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The New Student Activism: Get Ahead of the Protest

The New Student Activism: Get Ahead of the Protest

Terry MacTaggart is a senior fellow at AGB and the former chancellor of the Minnesota State University System and the University of Maine System.

Any president or trustee who believes their institution immune from student demonstrations, event disruptions, office occupations, and the attendant legal problems and media attention may be in for a rude awakening. According to a recent survey,  students are more likely to take action than at any time since the turbulent sixties. Well-publicized student actions at the University of Missouri and student led turmoil at many other public and independent colleges and universities foretell no shortage of disruptions.

Here are some lessons gleaned from effective responses to disruptions.

Don’t assume that past student passivity will continue into the future. The reverse is much more likely. Each year brings new student leaders prone to act upon deeply felt grievances. Social media accelerates communication, organization, and the emotions that fuel student activism.

Take steps before the campus erupts to assess the climate within the community. Meet with students who might feel marginalized, listen to their concerns, and make appropriate changes before being presented in public with a list of demands.  Board members or executives who harbor a rigid stance in the face of demonstrations are asking for more trouble. To be sure, some student demands are unrealistic or even illegal if adhered to, but students have legitimate concerns. They, and other members of the campus community, should not have to endure racial slurs or discriminatory treatment on a campus—or anywhere else.

Stand firm for the principles of the freedom of expression, mutual respect, and honest dialogue. Don’t give in to demands that are contrary to these values or that otherwise violate the law or academic standards. But be prepared to change when students bring long-ignored grievances to light.

Read more about creating diverse communities on campus—and how to frame those efforts—in this recent Trusteeship article.
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