Campus Unrest

By Julianne Basinger    //    Volume 24,  Number 6   //    November/December 2016

The young African-American students gather in a group around the white college president outside the university administration building. For weeks, they’ve organized to protest the racist incidents and non-inclusive environment they’ve experienced on the campus. “I want to talk, I want to understand this; I want to come up with a way that we can get progress made on these particular issues,” the president tells them as the local television news cameras roll. “Like we haven’t been talking for years,” one student responds. “I’m tired of the dialogue. We’re here for action,” she says. “It’s either your resignation or us getting you fired at this point, because you have been so negligent.”

Scenarios like this one have played out in various forms on dozens of college campuses across the country during the last year and a half. Most of the protests have centered around students’ complaints about systemic racism, although issues involving gender identity and other concerns have surfaced, as well. One website,, lists the demands of student protesters at 80 different higher education institutions nationwide concerning issues of racism, gender bias, and other forms of non-inclusion on their campuses. The unrest is likely to continue, according to a survey report published earlier this year by the University of California at Los Angeles’ Higher Education Research Institute. Nearly 1 in 10 incoming freshmen nationwide said they planned to participate in student protests while in college, the highest percentage since the UCLA survey began 50 years ago.

Greater Self-Scrutiny

This heightened unrest is prompting college and university board members to undertake greater self-scrutiny of their institutions’ core values and to question whether institutional practices are best serving the diverse array of students they have pledged to educate. Amid changing times and pressures in society at large that have influenced student protests and demands, many governing boards also have been examining and defining policies and legal responsibilities toward free speech on campus. Intensifying matters, social media and smartphones have helped campus protests move at lightning speed, and boards have been re-evaluating how best to support campus leaders and effective institutional communication in response.

“This is an issue of heightened concern across higher education,” says Rick Legon, AGB president. “Whether it’s on your campus [already] or may someday come to your campus, it’s far better to have effective policies that are updated and periodically reviewed before campus unrest occurs than to try to fix what happened after the fact.”

Toward that end, AGB’s board of directors in August approved the “AGB Board of Directors’ Statement on Governing Board Accountability for Campus Climate, Inclusion, and Civility.” The statement presents values, principles, recommendations, and discussion questions for governing bodies to consider. “A governing board should demonstrate courage in recognizing the need for change and supporting or even requiring it, for the betterment of the institution’s students and the community,” the document states. “Institutions may need to come to terms with new realities, and while these situations are rarely easy, strong leadership is essential.”

The statement recommends that college and university governing boards support their CEOs and avoid micromanagement. Those chief executives, in turn, should be fully transparent and collaborative with their governing boards on campus climate issues. Boards should periodically review and update policies and mind their fiduciary duties by ensuring that the institution has adequate resources to deal with diversity, inclusion, and safety needs. Boards also need to make sure institutions have effective communication plans for dealing with unrest, and board members should receive regular reports about social unrest and institutional efforts to address the underlying problems.

The statement suggests that boards should also examine their own diversity. And boards, as collective bodies, should seek direct engagement with students and other stakeholders to better understand concerns and priorities, while chief executives, in partnership with boards, should champion diversity and equal opportunity.

Jeffrey B. Trammell, a former AGB board member and rector at the College of William and Mary who chaired the task force that helped craft the AGB statement, says governing boards should be proactive about having ongoing communication to make sure they’re aware of what’s happening on campus. “Smart boards know; they have their ear to the ground, they interact more with their students, and they listen more,” he says. “A lot of boards don’t do that. They show up on campus and think they know everything, and then they’re surprised when something erupts.” When boards do encounter differing points of view, they should listen and try to understand, he says. “It’s surprising how far it goes, if people feel like they’re respected and the leadership of the institution is engaging with them.”

True Inclusion?

Colleges and universities have made great strides in recruiting diverse students in recent years, but the past year’s student unrest has prompted institutions to look at how well they are creating an inclusive educational environment that helps those students succeed and graduate. “Welcoming is nice; it’s nice to do,” says Yvonne Jackson, a former AGB board chair who is a Simmons College trustee and a lifetime trustee of Spelman College. “But it’s more than that, from my standpoint. You can welcome someone into your home, but if you don’t engage them in conversation and make them feel like they’re a part of what’s going on there, then it’s a different feeling.”

