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Are You Ready for More Campus Protests?

Episode 200

June 18, 2024 25 minutes


EAB’s Kate Brown and Lilia Shea examine the protests that spread across US campuses this spring and provide historical context on student activism. The two also explain why it’s so important for university leaders to prepare this summer for more student unrest this fall as the presidential election season heats up. Finally, they offer tips on how to plan for and manage the university’s response to future campus flashpoints in a way that preserves the institution while making students feel supported and safe.


0:00:09.8 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today we look back at the student protests that erupted on college campuses this fall and share lessons learned from the way that different university leaders responded. Our experts discuss the nature of student protests and identify the steps higher ed leaders should take this summer to prepare for renewed campus unrest this fall as the election season heats up. So give these folks a listen and enjoy.

0:00:43.0 Kate Brown: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Kate Brown and I’m an Associate Director here at EAB. And today we’re going to talk about student protests and why the recent unrest presents some very real challenges for institutions. And joining me for this discussion today is my colleague Lilia Shea. Lilia, welcome to the podcast. Could you tell our listeners a little bit about what you and I do here at EAB?

0:01:10.0 Lilia Shea: Thank you, Kate. So I’m a senior research analyst here at EAB, and Kate and I have been conducting research in the student activism and campus flashpoint space. I think to anyone listening, it will come as no surprise that recently our research has been focused on the rise of campus protests and how other flashpoints are impacting colleges and universities. We’ve also spent a lot of time talking about how institutions can better weather these flashpoints.

0:01:38.9 KB: Yeah, thanks, Lilia, and thank you for being here. I actually want to just jump in right there. Before we dig too deeply into what’s been happening lately on college campuses, I would love if you could actually provide some clarity for our listeners about what we mean by a campus flashpoint. So what does the term flashpoint mean? What is the difference between student protests and a more general flashpoint on a college campus?

0:02:02.9 LS: Yes, definitely. So a flashpoint is really an EAB term that most of our partners, I would say the most, the closest definition that would be what you might call a campus crisis. So a flashpoint is any climate related incident or event that causes disturbances in the campus community and threatens the institution’s reputation. It can happen on campus, it can off campus. It can range from things like an event that disrupts donor affinity, to a mishandled incident going viral on social media, to we’ve even seen examples of program closures as an example of a flashpoint.

0:02:43.0 LS: And I want to be clear that when we’re talking about flashpoints, we are choosing not to focus as much on natural disasters, serious threats to life and limb, things like a school shooter or a campus bomb. We’re looking into incidents that gain momentum and really attract media attention. And that last part is really key. So a student protest itself is not a flashpoint. You can have a student protest and it doesn’t make any headlines. It doesn’t really go anywhere beyond the campus. When it becomes, what makes it become a flashpoint is if it begins really making headlines, drawing donor attention, or any other way of attracting significant public attention. So with that being said, Kate, I know student activism on US college campuses has long been seen as kind of a bellwether or at least a reflection of whatever broader issues are dividing Americans. So I’m curious if you’ve seen any connection or similarities between the protests this spring over the Israel-Hamas war and say the protests against police brutality and racial injustice that happened back in 2020.

0:03:52.3 KB: Yeah, I think that’s a really great question. I absolutely, there are definitely similarities between the protests now and the protests a couple of years ago about the murder of George Floyd and police brutality. Students are frustrated and passionate about something they feel needs to change in our world. So they’re advocating for that change. And this is hardly new, right? Student protests have been around for as long as there have been colleges and universities. And we know that as you put it, in student activism, it tends to be a reflection of broader divisive issues in our country or in our world. And student activists do an amazing job of pushing our thinking on a particular topic or pushing towards progress on a particular issue or sometimes sparking really valuable conversations on campuses and in our broader society.

0:04:44.0 KB: However, the size, scope, and often like the intensity of campus protests have been a real source of concern to university leaders over the past few years. I just want to like make sure I say every single campus leader I have spoken with through the course of our research over the years. Every single one wants to create space for students to advocate on their campus. But sometimes tensions arise when those leaders are trying to balance creating that space for advocacy and activism with ensuring a safe and productive learning environment for all members of the campus community. So when we look at our most recent protests as well, I just wanna also note some key differences between what maybe we saw a few years ago with the George Floyd focused police brutality protests and what we are seeing in the recent protests that have been occurring on college campuses this spring.

