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When Activism Rises

September 2017

By Apryl Motley

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Students are protesting everything from sexual assault to racial, philosophical, and political differences. How do you dial down the dissent?

Students on college and university campuses across the nation are protesting—and they are protesting a lot. Responding to everything from controversial speakers to politically-themed social events, students are more comfortable than ever with communicating their displeasure about what is or is not happening on their campuses.

In May 2016, TIME reported, in “The Revolution on America’s Campuses,” that major protests had occurred at more than 50 institutions where student protesters “made demands to right what they see as historic wrongs—demands for greater faculty diversity, new courses, public apologies, administrators’ ousting.”

Certainly, the results and aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, which ignited activism for and against President Donald Trump’s policies and decisions, presented another opportunity for unrest on campus in the form of various protests that ranged from petitions and signs to walkouts and rallies. Invitations extended to controversial figures to speak on campus also have been met with rigorous resistance by students who consider these individuals’ views so contrary to the values and ideals of the institution as to deny them a forum for addressing the campus community (see sidebar, “Speak Freely, But Not Too Freely”). And, protests against sexual assault and rape continue across the country, with a backdrop of data reported by the National Center for Victims of Crime indicating that as much as 60 percent of acquaintance rapes on college campuses occur in casual or steady dating relationships.

Whatever the issue or cause, according to the most recent results from UCLA’s annual CIRP Freshman Survey (2016), this trend in student activism is likely to continue. Close to 138,000 first-time, full-time students from around the U.S. were surveyed; and 22 percent report having already demonstrated for a cause; 51 percent have spoken up publicly about a cause; and 55 percent have helped raise money for a cause or campaign. In the 2015 survey, 8.5 percent of respondents indicated that they had a “very good chance” of participating in protests; this is the highest percentage in the survey’s 51-year history and an increase of almost 3 percent since the 2014 survey.

In 2016, participating students also expressed interest in becoming community leaders (43 percent), influencing social values (49 percent), and promoting racial understanding (47 percent).

Given these trends, higher education institutions are well served by efforts to better coordinate their strategic responses to social unrest on their campuses before, during, and after specific incidents take place.

Readying for the Rally

Students’ commitment to promoting racial understanding on their campuses and eliminating all forms of bias has generated numerous protests as evidenced by events last year at Duke University, Durham, N.C. Last April, several students staged a weeklong sit-in at the school’s Allen Building, which houses its administrative offices, to protest alleged racist treatment of employees.

During his tenure in higher education, Benjamin Reese, vice president of Duke’s Office for Institutional Equity since 2005, has seen his fair share of student protests. However, in his view, what distinguishes today’s student activism from that of previous decades, such as the 1960s, are methods of communication and student expectations. “If I think about a protest happening on Duke’s campus tomorrow, it likely will be in rapid response to some form of communication on social media,” Reese says, “which then influences students’ expectations in terms of how quickly we communicate and in what form.”

Additionally, according to Reese, students have greater expectations of those in leadership roles in terms of their ability to address their concerns. “Students expect them to be skilled in dealing with issues related to sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity,” he explains. “They expect them to be competent and responsive, which has led some of us in the higher education community to think differently about what’s appropriate preparation for leaders on our campuses.” To that end, following this most recent protest, the university put initiatives in place, including the formation of a Task Force on Hate and Bias Issues, the first to address student concerns as well as better prepare faculty and staff to address these issues.

While no specific incident precipitated the administration’s actions, similar measures were put in place at the University of Texas, Austin, to ensure that issues involving diversity were fully addressed. “We felt it was important to get out in front of this and not be reactive,” says Gregory Vincent, the university’s vice president of diversity and community engagement. “Because these issues are so high profile, it was critical to bring together the areas of the administration responsible for responding to concerns both on and off campus.”

In fact, it was an off-campus party hosted by a student organization in February 2015 that caused the most concern among faculty and students. The UT chapter of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity held an event deemed a “Border Patrol” party, at which some individuals dressed as construction workers and border patrol agents, while others dressed in ponchos and sombreros. The online reporting system monitored by the university’s Campus Climate Response Team (CCRT) provided a mechanism for tracking concerns about the event, which accounted for 20 percent of all reports of campus climate incidents received during the 2014–15 academic year. All reports filed about the party indicated race/ethnicity as the primary bias concern. Established in 2012, the CCRT plays a significant role in managing the university’s response to such potential incidents of bias on campus.

Both universities have put mechanisms in place that enable them to take a decidedly more coordinated and collaborative approach to responding to social issues on their campuses than they may have accomplished in the past.

Conversation and Collaboration

Perhaps student activism continues on higher education campuses because, in some respects, it proves effective in getting the leadership at these institutions to take action. A case in point is the establishment of Duke’s Task Force on Bias and Hate Issues—and subsequently the Bias and Hate Issues Committee—after a group of students staged the sit-in.

“After the takeover of the administration building, we established the task force and then the committee,” Reese notes. “One of the students’ demands was a better focus on addressing bias and hate issues on campus.”

The committee held its first meeting in February, met twice a month through May, and then began holding monthly meetings. Made up of students, faculty, and staff, the committee is charged with reviewing university policies and practices, examining educational and training programs, offering recommendations on university adjudication processes, and analyzing data on bias and hate issue trends. At Reese’s request, the committee will also provide guidance to the university president on specific incidents and issues.

According to Reese, this type of collaborative effort has become the norm and expectation on Duke’s campus. Here are a few examples:

At the beginning of their employee orientation, all new faculty members in arts and sciences participate in 90 minutes of training in recognizing implicit bias and techniques to temper unconscious beliefs and attitudes. “Doing this training at the beginning of orientation sends an important message,” says Reese. Additionally, attendance at workshops focused on unintentional biases is required before faculty can sit on search and selection committees within arts and sciences.

