How leaders can effectively manage controversy while protecting free speech
It was an administrative conundrum that began with a simple piece of chalk, remembered Hollins University President Pareena Lawrence. One morning during the 2016 election year, when she was provost at Augustana College, Lawrence found the entire campus' sidewalks had been chalked with political slogans such as "build the wall," "feminism is cancer" and "Hillary for prison."
In her keynote address at the Association of American Colleges and Universities conference luncheon for faculty and administrators of color last week, Lawrence shared this experience as she spoke about campus free speech. Her story is one that administrators across the nation resonate with, as they increasingly confront instances of public-facing controversial incidents where actions or words from campus community members often result in unrest, a public relations nightmare, or even calls for the institution leaders to step down.
The challenge in these cases as a leader, Lawrence said, is trying to find that sweet spot at the intersection of upholding the First Amendment rights of campus members, maintaining an environment of inclusiveness, and establishing standards that proactively manage controversy before the potential for escalation — a feat that she said isn't easy.
"We saw this as a dilemma about limits on free expression when speech comes into conflict with the rights of students to feel that they belong at our institutions," said Lawrence. "How can we break our word to our students ... who want to feel safe and respected within their homes? We administrators must act on principle ... even as we explain our decisions to different groups and ironically leave no one satisfied."
So, what should leaders be doing in these situations? Other leaders at the AAC&U conference agreed with Lawrence that it's key to stay true to institution values when making decisions, but they also offered some other helpful tips.
Develop strategic code of conduct and stay true to it
Lawrence said one of her key takeaways from handling the Augustana College event is that administrators ought to know the ins and outs of their institutions' student code of conduct and leverage it when making calls. They also need to keep a record of those decisions and maintain consistency in handling future situations.
"Students elect to go to our colleges and universities and by choosing to do so they agree to abide by the standards of their new community," said Lawrence, adding she used the code of conduct to show there are rules against defacing campus property, rather than saying free speech ought to be prohibited.
Augustana College created a zone where putting up flyers is allowed. Though Lawrence admitted she made a mistake in an email when referring to that area as a "free speech" zone; she remarked it's essential to consider the language of restrictions as not to say First Amendment rights are being boxed in. Creating a zone on campus for flyers, she explained, is not the same as saying there is only one spot on campus for free speech.
Jonathan R. Alger, president of James Madison University, offered similar advice at an AAC&U panel.
"You can have content-neutral, time-place and manner regulations. In other words, free speech is not a free for all," said Alger, adding, "Consistency of application is critical." The same goes for things like dealing with hecklers and campus security policies.
Create clear standards on the right way to dialogue
Alger also said it's important for students to understand the campus is a place where learners ought to expect to hear diverse perspectives. He said it's important to note constructively coming into contact with opposing views is part of the learning process and the values of the institution's mission. He mentioned a group at James Madison called Deep Impact that allows students to facilitate campus dialogues.
Mary Kennard, former vice president and general counsel of American University, echoed Alger's tips. She said it's important to establish neutral zones, but also critical to provide outlets for students to vent their concerns in a non-harmful way.
"If you're not creating safe opportunities for people to express themselves, that stuff will fester under the surface, particularly with students, particularly with minorities, which can result in a really big blow-up later on," said Kennard. "There needs to be a couple people in the administration with their ear to the ground to make sure you are creating safe opportunities for people to communicate dissimilar positions."
When it comes to explaining how to converse to the campus, Alger also said it's critical to extend those standards to faculty members. Uncomfortable situations in the classroom can serve as teachable moments until they become inimical to the academic process, he said, at which point it does become unacceptable — for instance, if a physics professor spends the entire class period talking about race relations instead of teaching physics.
Encourage communication between administrative team and board
Jeffrey Trammell, former rector at William & Mary, said another component in creating an open dialogue is encouraging communication of campus happenings with officials.
"From the perspective of a governing board member, dialogue is really important to the extent the leaders on campus and the faculty let the board know when incidents are happening," said Trammell. He explained this is absolutely key to proactive planning when controversial incidents are stirring.
"The worst thing to read in the paper is when a professor has said something, such as denying the Holocaust, at a public event. ... Surprise is never our friend," he said.
Kennard said it is important to have the right people on the administrative team. Referencing to the case of Larry Nassar, the former Michigan State University professor and team physician for USA Gymnastics who was sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexually abused dozens of girls and young women, Kennard said it would have been smart for a chief financial officer to have considered covering the medical bills for the victims. But, there was no one on the administrative team to inform that kind of reasoning.
"Plan for the disruption," she said. "One component is making sure that whoever is on the team should be on the team and has a clear concept of what needs to be done."
Of course, always plan ahead
The final consensus among leaders at AAC&U conference sessions was to plan ahead. Alger noted it's absolutely impossible for presidents or other administrators to know about every event or speech that's happening on campus, but there are steps that can be taken to stay informed.
"It's not a matter of whether, it's a matter of when," said Alger. "This is a time to be reviewing policies and procedures for things like handling hecklers. ... It's important to be aware of campus security and think what might happen when something is triggering."
Lawrence said one way her administration did that at Augustana was to have all invitations have a student group sponsor and to have them vetted by the administration. While no speakers are denied on the basis of identity, the administration does reserve the right to question student groups as to why they are inviting someone or organization. Creating such plans, she said, can prevent a nightmare.
That was Trammel's final point as well: "Plan for the issue, you only get one chance, or else ... you may create a week-long story that looks like your university doesn't know how to manage."
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