proactive with some of the things that you know students will appreciate can provide a different perception of what they think administration is or isn’t doing. At the end of the day, you can’t control the views of students, but you can try to exist in their space to better understand their views.

What have you done on your own campus to change perceptions about university administration being in tune with student concerns? 

Last fall, we all watched as racial tensions escalated and played out at the University of Missouri and on other campuses across the country. In talking with our chancellor, we decided to be proactive on a number of fronts. For starters, we increased the budget for our cultural centers for additional support and training. In addition to having a very ethnically diverse student body, we are quite diverse culturally and religiously as an institution. We have about 7,000 Jewish students and about the same number of Muslim students enrolled. With a general rise in Islamophobia across the nation, we knew that some religious tensions were likely brewing on our campus as well. And so our chancellor agreed to help fund an interfaith center that will be a place for all students of any faith background to use as a worship space or to explore their spirituality. We sent a variety of communications to the full campus community last fall talking about these new initiatives underway. So that’s one example of how we are trying to get in front of student concerns.

What do you see as the role of social media as it relates to student protest?

This is a powerful organizing tool in a way many of us never conceived. You can basically tell every person you know to retweet this or that, and suddenly you have what may seem a mass uprising on your hands. If you really want to stay ahead of any issue, you need to monitor the buzz before it bubbles up to a dangerous level. The type and level of chatter about a particular issue can also help you figure out how you want to craft your messaging and who should respond.

I have a Twitter account, so I am often a point of contact for hearing about a variety of concerns or complaints directed to university administration. In managing this, I start from the same premise as with anything else, and that is that I want to be as present and engaged as possible so that students know they can come and talk to me, instead of feeling like they have to make a demand. Sometimes it may be best not to respond directly, since the last thing you want to do is to get into an argument with someone on social media. But there are many occasions where you can use social media to share an important point that can change the dialogue.

How do academic freedom and freedom of speech play into issues of student protest and open dialogue? 

I think most students understand the concept of academic freedom, but some may be confused about the difference between free speech and hate speech. Where this gets a bit dicey is if a faculty member is really out front with saying something controversial, and then students come and tell me they don’t feel safe. This, of course, can also happen outside the classroom.

In one example, this past spring one of our student organizations brought the speaker Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. He was previewing his “Dangerous Faggot” U.S. tour, and we were the first American college campus that he stepped foot on. Because he’s a known provocateur, we knew he was going to say some hateful and inflammatory things. So, well in advance, we reached out to students to talk about what we perceived would be offensive content and to let them know that we would provide an alternate safe space on campus where they could gather instead. We had many conversations with various student groups around this event, because there was a lot of consternation about allowing this kind of racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric to have a platform on our campus.

We tried to help our concerned students understand that, as a public university, we can’t make decisions about bringing a speaker on campus based solely on disagreement about the content of his or her presentation. 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.

In this situation, we did also discuss issues of personal responsibility, since students would have a choice about whether to put themselves in that space. In the end, many of these students decided to attend the talk and challenge the presenter.

What offices or positions around campus are most helpful for setting and enforcing the ground rules and addressing unrest? 

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. At a minimum, you want your key people from student affairs, including your dean of students. You always want representation from your campus police. If it is a cultural issue, I bring in the directors of our cultural centers since they have credibility with particular student communities. If it is a free speech issue, I ask our attorneys to advise us. Aside from assembling the right team, most institutions need better training of individuals on how to de-escalate tensions, including coaching on the kind of language to use that won’t add fuel to the fire.

As important as responding to a protest are the key messages you want to convey to students. For me, it’s always important to let students know that I recognize and support their right to protest and to expressive activity. I’m not here to quell that. I am here to try to understand their goals to make sure that the protest is done in a manner that prioritizes safety and allows the university continuity of operation. Yes, you can protest, but no, you cannot shut down this road or gain access to this building.

In what ways do you rely on the business office to support various initiatives? 

It’s important to bring your business office in from the start to help [staff] understand what students are requesting, so they can determine the potential impact on resources. When we decided to increase funding for our cultural centers, this certainly required coordination with our finance folks.

Another issue for which the business office is an important player relates to some of the particular issues students are protesting. For instance, the group United Students Against Sweatshops voices demands about apparel contracts and athletic contracts, so students might voice concerns that they don’t want the university to buy any products from Bangladesh. If your president concedes, that becomes a pretty tall order to determine what that means from a purchasing and contractual standpoint. Other efforts aimed at institution investments—ranging from concerns about fossil fuels to privatized prisons—also rise to the interest of business officers because of student requests that may require board involvement.

Speaking of governing boards, how are you helping your board members understand student concerns?

Because I sit on our academic and student affairs committee for the board, I have an opportunity to present these issues, and board members are generally very curious about our students. So, I do think it would behoove my colleagues across the country to take advantage of some of that curiosity to help board members better understand the viewpoints of students. Students would likewise benefit from a better understanding of the pressures and priorities of governing boards.

How might institutions get students and board members to engage?  

One example might be to allow students an opportunity to present to the board. Students are very idealistic with regard to some of the changes they demand from their institutions, 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, for instance. So students would benefit from understanding the nuance and underlying issues at play in connection with the decision-making priorities for leadership and for our boards. In general, my experience has been that we usually keep boards at an arm’s-length distance from students; but depending on the institution, it might be time for a new paradigm.

What do you and your staff think the next 12 months might bring in terms of emerging areas for protest where institution leaders should focus? 

I think issues of racial inequality are as profound today as ever, as are tensions surrounding sexual violence. No matter the specific issues, what students want is for us to walk our talk. Institutions have some pretty lofty mission statements and visions, and we all talk about diversity, but students will continue to push the limits with us to ensure we live up to our aspirational goals around what we say.

I also think that the notion of safe spaces will be tested. We must be clear and honest with students about the fact that being uncomfortable doesn’t necessarily mean you’re unsafe. In any educational environment, when you are being challenged by new ideas and assumptions—including ideas that may make you uncomfortable—this is very often the place where real learning occurs.

Read also, “Combat Unrest With Respect.

JANICE ABRAHAM is president and CEO, United Educators, Bethesda, Md.


Related Topics

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.

It’s important to bring your business office in from the start to help [staff] understand what students are requesting, so they can determine the potential impact on resources.