The campus protests have prompted a growing number of governing boards to ask for and review data on how well their institutions are cultivating a campus climate that values diversity and fosters student success. If performance is subpar in some areas, boards should make sure their campuses have strategies in place to address that, says Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. He also recommends that boards seek out ways beyond survey reports to hear firsthand at their board meetings from a range of students about what it’s like to be a student at their institution. “The real hard work here is not predicting what might happen and which students might protest, but how do you create a culture on your campus that addresses some of these key issues we know are out there?”

Campuses should also create intercultural opportunities for conversations among students from a diverse array of racial and ethnic backgrounds and gender identities, and college leaders should acknowledge that at every institution, students are going to experience bias or something that offends them or “microaggressions,” Kruger says. In those cases, institutions should have a clear pathway for students to report those incidents, as well as mechanisms by which students can talk about what they experienced and receive support through that process. “It should be very clear on your website: If something happened to me, here’s how to report it, and then also very clearly, where can I get help,” Kruger says. “If I’ve just experienced something where somebody yelled the n-word to me or somebody wrote something on my door, how do I report it, and then, how do I take care of myself?”

The trick for boards is to monitor these situations and ask questions to make sure that an institution is addressing and handling concerns while also supporting the institution’s president and staff who create and carry out specific policies and procedures. “Boards should continue to operate at the higher level—the 30,000- foot level—and not get into individual practices around diversity and inclusion,” Kruger says.

Public college and university boards can face greater challenges than those of private institutions when sorting through complicated diversity and free speech issues because of legal requirements for public meetings, says Susan Whealler Johnston, AGB’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, who serves on the boards of both a private and a public institution (Rollins College and Radford University, respectively). “It’s harder for a public institution’s board members to ask really rudimentary questions that it may be necessary for them to understand the answers to, because they might not be comfortable asking them, knowing there’s someone in the room who could attribute the question to them.”

At institutions that are in the process of hiring new presidents, Jackson notes, boards should be conscious of seeking out leaders who have competencies to handle campus unrest and a range of gender, gender identity, and racial diversity matters. “Define those competencies to ensure you have a president who has the ability to be agile and sensitive to these kinds of issues,” she says.

Mission and Duty

Ultimately, boards need to ensure their institution is living up to its mission. The message of many student protesters has been that colleges and universities need to make changes in order to fulfill stated institutional values. Richard Riddell, vice president and university secretary at Duke University, says boards also should ask chief executives to bring forth a policy on diversity and inclusion that the board can endorse. “When boards endorse policies like that, it’s meaningful on a campus, so that the message goes out from the highest authorities,” he says. (See box below for more on Duke University.)

Dialogue at Duke

Duke University has seen its share of tensions during the past year and a half, from reports of racist speech and graffiti to a noose found on the campus to minority students’ occupation of an administration building last spring, with students saying they were tired of being “poster children” for recruiting brochures. Duke’s leaders responded through the campus’ student disciplinary processes in cases such as the noose incident and are working with minority students to address their concerns, while a campus task force also studied hate speech and bias issues and developed recommendations that included improving ways to report and communicate about problems.

Richard Riddell, vice president and university secretary at Duke, says one of the takeaways is that administrators need to seek to understand the deeper concerns that are fueling the unrest. “Discovering those underlying issues is a big part of any administrative response,” he says. “The role of the board in these situations is to be supportive of the president on the ground managing the situation and to bear in mind the principles of free speech, education, and inclusivity.”

Riddell, who also serves as secretary to Duke’s board of trustees and chief of staff to the president, says it’s equally important to remember that the protesters are students. “They’re members of your community who are young and learning,” he says. “They’re learning at the protest; they’re learning how to express their points of view. So having dialogue with them from the very beginning is important to working through the issues in a constructive and educational manner.”

Yet administrators should still hold students accountable, he says. “It’s OK for there to be consequences to the students’ actions and to help the students understand the consequences, and then that whole process becomes part of their education. They believe in something, they take actions, there are consequences, and then what do they learn from that?”