0:05:39.0 KB: So one major difference is where the focus has been. So the protests around police brutality a few years ago were just as focused in our broader communities as they were on college campuses, versus with these most recent protests, the spotlight has been shining so much brighter on what is happening on college campuses. The second major difference I would note is timing. The protests around police brutality really started in late May, early June of 2021. At that point, many campuses had already gotten through finals, commencements, and that summer break period had started, versus now. The most recent protests started earlier in the spring, before many students had left campus for the summer, before some of those major milestones like commencement. And although we have now made it to the summer break period, it’s really crucial, really important that institutions continue to lean into doing that work to prepare for student activism this fall.

0:06:39.2 LS: That definitely makes sense, but I would like to play devil’s advocate for a minute. So my question is, why can’t university leaders simply, you know, sigh with relief? Graduation is behind us. Our students have gone home for the summer. Have universities weathered the storm and won’t everything be just smooth sailing come fall?

0:07:01.4 KB: Oh, that’s a really great question. I really appreciate you asking it. No, everything will not be smooth sailing this fall. It’s not over. I definitely think that like many institutional leaders deserve to take a moment and just kind of a moment away from all of the chaos that we’ve seen on campus. And I understand that we want to lean into that, but I think it’s really, really important to continue doing this work over the summer. So there are really two reasons that come to mind that make this moment really important for campus leaders and student activism preparedness. The first one that I would mention is that it’s an obvious one. We have a presidential election coming up this fall in the United States, and we know that presidential elections can generate some really strong emotions and unrest among students.

0:07:50.1 KB: But elections can also create some really amazing opportunities for students to engage in respectful dialogue and learn and understand each other across differences. So as much as we can, we want to foster that dialogue and shared understanding on campus so students can learn, grow, and engage around those really tough moments. But the ability to foster that kind of environment that encourages respectful dialogue and advocacy through the proper campus channels requires more of a proactive rather than reactive approach, which is why it’s so important to continue taking those steps this summer to prepare for student activism this fall. The other reason I should mention is that we are in a really special position that we just experienced a huge spike in student activism this spring, right before we are predicting another spike in student activism due to the presidential election. So we have a moment here to really reflect on what went well, what did not, how can we become better prepared for the fall. So it’s really crucial not to leave that opportunity on the table.

0:09:00.1 KB: And, Lilia, I’m curious, actually, on this note, just to hear from you. I know you have spent quite a bit of time reading about and thinking about why better flashpoint response and preparedness is so important for higher ed right now. What would you say are some of the risks of a lack of preparedness here or some of the risks of mishandling flashpoint response?

0:09:23.5 LS: Yeah, I think this is a really good question because as we’ve spoken to our partners on this topic, we have heard some discussion about, our institution has been around for hundreds of years. We’ve gone through flashpoints. We don’t need these aren’t just going to take us down. And I think. It’s really important to acknowledge that there are significant risks that can occur, detrimental effects that can occur from mishandling a flashpoint, even if it’s not your institution shutting doors. And that can range from starting at the top, I would say, provoking calls for resignation from senior leadership. We’re hearing a lot about disruption of donor affinity, often at a very high and costly level and on the kind of on the cost note, we’re hearing about millions of dollars being racked up in legal fees and lawsuits sometimes when these flashpoints are not handled correctly.

0:10:16.9 LS: I think on a different note, how you handle your flashpoint also sends a signal to potentially interested students and parents. So when you’re handling student activism on campus, you’re sending a signal to your current and prospective students about your stance and how far you’re willing to go to protect their right to free speech, to protect their right to protest and assemble. And that’s very important for a lot of students, especially with Gen Z and Gen Alpha today. And on that note, we’ve also know that campus safety is really important to prospective students and particularly their parents. So we’ve heard a lot about parental concern about campus safety and how that can affect college choice.

0:11:00.7 LS: And then And I think even on an internal level, just within your own staff, we’ve heard from our partners about how exhausting, time consuming and training it can be to be constantly working on these flashpoints that happen so quickly. People are calling you all the time and just kind of the morale and logistic implications that dealing with these flashpoints can have. With all that being said, so obviously flashpoint response and preparedness is really important. Let’s talk, I’d love to hear from you a bit about what you think university leaders could be working on right now to prepare for these flashpoints.