From Reese’s standpoint, all these efforts represent an important step towards addressing one of the primary challenges institutions face in their efforts to better address systemic bias on their campuses: “ … helping people at all levels of an organization to be more proficient in responding to the issues of the day around diversity and inclusion. Many people who are in leadership positions have not had that kind of formal learning experience.”

And leadership’s full commitment to an institution’s efforts is key. “Whether you have 9,000 students on your campus or 40,000, commitment from leadership is really critical,” Reese says. “After you’re six to eight months into your efforts, if addressing diversity and inclusion is going to remain a priority, senior leaders must view it that way and provide the necessary resources.”

Controlling Campus Climate

Significant resources have been allocated to support the work of Gregory Vincent’s office at the University of Texas, Austin. Since he began his tenure 10 years ago, Vincent has seen the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement grow to encompass a $50 million budget and more than 400 employees, 50 units, and 400 community partners.

The division includes the exemplary UT Charter School System, the Office for Inclusion and Equity (OIE), the Longhorn Center for Community Engagement, the University Interscholastic League, and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health. The division also oversees initiatives to increase in the higher education pipeline the number of first-generation college students, and students from other underrepresented populations.

Other initiatives in the division’s portfolio include the Multicultural Engagement Center and the Social Justice Institute, which focus on building partnerships to solve challenges related to social justice, campus culture, equity, and access.

In general, all of these efforts are designed to encourage campuswide coordination around what can be, as Vincent notes, “very high-profile issues.” In his view, it was critical to bring together under one umbrella—the Campus Climate Response Team (CCRT)—all the areas of the university responsible for responding to concerns both on and off campus.

“This is a large university,” Vincent points out. “We felt it was really important to get out in front of potential issues and not be reactive, so we brought the leaders with strategic responsibility for ensuring a good campus climate together with the staff members who have the day-to-day responsibility for managing concerns that arise. Together they developed a good plan.”

This plan included the establishment of the CCRT, with the additional component of a comprehensive online reporting system. The CCRT is a universitywide strategy resource team that “develops and facilitates the implementation of appropriate responses to campus climate incidents impacting the UT Austin community.”

The team reports to Vincent, but is jointly coordinated through the division of diversity and community engagement and the division of student affairs. Its core functions include:

Triggering response. Most of the CCRT’s work is set in motion when a member of the campus community reports, via an online form, an incident related to bias or disrespect. While students make the majority of reports, the form is designed for use by students, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and visitors. In addition to identifying themselves relative to their relationship to UT and the incident (victim, witness, or third party), those individuals filing reports are asked to describe the particulars of the incident (who, what, when, and so on) as well as what they believe is the perceived motive for the bias—and what type of response they would like to see as a result of reporting the incident.

From Vincent’s perspective, having this robust reporting system in place is crucial in leveraging the university’s resources to respond to and resolve these incidents. “Our primary goal is to get an accurate picture of what’s happening,” he says. “We can’t keep our heads in the sand.”

Still, he acknowledges that underreporting continues to be a challenge. “There’s a reluctance to report incidents because once you do, all the details are out there,” Vincent explains. “However, we’re trying to minimize underreporting by making sure that people know that we take this seriously, and we will take action.”

Continual communication. Educating UT Austin’s large campus community about the team’s work is important but also presents a delicate balance due to FERPA and other privacy concerns. “Because of such concerns, it is often not possible to share final actions and outcomes related to reported incidents,” says Leslie Blair, executive director of communications for the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement.

“We do try to educate the campus community about CCRT and the reporting system, so students, faculty, staff, and visitors know that reporting a bias incident or concern is possible. Every year, there’s a new incoming class that needs to be educated,” Blair explains, “so information about our work has been added to freshmen orientation. We also get the word out through campus presentations and publications, slides in the student union, and bus placards.” Certain members of the CCRT meet with the Diversity and Equity Student Action Council, which serves the team in an advisory capacity. However, because of confidentiality, there were no student representatives on the response team, a fact that concerned some students.

Student involvement. In line with students’ increased expectations of being involved in strategic campus discussions and processes, then-president of the UT Austin student body, Kevin Helgren, introduced a resolution to the student assembly in February supporting the creation of a Campus Climate Advisory Board. “CCRT currently lacks student representation, and we certainly want student voices to be heard during these climate conversations,” Helgren said in an interview with The Daily Texan, the university’s student newspaper. Composed of 20 students, the group was established and will begin meeting regularly.

Both Vincent and Blair underscore the importance of ongoing efforts to not only make stakeholders aware of the CCRT’s work, but to gain the response team’s trust and confidence in the process. “It’s really important that you empower complainants, and they feel that they have a say in the process,” Vincent says. “For example, if the complaint is about a professor and comments that he or she made in the classroom, we may coordinate a meeting between the complaining student and the faculty member, if that’s the desired outcome.

“Once you’ve got the right people at the table—representatives from student affairs, communications, and campus police, for example—you have to communicate that there’s a resource available on your campus for addressing bias issues,” says Vincent. “Then you must follow through. The process communicated to the campus has to work.”

APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Md., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer. 

Related Topics

2016 – Students at Duke University staged a weeklong sit-in at the school’s Allen Building to protest alleged racist treatment of employees.

2012 – The University of Texas, Austin, establishes the Campus Climate Response Team to respond to potential incidents of bias.

$50M – The Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas, Austin, has a $50 million operating budget and more than 400 employees.

“It’s really important that you empower complainants, and they feel that they have a say in the process.”

—Gregory Vincent, University of Texas, Austin