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On Balance

The best way to quell campus unrest may be to tune into student concerns before dissatisfaction morphs into a list of demands; A good first step in addressing student concerns is to value the inclusion of diverse viewpoints.

To Engage Students, Listen

By Janice Abraham

Felicia McGinty

In 2014, the White House invited the Center on Violence Against Women and Children, at Rutgers University, to pilot a sexual assault climate survey on its New Brunswick campus. One outcome was an assessment model for encouraging higher education institutions across the nation to become more proactive in combatting sexual violence. This continues as a priority focus for Rutgers, with a campaign led by student affairs to end sexual violence and to address key findings of the university's climate survey.

Felicia McGinty, vice chancellor for student affairs at Rutgers, thinks today's students are especially concerned about how people are treated. "Students are challenging all of us to come up to speed on issues of equity and inclusion." In this interview, McGinty discusses the importance of getting in front of student expectations.

How would you characterize the differences regarding campus unrest today compared to campus protests of previous decades?

I think student protests today may actually mirror more of what we saw in the '60s and '70s with regard to perceived racial and social injustices, versus what we saw in the '80s and '90s, when the majority of protests and expressive activity seemed to focus around issues that were more global in nature, like apartheid. What we've seen over the past five years is that the issues are much closer to home, with things happening here in the United States and in our surrounding communities.

It's important to have a team of people whom you can mobilize quickly to help manage a variety of protest situations, both behind the scenes and out front.

That's not to say students aren't connecting with larger movements. Several years ago it was the Occupy Wall Street movement, where students were occupying spaces in their protest of income inequality and corporate greed. Over the past year or so, we've seen more protest activity related to concerns about issues of race and access for certain populations and about sexual violence and how institutions are, or are not, responding.

We're also seeing students personalize their concerns. Ten years ago, I don't think we would have imagined a student pulling a mattress across the campus of Columbia University to attest to feeling that her sexual assault complaint had been mishandled.

How should institution leaders respond to such personal kinds of protest?

It's incumbent upon us, as leaders, to be prepared, to be proactive, and to talk with students about their concerns, no matter the issue. To the extent that we can build trusting relationships with students, we can help guide and direct them to express themselves in a safe manner.

Are there best practices you would encourage your colleagues around the country to employ to be more proactive and responsive?

In my role I am already quite visible with students, but I hold open office hours for students every Friday from 10 a.m. to noon as another way to give students access. I also attend programs and meetings with them in off hours so that I get to know their issues outside, as well as inside, the classroom.

Having open conversations with students can go a long way toward helping them feel they don't have to protest or take over a building to get the attention of administration. And, being proactive with some of the things that you know students will appreciate can provide a different perception of what they think administration is or isn't doing. At the end of the day, you can't control the views of students, but you can try to exist in their space to better understand their views.

What have you done on your own campus to change perceptions about university administration being in tune with student concerns?

Last fall, we all watched as racial tensions escalated and played out at the University of Missouri and on other campuses across the country. In talking with our chancellor, we decided to be proactive on a number of fronts. For starters, we increased the budget for our cultural centers for additional support and training. In addition to having a very ethnically diverse student body, we are quite diverse culturally and religiously as an institution. We have about 7,000 Jewish students and about the same number of Muslim students enrolled. With a general rise in Islamophobia across the nation, we knew that some religious tensions were likely brewing on our campus as well. And so our chancellor agreed to help fund an interfaith center that will be a place for all students of any faith background to use as a worship space or to explore their spirituality. We sent a variety of communications to the full campus community last fall talking about these new initiatives underway. So that's one example of how we are trying to get in front of student concerns.

What do you see as the role of social media as it relates to student protest?

This is a powerful organizing tool in a way many of us never conceived. You can basically tell every person you know to retweet this or that, and suddenly you have what may seem a mass uprising on your hands. If you really want to stay ahead of any issue, you need to monitor the buzz before it bubbles up to a dangerous level. The type and level of chatter about a particular issue can also help you figure out how you want to craft your messaging and who should respond.

I have a Twitter account, so I am often a point of contact for hearing about a variety of concerns or complaints directed to university administration. In managing this, I start from the same premise as with anything else, and that is that I want to be as present and engaged as possible so that students know they can come and talk to me, instead of feeling like they have to make a demand. Sometimes it may be best not to respond directly, since the last thing you want to do is to get into an argument with someone on social media. But there are many occasions where you can use social media to share an important point that can change the dialogue.

How do academic freedom and freedom of speech play into issues of student protest and open dialogue?

