Start here to prepare for student activism this fall

Expert Insight

Start here to prepare for student activism this fall

Creating a thoughtful strategy to support student activists amid COVID-19, racial justice protests, and the 2020 presidential election

Student Affairs leaders are preparing to navigate a fall semester unlike any before. COVID-19 has galvanized the higher education landscape and the murder of George Floyd sparked a new wave of activism centered around race, equity, and police brutality. The intersection of recent activism, COVID-19 and the 2020 U.S presidential election has created an unforeseen terrain requiring thoughtful student activism strategy.

Whether students engage in activism on campus, online or in the community, institutions must start acting now to position themselves as a source of support for student activists.

Proactively build trust, strengthen relationships, and provide education

Refine communication

Revisit policy to fill gaps in response strategy

Proactively build trust, strengthen relationships, and provide education

Engaging with student activists before a campus flashpoint can shift the nature of student activism away from a PR nightmare and towards an opportunity to provide support and education to students while increasing institutional insight into future high-impact initiatives.

Create space for vulnerable student groups to share their experience

Sam Houston State University hosts regular roundtable discussions with student groups representing vulnerable student populations to “keep the line of communication open.”

Creating space for students to share their experience, rather than waiting for them to request a meeting, demonstrates a commitment to improving inclusivity on campus.

Offer training and guidance to potential activists

Swarthmore embeds student activism training in their student leadership program to provide student leaders clarity about university decision-making processes and constraints, as well as educate students about activism best practices.

The University of Oregon advocacy center also offers targeted activism workshops to train students to advertise and host effective advocacy events.

Refine communication

How are you communicating with student activists prior to, during, or following an activist event? Below are two ways institutions are shifting their communication approach with student activists:

Pivot just-in-time resources for student activists to a virtual format

The University of Michigan created a pamphlet to hand out to student activists during an active protest on campus. The pamphlet included information students may need in the moment, like information about freedom of speech and student rights during a protest.  

Provide upfront communication to faculty and staff about their role in student activism

American University extended their activism training to faculty and staff and provided a refresher about campus policies that would influence their role with student activists, emergency response, and reporting procedures.

Revisit policy to fill gaps in response strategy

Consider revisiting to your policy to identify opportunities for improvement such as to add additional context due to COVID-19 or to implement a procedure to simplify a response during a chaotic time.

Typical policy elements

  • Time, place, and manner restrictions
  • Free speech zone regulations
  • Rules for placards, banners, and signs
  • Noise amplification limits
  • Space reservation protocols
  • Guidelines for disruption of university activities

Modern activism spurs new questions

  • How will the college address online speech or activism, including anonymous comments on social media?
  • When will the university release statements on national or global events?
  • How will the college receive, and address student demands not from elected bodies of students?
  • How will the college uphold social distancing requirements while respecting students’ rights to protest?

Convene a climate risk team

A climate risk team pulls together the right stakeholders from across campus to plan for and respond to potential flashpoints on campus. Create or reconvene a team on campus to think through potential fall scenarios and determine ownership and responsibilities.

Designate first responders

The University of Florida created a protest safety team to serve as frontline support instead of university police during a student activism event on campus. The team was composed of volunteers and one team captain.

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