0:11:43.0 KB: Yeah, well, okay, so I would say if you If you have experienced activism this spring, a great first step is to take a moment to debrief with your team to really unpack what happened and how to be better prepared for next time. So did we have the right people in the room or on the response team? Could our internal communication have been smoother? What if anything might change about how we communicated externally? Where do our policies support us or where have they maybe let us down? And what does this all mean for the fall? Those are all questions worth reflecting on in these early summer months. I think debriefing is something that we often see skipped because there’s just that like tendency to really want to just get back to our normal operations after a flashpoint has occurred. But we have seen just how valuable it is. So definitely do not skip that step.

0:12:39.1 KB: Then I would recommend conducting a free speech policy audit to better identify gaps in areas where these policies may leave you vulnerable and potentially ill-equipped to resolve disruptive demonstrations. EAV has developed a really great audit to help the leaders review their free speech policies, including elements such as demonstration policies, literature distribution, and temporary structures such as encampment. And I also, I would recommend looking for opportunities to make information about activism related policies and guidelines more accessible to those that who, to those who want to engage in advocacy on campus so that they have access to that information that they need to know how to do that through the proper channels.

0:13:23.1 KB: Something else we’ve seen campus leaders doing that I think it’s really great is spending some time brainstorming. Ways to provide spaces for the campus community to engage in dialogue around election-related issues. So don’t wait for the dialogue to appear on your campus in the form of protests. Rather, proactively, ahead of time, collaborate with faculty, staff, community partners to facilitate some of this dialogue. And then another really crucial step that I want to make sure I mention is outlining a communication plan for this fall. Communication planning is so important, especially when you are navigating campus unrest.

0:14:07.1 KB: We have a really great Flashpoint communications playbook on our website for those of you who are interested, but I actually want to pause here and pose a question to you, Lilia, because I know you’ve done a lot of research in the communications planning space. So one thing that I found really interesting through our calls is that sometimes there is pushback on the very notion that a communication plan could be helpful when it comes to something as unpredictable as campus protests. Could you walk us through what are the key elements of a crisis communications plan and how does it help?

0:14:40.0 LS: Definitely. So yeah, Kate, as you know, I’ve read many, many, many crisis communications plans by this point and have definitely, you know, our team has looked at key elements that are represented by most of them. I’d say the first one would be you’d want to make sure that a crisis communications plan establishes its goals and its guiding principles. So goals could be things like student safety, culture of inclusion, preserving the institution’s reputation, and so on. And you’d also want to make sure that anyone reading the plan has an idea of what the values your institution wants to emphasize in any type of response to these situations is going to be. And that can really help when developing these communications. Second, the plan should also have an outline. For what qualifies as a crisis.

0:15:32.4 LS: When does something, an issue, a student protest, say, for example, become a flashpoint or a crisis? When should your crisis team get pulled together? And when should senior leadership be notified that this is something worth meeting and discussing and initiating any processes in place on? And third, the plan should establish who is going to be on that crisis response team. So the members, if that differs by the type of crisis or flashpoint that’s occurring, if there’s going to be a spokesperson role who’s going to be that point person for media. Who will potentially lead that team? So this can really help. I think we’ve heard a lot from our partners about how helpful this is in kind of the chaos of a flashpoint is knowing who’s going to be in the room, who’s leading that team, who’s doing what.

0:16:25.0 LS: Next, these plans tend to establish any potential stakeholders and also differentiate responses to these groups. So your response to a parent sending a concerned email is probably going to look a lot different than your response to a local media outlet, TV channel, et cetera. And then next, the plans tend to describe the issue management process itself. So we’ve seen very detailed ones that go on for pages and pages. We’ve also seen pretty short one page or even just a flowchart used here. But what they will typically do is just provide an outline that runs from here’s how a notification about a crisis or flashpoint would happen all the way through the management process to that debrief or after action plan. And then finally these plans do tend to provide basic guidance on communications.

0:17:23.2 LS: And obviously your institution will have a communications team with a lot of expertise in this subject. But we think we understand from speaking with our partners that it is helpful to have some basic guidance in this plan on what’s best practice for when to issue a statement, what should that statement refer to, and so on.

0:17:43.2 KB: Thank you. Super helpful. I know you have read through countless communications plans, so it’s really helpful to hear you outline those four components. I actually want to go back just a little bit. I know we’ve mentioned free speech policies previously, but I want to dig deeper into that for a moment. You know, through our research, we talked a lot to campus leaders who felt free speech policies were top of mind for them, but felt overwhelmed by what to really do in that space to prepare. So they know it’s something they should be thinking about. They’re just not really sure what to do with it. And I mentioned that EAB’s free speech policy audit is a great place to start. And I’m curious, Lilia, what are some common gaps or vulnerabilities that institutions might find during while conducting a free speech policy audit?

