(This is the first of a two-part essay on strategies for handling protest demonstrations, intended for university presidents and administrators. Both parts may be downloaded HERE as a .pdf document.)
One Spring evening a few years ago, my wife and I were watching TV when a crowd of about two hundred protesters gathered in front of our home, the longtime residence of Miami University presidents. Contract negotiations between the university and campus AFSCME employees had stalled, and the union’s leaders hoped that staging a media event would cast the president as out of touch with working people and win public support for their wage and benefit proposals.
“PRESIDENT GARLAND, COME OUT OF YOUR MANSION AND FACE THE MASSES!,” the crowd chanted, led by bullhorn-wielding organizers. So what should I have done? Addressed the “masses,” invited the leaders in to sit down and share views with me, answered questions from the crowd? In the end, I simply ignored the ruckus and stayed away from the windows. After twenty minutes or so, the passers-by and protesters lost interest and drifted away. The next morning there was no mention of the incident in the local news. Absent a confrontation, there was nothing to report.
Cat-and-mouse skirmishes like this one are common experiences for university presidents, as campus activist groups try to attract media attention to advance their agendas. For many students, demonstrations are memorable college experiences and a constructive way for idealistic individuals to advocate for social change. It is important, therefore, that beleaguered university leaders keep a sense of perspective and remind themselves that protests, demonstrations, and activist movements are not only acceptable in an academic environment, but reflect a desirable principle of democratic engagement. Campus protests may make presidents uneasy, especially when activist vitriol is aimed at them personally, but it is essential that they respect the right of the community to engage in such activities.
However, carried to extreme, campus protests are disruptive and damaging. Occupying buildings, interfering with classes and administrative offices, destroying property, throwing rocks and bottles, and breaking laws are anarchistic behaviors that have no business in academia and must not be tolerated. Furthermore, when protest discourse degenerates into name-calling, harassment, deception, and distortion of facts, educational values are undermined. Students should not be encouraged to believe that taking to the streets and pointing fingers at scapegoats is an appropriate or effective way to contribute to the solution of complex problems.
Thus, when some student and faculty protesters, upset about tuition increases at the University of California, downplayed the complex economic reasons for the increases and chose instead to level unwarranted blame at the feet of the regents, the system president, and the campus chancellors; and when their naïve “solutions” were to cut salaries of administrators and medical school faculty, halt construction of new buildings, and tap into alleged hidden pots of money, they were substituting emotion for reason.
But the large majority of marches and demonstrations call for no other administrative response than tolerance and a continuing effort to focus on issues and raise the level of community discourse. However, when protest movements veer out of control, becoming disruptive or violent, and threaten the institution and the community, then a more proactive response is required.
In these situations, university presidents walk a thin line between under- and over-reaction. One doesn’t want to toss a nineteen-year-old freshman into jail for “occupying” a building for a few hours, but presidents also have a responsibility to enforce laws intended to safeguard the community and public property.
There is also an ethical issue that can trouble university leaders who have seen, sometimes by personal experience, the historical importance of principled civil disobedience aimed at correcting social injustice. How bad would it really be if a president did not act against, say, the disruption of a class or the blocking of traffic in a campus thoroughfare by young protesters seeking to act on their beliefs?
Unfortunately, it would be pretty bad. University presidents are expected always to uphold and respect laws and university regulations, and that responsibility must transcend their personal views. Were it otherwise, presidents would quickly find themselves in the untenable position of picking and choosing among causes based on their particular beliefs. That is a very slippery slope indeed. Presidents who cannot subordinate their own viewpoints to the larger responsibilities of their office have picked the wrong career.
From a university president’s perspective, campus protests, whatever their motivation, fall into two broad categories: those that comply with university regulations and those that do not. The first call for no university action other than maintaining public safety (e.g., by stationing traffic patrolmen at intersections, providing emergency services for ill protesters, etc.).
Protests in the second category always call for an official university response. At the benign end of this category – sit-ins in university buildings, blocking traffic, disrupting classes – the institutional response can be minimal: warnings, probation, tickets, fines for trespassing, misdemeanor arrests, and so forth. At the other extreme, fortunately uncommon, protests can escalate into property destruction, assaults and intimidation, setting fire to buildings, or even blowing up research laboratories, all of which obviously call for very strong official action.
Once protesters cross a line into prohibited activity, the university’s response changes from treating them as lawful members of the community exercising their democratic rights, to considering them as lawbreakers and adversaries. Here there is no gray area. Once that line is crossed, the university has no choice but to stop the prohibited activity and hold responsible those who committed it. University presidents should be absolutely clear about this point. That members of the public may sympathize with the protesters, rally to their defense, or even see them as champions of injustice make no difference; the institution must oppose and stop the prohibited activities.
That said, presidents or administration spokespersons should always distinguish the issue from the behavior. For instance, if protesters occupy a campus building and call for the president to resign, then the president should make it clear that her beef is with the building occupation only and that she respects the right of community members to challenge publicly her decisions and competence.
In Part II, I offer suggestions to campus administrators for coping with protest demonstrations that cross the line into confrontations and unacceptable activities.