Can campuses prevent protests from escalating into violence?

After the Berkeley riot, experts discuss the costs, culture and consequences of facilitating student protests

A scheduled speech from conservative pundit Milo Yiannopoulos turned violent Wednesday evening at the University of California – Berkeley campus, leading officials to cancel the event after masked protestors caused moderate damage and set fires near the facility scheduled to host the talk.

The incident, which began as a peaceful protests largely attended by students, was escalated by groups that campus officials say are not connected with the Berkeley student body. In the aftermath, many are raising questions about the culture of campus activism and how administrators can best handle incidents before they turn violent or criminal.

Demonstrations have become a key topic within political discussions since the inauguration of President Donald Trump last month, an event which brought droves of demonstrators to Washington D.C. from more than 99 confirmed groups and organizations set to divert attention away from one of the most controversial presidential transitions in history.

Some observers believe that the growing dissatisfaction, particularly among college students with the state of politics and their impact on economy, education, social justice and healthcare, should have campus leaders highly prepared for emerging activism and demonstration culture on campus.

“Often, institutions think that activism affects only those involved in the protests,” says Elizabeth Brown, a researcher with the EAB and lead author on a soon-to-be-released guide on how college administrators should best handle student activism. “But it impacts students, faculty and staff and their feelings about an issue. There can be consequences about enrollment as prospective students and their parents start to ask questions about campus and student protests.”

Administrations are not prepared for student activism

"Navigating the New Wave of Student Activism" traces the roots of campus mobilization to the 1960s and 1970s, when tensions over international military conflict and domestic struggles for civil rights abounded. In the last 40 years, the conversations have remained the same in student dissatisfaction with government response to social justice, racial inequality and economic disparities.

In 2015, tensions flared at the University of Missouri as scores of African American students protested what they characterized as race-based marginalization on the predominantly white campus. Their concerns soon spread to other schools throughout the country, prompting national headlines and conversation about activism, safe space and the value of diversity on campus.

According to the report, campus administrators tend to view student activism from one of three angles: wanting students to be more engaged, knowing that students can protest anything at any time, and recognizing when protest is actively occurring on campus. Brown says that preliminary discussions on hot topics on and off campus with a variety of stakeholders is the key to campus leaders providing a sensitive understanding of why protests have occurred and may occur again.

“When institutions call us about activism, the number one question we get is if we think it is a flash in the pan or something that will continue? Changing demographics on campus and our current political climate suggests that it is something that will continue, and so our recommendation is for leaders to spend the time and to be prepared for it,” she said.

Campus activism by the numbers

According to data provided in the report, 10% of incoming first-year college students in 2015 expected to be involved with some form of protest while in school, and 69% of surveyed students would support policies designed to limit offensive speech on campus.

With the proliferation of social media and its role in spreading messages associated with college protests, the known and unknown costs of student dissatisfaction can range far beyond thousands of likes and followers on Facebook Live. EAB officials cite Missouri’s $6 million drop in fundraising pledges and gifts during the student protests, and the average 10% drop in applications associated with schools covered in the New York Times for scandal or unfavorable news stories.

That potential is something Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro addressed in a January 2016 editorial for the Washington Post, in which he described the fallacy of decrying safe spaces, and the essential need for cultural autonomy as a means to building diversity.

“I’m an economist, not a sociologist or psychologist, but those experts tell me that students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable. Safe spaces provide that comfort. The irony, it seems, is that the best hope we have of creating an inclusive community is to first create spaces where members of each group feel safe,” he wrote.

Protecting all forms of speech from intentional disruption

Not all observers say that protests are legitimate forms of opposing certain speakers and topics. Last week, the Goldwater Institute released a new policy proposal for administrators to address protestors who deliberately stop or distinctly disrupt free speech on campus.

“It’s designed to give administrators tools to use by attaching consequences to students who are belligerent in these protests,” says Jim Manley, a co-author for the proposal and a senior attorney with the Goldwater Institute.  “From freshman orientation, they understand controversial opinions are to be expected, and they should be challenged on campus to think differently.”

The proposal recommends that universities establish policies which affirm free speech by making students aware of disciplinary sanctions for proven infringement, prohibits faculty or students from uninviting speakers to the campus, and outlines legal protections and restitution guidelines for students who believe they have been falsely accused of belligerent protest or committing hate speech.

Manley says that hate speech and protest should not be prohibited, but should be punished with clear rules once they occur.

“The First Amendment doesn’t allow prior restraints except in rare circumstances. So the way to respond to controversial speech is to respond by explaining why someone’s views are odious, not by silencing them,” he says. “If you’ve got a protestor presenting an alternative view against a speaker, but if speaking solely for the purpose of shouting down someone else, then that’s not protected.”

Preparing to prevent escalation of protest violence

Officials at UC Berkeley say they were fully prepared and had sought advice from other campuses which had welcomed Milo Yiannopoulos to campus for previous engagements, but that nothing could have prevented non-students from intentional destruction and disruption.

“The University went to extraordinary lengths to facilitate planning and preparation for this event, working in close concert with the Berkeley College Republicans,” said UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor of Communications and Public Affairs Dan Mogulof in an emailed statement. “Dozens of police officers were brought in from UC campuses across the state. Numerous crowd control measures were put in place. But, we could not plan for the unprecedented. Last night the Berkeley campus was invaded by more than 100 armed individuals clad in Ninja-like uniforms who utilized paramilitary tactics to engage in violent destructive behavior designed to shut the event down.”

Last November, Brown posted a preparation guide specifically for post-election protests. Faculty and administration promoting peaceful demonstration and providing answers for controversial questions ahead of controversial events, she says, is a solid remedy against the potential for heated activity and negative media coverage.

“When communicating with the campus community, timeliness and thoughtfulness are of the utmost importance,” Brown wrote. “For example, consider how the words and actions of senior leaders, faculty, and staff might affect their current and future relationships with students. Official statements or off-the-cuff partisan remarks might comfort students who are in agreement, but they also might unintentionally alienate others. To serve as an open resource to all students, it is important that everyone from the president to a faculty member to a student organization advisor consider how their words and actions might be construed.”

For more on this topic, check out our previous feature: "Proliferation of campus protests forces administrators to look inward."


Filed Under: Higher Ed
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