0:18:32.9 LS: Yeah, definitely. I know the Free Speech Policy Audit has much more detail on this, so I’ll just name a few of those gaps that come to mind off the top of my head. I would start with a common gap around clarity of what kind of temporary structures are often allowed during student activism on campus. For how long can these structures be up, in what spaces can they be up, and so on. Another gap would be around inviting speakers to campus. So who can make those invitations? Where can these events be held? Under what circumstances could that speaking engagement be canceled? I think is a very hot button issue. And I would say a third of these types of common gaps we’re seeing is what is and what isn’t considered a designated free speech area.

0:19:26.1 LS: So for example, does your institution restrict the use of any campus spaces such as a classroom or any other sort of maybe a library so that the institution can just function on a day-to-day basis, I think is really important. And I think Kate, now more than ever, especially with an election coming up, at least here in the US, it’s important to know that you not only have these policies in place, but that you can raise awareness of them amongst the student body.

0:19:56.0 KB: Yeah, I’m so glad that you mentioned the awareness piece. That is so important. And beyond just free speech policy specifically, I think, but any policies or guidelines related to activism, advocating on campus really want students who want to advocate for a cause to have access to the information they need to understand how to do so through the right channels on campus. That is so crucial. Lilia, would you mind sharing a few examples of how institutions are raising awareness of activism-related guidelines and policies on campus?

0:20:31.3 LS: Definitely. So I would say I would split this into three sections. And the first way that institutions are raising awareness would be just on the student level. For example, a student resource hub on activism, obviously on the institution’s website. I think we’ve seen these hubs will typically feature a list of any activism and free speech related policies. They may provide guidance on how to stay safe during a protest. And they typically feature an FAQ page that I think is a really helpful way to get and answer student questions and concerns very clearly and concisely. And kind of on that note, I would say the second part would be creating an internal FAQ for faculty and staff who are also fielding a lot of questions from students themselves about activism related policies.

0:21:21.5 LS: So this can help them answer those questions and help students protest safely and within institutional guidelines. And then finally, and I think this is really topical lately, is having an external FAQ as well made for the public on campus demonstration and guidelines. So this can help direct parents and other stakeholders to a really central hub that’s easy to understand. So, Kate, I know there’s a lot more we could explore on this issue. You and I could talk all day about this and often do, but time is running short. So before we wrap up, could you recap for us the advice you would offer institutional leaders about how to prepare for this fall in a way that will help prevent protests from becoming violent or really shutting down the institution?

0:22:14.8 KB: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And you’re right, we could talk about this all day. So to recap, I think the most important points from our conversation today, number one, debrief any activism you experienced this spring. Don’t skip that step. EAB has a really great debrief guide that Lilia actually built herself to support you with this. But definitely dedicate some time with your team to debrief what has happened if you have experienced activism this spring. Number two, audit and update activism-related policies and practices, and then look for opportunities to improve accessibility and awareness of those policies. Third thing I’ll mention is identify opportunities to proactively create space for your campus community members to engage in respectful dialogue around the presidential election or topics related to the election.

0:23:08.4 KB: And then something that I don’t think we actually talked about today, but I think feels really important to talk about when we’re talking about this topic, is the possible uptick in student support needs this fall. Like we discussed, big moments like elections can stir up a lot of emotions and have a very, very real impact on student well-being. So I would 100% recommend spending a little time thinking about how to bolster proactive support of student well-being through this fall, and also how to be better prepared for an uptick in support needs, students who need a little extra support as they’re hit with some of those emotional moments, potentially around the election. The last thing I’ll mention is that we have a brand new Flashpoint Resource Center on that just launched in June 2024. So much helpful stuff in there, whether you are in the preparation phase, currently weathering an active Flashpoint, or if you were in the process of debriefing a Flashpoint, I definitely recommend checking that out.

0:24:09.3 LS: Yeah, I’ll echo Kate. Very excited about our new Flashpoint Resource Center and highly recommend taking a look. With that being said, Kate, thank you so much for joining me today. And thank you to anyone who’s listening for taking the time to join us as well.

0:24:29.5 KB: Yeah, thank you, Lilia.

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