I think most students understand the concept of academic freedom, but some may be confused about the difference between free speech and hate speech. Where this gets a bit dicey is if a faculty member is really out front with saying something controversial, and then students come and tell me they don't feel safe. This, of course, can also happen outside the classroom.

In one example, this past spring one of our student organizations brought the speaker Milo Yiannopoulos to campus. He was previewing his "Dangerous Faggot" U.S. tour, and we were the first American college campus that he stepped foot on. Because he's a known provocateur, we knew he was going to say some hateful and inflammatory things. So, well in advance, we reached out to students to talk about what we perceived would be offensive content and to let them know that we would provide an alternate safe space on campus where they could gather instead. We had many conversations with various student groups around this event, because there was a lot of consternation about allowing this kind of racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic rhetoric to have a platform on our campus.

We tried to help our concerned students understand that, as a public university, we can't make decisions about bringing a speaker on campus based solely on disagreement about the content of his or her presentation. If a student group or other group invites a speaker, and the speaker abides by all of our rules, unless that individual is creating a significant safety concern, we must honor free speech and allow space for that discourse.
In this situation, we did also discuss issues of personal responsibility, since students would have a choice about whether to put themselves in that space. In the end, many of these students decided to attend the talk and challenge the presenter.

What offices or positions around campus are most helpful for setting and enforcing the ground rules and addressing unrest?

It's important to have a team of people whom you can mobilize quickly to help manage a variety of protest situations, both behind the scenes and out front. At a minimum, you want your key people from student affairs, including your dean of students. You always want representation from your campus police. If it is a cultural issue, I bring in the directors of our cultural centers since they have credibility with particular student communities. If it is a free speech issue, I ask our attorneys to advise us. Aside from assembling the right team, most institutions need better training of individuals on how to de-escalate tensions, including coaching on the kind of language to use that won't add fuel to the fire.

It's important to bring your business office in from the start to help [staff] understand what students are requesting, so they can determine the potential impact on resources.

As important as responding to a protest are the key messages you want to convey to students. For me, it's always important to let students know that I recognize and support their right to protest and to expressive activity. I'm not here to quell that. I am here to try to understand their goals to make sure that the protest is done in a manner that prioritizes safety and allows the university continuity of operation. Yes, you can protest, but no, you cannot shut down this road or gain access to this building.

In what ways do you rely on the business office to support various initiatives?

It's important to bring your business office in from the start to help [staff] understand what students are requesting, so they can determine the potential impact on resources. When we decided to increase funding for our cultural centers, this certainly required coordination with our finance folks.

Another issue for which the business office is an important player relates to some of the particular issues students are protesting. For instance, the group United Students Against Sweatshops voices demands about apparel contracts and athletic contracts, so students might voice concerns that they don't want the university to buy any products from Bangladesh. If your president concedes, that becomes a pretty tall order to determine what that means from a purchasing and contractual standpoint. Other efforts aimed at institution investments—ranging from concerns about fossil fuels to privatized prisons—also rise to the interest of business officers because of student requests that may require board involvement.

Speaking of governing boards, how are you helping your board members understand student concerns?

Because I sit on our academic and student affairs committee for the board, I have an opportunity to present these issues, and board members are generally very curious about our students. So, I do think it would behoove my colleagues across the country to take advantage of some of that curiosity to help board members better understand the viewpoints of students. Students would likewise benefit from a better understanding of the pressures and priorities of governing boards.

How might institutions get students and board members to engage? 

One example might be to allow students an opportunity to present to the board. Students are very idealistic with regard to some of the changes they demand from their institutions, and they may not always understand that some of those changes could result in them having to pay more in tuition or might impact their student experience, for instance. So students would benefit from understanding the nuance and underlying issues at play in connection with the decision-making priorities for leadership and for our boards. In general, my experience has been that we usually keep boards at an arm's-length distance from students; but depending on the institution, it might be time for a new paradigm.

What do you and your staff think the next 12 months might bring in terms of emerging areas for protest where institution leaders should focus?

I think issues of racial inequality are as profound today as ever, as are tensions surrounding sexual violence. No matter the specific issues, what students want is for us to walk our talk. Institutions have some pretty lofty mission statements and visions, and we all talk about diversity, but students will continue to push the limits with us to ensure we live up to our aspirational goals around what we say.

I also think that the notion of safe spaces will be tested. We must be clear and honest with students about the fact that being uncomfortable doesn't necessarily mean you're unsafe. In any educational environment, when you are being challenged by new ideas and assumptions—including ideas that may make you uncomfortable—this is very often the place where real learning occurs.