Free Speech and Social Media

Yet boards have fiduciary and legal responsibilities, as well, which have prompted many boards across the country to examine their campuses’ policies regarding free speech and the use of space on campus for free speech. It’s a complicated matter, and some campuses have turned to providing “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” for sensitive material, while others, like the University of Chicago this past summer, have underscored their commitment to academic freedom and exposing students to an array of viewpoints that might be controversial or offensive. Restrictive speech codes have been proven in the last decade unable to withstand the test of a court case, while colleges and universities also have a legal responsibility to ensure that their campuses are not hostile environments as defined under federal law. “Those are very difficult legal issues that I don’t think anyone has resolved,” says Michael Middleton, interim president of the University of Missouri System, who is also a law professor.

“This generation of students would like to outlaw offensive language, and I can’t do that,” he notes. “I would rather focus on building a consensus among everyone in our community that some behavior is inconsistent with our values in our society and culture.” He believes students who use offensive language should go through an institution’s student disciplinary process, and if found culpable, the consequence should be that they receive training about the surrounding issues, rather than being expelled. “I’d rather get beyond the legal question and talk about civic behavior.” (See box below for more on the University of Missouri System.)

Unrest in the Show-Me State

Michael Middleton, interim president of the University of Missouri System, has this advice for other higher education leaders facing student unrest: Don’t be dismissive, and respond quickly.

A group of student protesters calling themselves Concerned Students 1950 took action at Missouri last year, which led to the resignation of the system’s president, Timothy Wolfe, and the Columbia campus chancellor, R. Bowen Loftin. The protests there fueled similar unrest at other colleges and universities across the nation and reverberated throughout academe. The University of Missouri, with the support of its board of curators, has since taken many steps to address the students’ concerns, including hiring the system’s first-ever chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer. Board members also have met over lunch with student leaders and other students selected by the student affairs staff on the system’s four campuses this year to “have a free-for-all discussion” about problems and issues and what students would like to see done differently, Middleton says.

“The marginalization that our minority groups and other students are complaining about is a real problem that needs to be addressed,” he says. “They are our students, and we have an obligation to provide for them a learning environment that is comfortable and not offensive or difficult.”

In hindsight, Middleton says, a key lesson learned is that speedy and direct communication is crucial. “Quadruple your response time to these kinds of crises,” he says. “Students are on their iPhones organizing, and when they make a demand, they’re on their Twitter accounts waiting for a response.” Chief executives also should be willing to directly engage with students. “We need to be unafraid to walk out of our offices and talk to students,” he says. “They just want to be heard.”

Many of the free speech issues arise in social media, and a growing number of student affairs leaders on campuses say being present in that medium is an increasing part of their jobs. “I’m on social media a lot, and I think of social media as being like the campus quad when I was a student,” says Mamta Accapadi, vice president for student affairs at Rollins College. Her presence there allows her to be aware of campus situations as they’re developing, and she believes difficult conversations around diversity and inclusion issues as well as free speech versus hate speech questions are important. “The most meaningful work we do is messy,” she says. “I don’t want to be in the business of problem containment. I want to be in the business of ‘how do we create a community that we want to live in?’”

Students’ use of social media also has meant that campus protests and unrest can escalate at unprecedented speeds, Kruger notes; students expect immediate responses from campus leaders, particularly presidents. While in the past colleges might have been able to send out their public-relations spokesperson, student protesters now want to see, speak to, and interact directly with the president, he says. “The longer the leader waits, the more that waiting gets interpreted in a negative way.” Board chairs also are having to respond more quickly to presidential communication through smartphone texts or emails in these fast-moving situations. For governing boards, the proactive responsibility is to ensure their institution has an internal communications strategy that is thought out long before any potential protest. That strategy should include simulations and training around de-escalating crisis situations, Kruger says.

The aim of governing boards’ overall efforts should be to make sure that their colleges and universities are prepared to handle campus unrest and to ensure a respectful and inclusive learning environment for all students. Those efforts need to happen long before any protests occur, long before any television news cameras start rolling, and long before the next students arrive on our college and university campuses.

Defining Terms

Microaggressions—Columbia University professor Derald Sue defines the term as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

Safe Space—Originally referred to an institution that did not tolerate harassment or hate directed at gay or lesbian students. The term has been extended to refer to a space for individuals to come together to communicate their experiences of marginalization, typically on a university campus. It has been criticized for being contrary to freedom of speech. (Wikipedia)

Trigger Warnings—Warnings that a work contains writing, images, or concepts that could act as a trauma trigger.