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Campus Protests: 4 Tips for Crisis Planning

Michele Szczypka

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Co-authored with Angela Klinske.

In these tumultuous times, we find ourselves grappling with complex decisions that impact the very essence of higher education—providing a safe and supportive environment for our students to learn, grow, and express themselves.  

As we witness college leaders scaling down commencement ceremonies and calling in law enforcement due to violent activity and safety concerns, we are reminded of the turbulent challenges we face. 

As of this writing, more than 1,000 arrests have been made since April 18 on American college campuses as protestors call for schools of higher education to divest from Israeli companies and from Israel altogether. College campuses have become the location for encampments and demonstrations, the likes of which we have not seen since the Vietnam War era.   

As campuses consider their students’ safety and well-being, consider these proactive steps that can be taken as we navigate current challenges: 

1. Provide a safe place for voices to be heard.

As college leaders, it’s imperative not to make decisions in isolation. Campuses should serve as vibrant hubs of dialogue and inclusivity, where students are encouraged to express themselves respectfully and constructively. Rather than operating in a vacuum, create intentional spaces for dialogue and meaningful conversation. 

Engage with student leaders representing diverse perspectives within the college community. Empower them to actively participate in shaping a collective future. By fostering an environment where every voice is heard and valued, you also uphold the core mission and values of the institution. 

Root your decisions in the foundational principles outlined in the school’s mission and values. These statements guide expectations for student and faculty conduct, inform strategic investments, and shape the programs offered. Ensure that every decision reflects the school’s commitment to fostering understanding and inclusivity on campus. 

2. Manage on-campus protests and demonstrations with integrity by promoting education and understanding.

The point above is ideal, but potential unrest can still occur, especially as movements gain momentum nationally and globally. In anticipation of on-campus protests or potential unrest, it’s essential to establish clear protocols and guidelines. Communicate openly with the campus community. Outline expectations for peaceful demonstrations while prioritizing the safety and well-being of all individuals involved. 

Identify your subject matter experts on campus and offer interactive learning opportunities such as webinars and panel discussions. Include your own professors, general counsel, and board members who have expertise in areas of interest to your stakeholders. They can help stakeholders get the facts, and not just the rhetoric posted by pundits.  

Rather than taking a heavy-handed approach, be forthright and transparent in your communication. Create opportunities for education and fact-finding, especially during times of heightened sensitivity such as the current war in Gaza. 

It’s crucial to recognize that complex global issues can elicit diverse opinions within the community. Instead of fostering polarization, promote informed dialogue and understanding. Provide safe spaces for students to hear differing perspectives and offer educational resources that present information, free from political bias. 

By facilitating respectful discourse and providing learning opportunities, you can empower your community to engage thoughtfully with complex issues while upholding the values of inclusivity and intellectual curiosity. One may argue that this is the epitome of higher education.  

3. Stay informed and be aware.

In today’s dynamic environment, staying informed about current events and potential campus risks is paramount for effective leadership. Develop robust contingency plans and foster close collaboration with local law enforcement and security teams to swiftly address any emerging threats. 

Effective campus leadership requires continuous learning and adaptation. Take inspiration from other institutions, seek diverse perspectives, and stay informed about best practices. Remain agile and ready to pivot when faced with evolving situations or potential risks. 

Every campus should have a comprehensive crisis management plan and a well-defined communications strategy for handling emergencies. These essential tools empower swift response and decisiveness in times of crisis, ensuring the safety and well-being of the students and community.  

By prioritizing preparedness, continuous learning, and effective communication strategies, you fortify your ability to navigate challenges with resilience and confidence. 

4. Practice scenario planning.

In times of crisis or heightened tension, scenario planning means practicing the “what ifs” and understanding what might unfold in any situation outside of your control. It helps you be proactive in addressing concerns raised by stakeholders and have a plan in place. 

Leaders and stewards of higher education have a responsibility to uphold the values of academic freedom, inclusivity, and safety. At Stamats, it’s our job and our pleasure to help schools thrive, especially in the face of adversity. Concerned about your current plan or lack of one? Connect with Michele Szczypka to begin a conversation.