JANICE ABRAHAM is president and CEO, United Educators, Bethesda, Md.

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Combat Unrest With Respect

By Janice Abraham

Mary Ontiveros

Mary Ontiveros gets why college students protest. The Kent State shootings and the Cambodian invasion took place during her freshman year, and she was among the throngs of students across the United States expressing their collective concerns. In recent decades, student protest has covered the gamut—from war to environmental disaster to sexual assault.

Ontiveros, vice president for diversity at Colorado State University, is now leading the charge for her institution to be known as an inclusive community at a time when the student population has never been so diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and religious and cultural practices. In this interview, Ontiveros speaks about the role of respect in addressing issues of campus and community conflict.

How does your institution's leadership respond to campus unrest generally, regardless of the concerns being expressed?

Being at a land-grant university, we know that our mission is teaching, research, and service. But, how do we do this? Our intention is never to censor anyone, but we believe that if we're going to engage in sometimes contentious conversations, we must be willing to listen to all perspectives. Respect is essential, especially where students may feel they are being treated unfairly—which is often the underlying cause of student protest. As an institution, we have now identified principles that we feel are critical to everything we do. They are: inclusion, integrity, respect, service, and social justice.

How did you go about identifying and developing these principles?

This stemmed from a situation that occurred several years ago. One of our African American faculty members was giving a talk in the community during Black History Month. At the end of her presentation, she took questions and someone in the audience said: "I remember when the ["N" word] came to town." Now, this faculty member has never been known to back down from a conversation related to issues of social justice or race and ethnicity, but she was so shocked she couldn't say anything. The host of the event didn't know what to say. Audience members were clearly uncomfortable, and nobody knew what to do. 

The next day, this faculty member sent a message to our president, our provost, and to me, detailing what had happened. The incident became the catalyst for a much broader focus on figuring out how to have constructive conversations around difficult or controversial issues. I pulled together a committee, including representatives from the dean's council, faculty members, students and student government representatives, employees from our health center and from various women's programs, and so forth. We held a retreat to begin identifying our shared values. Then, we worked all spring and summer and came up with what we call our "principles of community." As a next step, we met with more than 1,000 people on campus, including all employee councils, the council of deans, the cabinet, student government, and our campus communicators to seek feedback on the specific language. In the end, only a handful of minor edits were made before our full cabinet endorsed the principles in December 2015.

How are you using these principles today?

At this point, our focus is on making sure that everyone is familiar with these new principles. Colleges and departments are introducing them to their faculty. They have been shared at all orientations for graduate students and new faculty. We provide all prospective students and guests coming to campus with a lanyard that includes the principles. And we now have T-shirts available with the principles printed on them. By all reports that we've received, people are really celebrating the principles. We've even had some departments ask if they could include them in their mission statements.

In what ways are you trying to instill or enforce these principles?

The language of our principles makes clear that each member of the CSU community is responsible for upholding the principles when engaging with one another or acting on behalf of the university.

Unless we can change our culture, I really believe we will continue to see all of these flare-ups of student unrest centered on issues of inclusion.

One example of how seriously we take these principles, and where we have called out behavior contrary to them, involves incoming students. All new students are asked to visit a website, so that they can communicate with each other and get to know one another. In several instances, there were reports that some students were engaging in racist commentary on the site. This was brought to the attention of our director of admissions, who then sent the principles of community to these students, making it known that the university subscribes to these principles, and that if these students did not feel comfortable doing so, CSU leadership would be happy to rescind their admission. All those students submitted apologies regarding their comments.

In response to this, our provost, vice president for student affairs, and I drafted a letter that went to every new student this fall semester letting them know that these are the principles of community for Colorado State University, and that there is an expectation that they will fully engage in them. These expectations regarding conduct apply not only to our employees and our students but also to guests, so even our guest lecturers are expected to subscribe to the principles, although getting word out to all is much more difficult.

So how do you balance these expectations with basic priorities of freedom of speech and academic freedom?

As one example, in developing our principles of community, faculty members on the committee did express concern about using the word collegiality, because they noted that collegiality was not a value required for acquisition of tenure. So, we had to hammer out what collegiality means for us as a community.

How have you engaged your governing board in understanding the issues related to student protest and the board's role in responding to such situations?

I helped create an organization in our state that is now a chapter of the National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education. Our past two meetings have focused on governing boards, because we feel they really need to understand what's happening with diversity issues in particular, including the changing demographics of our state.

