In the past year alone, the media has become saturated with images of campus unrest. As student grievances of sexual assault, racial tension and violence, among other issues, continue to manifest throughout American universities, a critical question has started to reverberate in the minds of administrators: How does this change the approach to the job?
An article from Higher Education Today reports a review of 76 institutions or consortiums found students’ demands appear to be rooted within institutional changes to social justice and racism from an administrative and policy perspective. Students not only want to be part of the conversation on race, they want to change higher education as a whole. “These students are petitioning institutions to consider expansive shifts to institutional culture rather than merely stand-alone programs or add-on policies. The demands are calling for a change in how marginalized student groups access, experience and are represented in higher education,” it said.
As previously reported in Education Dive, “a demographic shift that will see a majority non-white student population by 2020,” means that “administrators at every level must figure out ways to address the needs of these students.”
Kimberly Quick, a policy associate at The Century Foundation, said increases in student protests stem from a larger conversation on race and privilege, which has only been bolstered with greater access to technology — as evidenced by cases like the University of Missouri.
“[Student protests] are heavily tied in with the Black Lives Matter movement and with adjacent movements that are happening around women's rights, inclusiveness and LGBTQ issues," Quick said. “I think campus protests are learning from one another. They are being bolstered by technology and being able to see what others are doing and communicating and inspiring one another. … Issues that are being discussed have been going on for years and years, and groups are now starting to feel empowered to speak out.”
Administrators are recognizing this reality. An Inside Higher Education report of college presidents found that while 84% of presidents surveyed saw race relations on their own campuses as being “excellent” or “good,” only 24% of the presidents described the state of race relations at colleges nationwide similarly. These statistics present an obvious disconnect, one that has many saying college presidents are perhaps blissfully ignorant to the realities on campus.
Quick would warn administrators against such optimism and advise them to start thinking about how to be collaborative.
“Students are no longer passive consumers of a college education, they are going to college to get more than just a degree or just a job,” she said. “Students are coming to school to get an experience, to think critically, to engage critically with other people and other students, and [they] want to have a role in shaping their experience and shaping their future and want to be respected in that process as well. Administrators are served quite well by being highly collaborative with their students.”
Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the first step for any administrator or college president is to understand the history of student unrest and pay attention to what’s happening in broader society. College campuses, she argues, are microcosms of the society at large.
“Essentially student protests we see today on college campuses are reflections of the unrest that we see in the broader society,” she said. Administrators, she said, “can learn from history. This is not the first time we are seeing student protests. This will not be the last time we see protests. Protests tend to erupt when there is broadscale dissatisfaction. We saw that during the civil rights era. The types of protests that were bubbling up are reflective of what happened during that time period.”
Cooper says that history shows administrators need to start paying attention to what students are saying. “Administrators should learn from history, and history has taught us that administrators need to listen to students.”
Quick goes further to say administrators shouldn’t only listen to students, but also respect their concerns.
“A large part of the reason why students are speaking up now is because they feel like their voices and concerns have been desists by people of power and privilege. It is the pinnacle of white male privilege to say I heard what you are saying to me, but I’m going to dismiss your concerns, because I’ve decided that they are irrelevant or not real. And that’s horrible. That’s what administrators need to avoid,” she said.
Know your campus, collect the data and adapt
Cooper says one way administrators can proactively address student protests and the potential consequence of lower admissions rates is to know who they are educating. She says that because the demographic of student on college campuses “is vastly different than what it was even 15 of 20 years ago,” the policies and practices and norms that were prevalent 20 years ago and still in place are outdated.
“The campuses have not made the adjustments to accommodate the students that are on their campuses. The administrators that are looking at their data would recognize that they need to change the norms, policies, and practices that are embedded in their institutions. That is why the students are angry — campuses have not recognized the need to address contemporary issues,” said Cooper.
Stolzenberg cautions against the idea that there is a one-size-fits all solution.
“You have to know what the exact issues are.,” Stolzenberg said. “Just assuming that students are angry or upset with one thing over the other — you don’t know that unless you ask them. One thing we recommend for campuses and institutions that are having some social unrest [is a] climate survey, addressing diversity both inside and outside the classroom. ... Every one campus is different.”
Don’t make false promises
Throughout the college admissions process, students are often shown images and videos of wide demographics of friendly students at the colleges they are applying to. Quick says if administrators are going to show these depictions, they ought to follow up on it and ensure the campus environment reflects the same commitment to diversity.
“The students that are protesting are protesting in part because they didn’t receive the type of experience that was advertised by admissions,” she said. “The images they present are of a very diverse campus, ethnically, racially, economically, a campus where people are gathering on the quad and smiling. A campus where a mission statement talks about inclusion. They go onto campus and that’s not the case — that’s upsetting to them, and I think rightfully so.”
Scott Jaschik, one of the founders of Inside Higher Ed and co-author of the report on how presidents perceive their campus racial climate, offers insight into how difficult it is for certain college to address various issues.
“Some of the demands are things that most college leaders agree with — they want more minority students, they want a more diverse student body. Also every college leader would say they want an inclusive campus where students from different groups all feel welcome, don't feel like they are going to be treated rudely or unfairly, because of their racial ethnicity. Those are things I think all college presidents agree on,” he said.
With the advent of social media and the increased sense of accessibility to college presidents, the role of leaders has become increasingly critical in addressing student grievances.
"If presidents recognize that and see the need to change the culture, to look at students needs, they will be able to meet the students closely in terms of their demands,” Cooper said. “The presidents are here to serve the needs of the students, and many of them are not serving the needs of students.”
“Make sure your campuses are ready to educate and serve the students of today,” she advised.