Colorado is one of the most educated states in the nation, but we also have one of the highest gaps in college attainment for racially and ethnically diverse students. One challenge is that the boards for our various institutions are selected in different ways. Currently, we are working to create a chief diversity officers council similar to higher education councils that exist for chief academic officers and chief business officers, so that we can meet with our various boards through that mechanism to speak with a unified voice about how to advance the merits of higher education for the benefit of the entire state and its citizens.

How should chief diversity officers, chief business officers, presidents, and others be thinking about and responding to campus unrest, in whatever form the activity takes?

Foremost, I believe institutions must strive to build an inclusive community. That will go a long way toward alleviating the most harmful tensions that may arise when students don't feel that they are accepted or heard. Likewise, this can't be viewed as an add-on, but rather, as central, to how we do business.

An example I use is how our business culture has changed surrounding recycling. When this was first introduced on our campus, people didn't want to be bothered with two wastebaskets and having to think about what goes in which bin. But now this has become normal for everyone, and we understand the importance of this practice. We need a similar approach to get to that place where we understand that diversity and building a respectful community must be reflected in absolutely everything we do—in the research we do on our campuses, in how we construct buildings, in student programming, and in the people we hire. Unless we can change our culture, I really believe we will continue to see all of these flare-ups of student unrest centered on issues of inclusion.

What is the best approach for moving in this direction?

It's incumbent on campus leaders and diversity offices to create environments where people have courage to speak up ...  and ask critical questions.

A good place to start is by assessing the satisfaction of your employees. We administered our first campus climate survey when I first started in this position and have done a survey about every two years. This October, we will administer our third one, and there are some quantitative measures we can already look at to assess our campus climate.

For instance, from our first campus climate survey, we found that people wanted to have more training in diversity and inclusion topics, and many thought their supervisors didn't really understand these concepts. We also learned that approximately 25 percent of respondents felt they had been harassed in some manner. That was an eye-opener. So, we have been involved in training sessions for supervisors. From our second survey, administered two years later, the number of respondents who felt they had been harassed on our campus went down to 20 percent—an improvement, but still too high. 

How can you measure success or know when you've made enough progress?

First, here is an important point about campus climate surveys: You can't have a survey and not share the results. And, you can't share the results and then do nothing to address the findings. You must be willing to take that next step and act on what you see.

Markers of success include the extent to which everyone on your campus takes ownership of the priorities you identify and the extent to which your campus is known for making inclusion a priority. If someone is asked about Colorado State, I want him or her to say that it is an inclusive campus and that we care about issues of social justice, for instance. Over time, we want these things to resonate campuswide and beyond. We are also working with our city of Fort Collins to help spread the value of inclusion to our larger community. Our assumption is that if we're going to be a world-class university, we want to reside in a world-class community, and so we need to reach out externally on these issues as well.

And we're finding that some of our efforts are starting to take root. As one example, I read a recent copy of our faculty council minutes that urged everyone to complete the campus climate survey. There was a time when I had to share this information, so to have others promoting the work being done by this office is an indicator that this is becoming embedded in our culture.

What are some important steps to take in building a campus of inclusion?

As a first step, it's incumbent upon campus leaders and diversity offices to create environments where people have courage to speak up and say they don't understand something and to ask critical questions. There was a time when our training sessions included mostly the choir—those who already understood the importance of inclusion. Now more faculty are saying, "This came up in my classroom, and I didn't know what to say. Can you help me?" Or, they express fear that they will say something wrong and the next day will find their name on the front page of The Denver Post. We all can appreciate that kind of anxiety. So there is a very real fear factor for many people who don't want to be labeled as a racist, for instance. Because many people are simply fearful, we have to start there in our training.

The good news is that more people are coming forward. As with anything else, this is a learning process. You may never get 100 percent of your campus embracing the values of diversity and inclusion, but if you can get a critical mass, you will see incredible dividends paid by having a good number of people not only adhering to your principles of community, but speaking out when they see something that is contrary to those principles. 

You also need to take the long view. We recently reintroduced our Faculty Institute for Inclusive Excellence, a yearlong program aimed at transforming teaching through integrating awareness about diversity and inclusion into classroom content and practices. I spoke with faculty who participated in a former version of this program 15 to 20 years ago to ask if they thought it was worthwhile. The responses I got were that it not only changed what they did in the classroom, but it changed their lives and impacted their personal conduct far beyond the classroom. That's ultimately what we want to have happen, and that's what we need to work toward more than ever today.

JANICE ABRAHAM is president and CEO, United Educators, Bethesda, Md.

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