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Hazy scene of protestors holding flags and placards

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The recent spread of student activism on college and university campuses brings back memories of a time when I was thrust into the middle of a volatile student protest. I often think about what I did right, what I could have done better, and how luck played a part in the outcome. I learned some lessons back then that I think remain relevant today, as well have had some insights that apply in the current context that I wish I’d known then.

I was a young community college president in 1992, serving a politically conservative area in North San Diego County, California, that was growing more racially diverse. The trouble started when I presented a revised faculty hiring policy to the college governing board. Two of the college trustees made comments that students and faculty of color viewed as racially insensitive. When the board chair gaveled down a Black student who called the trustees’ remarks racist, the spark was lit for a march through the campus by students and faculty of color. The next day, the protest turned into an encampment at the front entrance to the campus, featuring two coffins with the names of the trustees who had made the comments. The encampment was very visible to the community because of its location along a highly trafficked road in front of the campus.

I decided to allow the students to express their concerns in a peaceful protest because they did not impede the flow of other students and faculty members to classes or impede college business. I authorized campus security to remain on duty 24 hours a day and made sure the student protesters had access to water and restrooms throughout the evening hours. Student safety was an important concern because of the strong emotions in the community brought on by discussions of diversity, equity and inclusion. The national head of the White Aryan Resistance lived in the college district.

Next, I decided that I, as the college president, should be the person to negotiate with the protesters. I could have sent a student affairs administrator or an administrator of color to interact with them, but I wanted the protesters to know that the college was taking their concerns seriously. I believe that college presidents or chancellors who show a willingness to meet early with protesters can keep situations from escalating. To make the discussions less intimidating, I interacted with the students in the encampment rather than in the president’s office.

Although I was alone in talking with the protesters at the encampment, they also met frequently with faculty of color. I did the same, seeking their advice and getting their perspectives on the issues. I discussed the situation with my administrative team and with the faculty senate as I continued to meet with the protesters. I got used to the fact that the language of protest involves “demands.” I realized that even if demands are described as nonnegotiable, they are really the starting point for discussions. And demands can change from day to day. For example, an early demand from the protesters was for the resignation of college trustees. That became less important to the protesters as time went on, and hiring of more faculty of color became a more important demand.

My twice-daily discussions with the encampment leaders were respectful but firm. Within a few days, we had built trusting relationships. To me, the protesters were my students, and they knew that I cared about them and their opinions. The relationship enabled me to explain the positions that the college held and the reasons for them. The protesters were led by MEChA, the African American Student Alliance, and the Native American Student Alliance—each with somewhat differing opinions and demands. The institution was a community college, so the students were older, and their children joined them in the tents.

Near the beginning of the protest, a white student dropped by my office to ask what I thought about his idea of organizing a counterprotest. Of course, he had the right to do so, but I asked him to allow me the time to address the issues and reach a resolution. Fortunately, he did not move ahead with plans for a counterprotest, which could have led to a violent confrontation.

Because the encampment was close to a main community road, vehicles would stop, and drivers and their passengers would offer the protesters refreshments, food and words of encouragement. The driver of one of the cars stopped one day to hand the protesters a note saying if the tents remained that night, he would shoot at them. When I learned of the threat of gunfire directed at students and their children, I ordered the protesters to move their tents to the interior of the campus. The students refused, saying that they were prepared to sacrifice their lives for their cause. When I told the protesters that I would have them arrested if they didn’t move the tents, they told me to do what I had to do. When the sheriff arrived, he told me that he wouldn’t arrest the protesters until he heard them disobey my order. When I gathered the protesters together and explained my concern for their safety, they finally agreed to do as I’d asked.

The protest and encampment ended after 11 days with an agreement on a plan for increasing diversity awareness that included classes on the topic for employees and trustees. ;My revised hiring policies to ensure greater diversity in recruiting, interview and finalist pools were approved.

Yes, I was lucky. And yes, the current situations on some campuses today are more challenging. We experienced no counterprotest that could have led to a violence. No gunfire was aimed at tents full of students and their children. Even though I brought in law enforcement, my students were not arrested. The board supported my leadership and didn’t interfere with my efforts. No social media existed in 1992, so the encampment didn’t attract outside agitators. Politicians were not inflaming the issues. I was dealing with several hundred protesters instead of several thousand. And, there were no national news stories depicting the spread of protests on campuses across the country.

That said, some of principles I followed might be helpful to leaders dealing with protests and encampments today. To sum them up:

  • Remember that most of the protesters are your students, not your enemy.
  • Ask faculty leaders for their advice and assistance.
  • Engage with protesters in ways that are respectful and meant to build trust.
  • Respect freedom of speech and academic freedom.
  • Protect student safety.
  • Condemn hate speech.
  • Don’t tolerate violence and destruction.
  • Separate protesters and counterprotesters as much as possible.
  • Consider protester demands as the beginning points of a discussion that should lead to agreements.
  • Call in law enforcement only to protect student safety, allow students to attend class and study, or prevent the destruction of property.

In retrospect, and seeing what’s occurred on many campuses this spring, I see other steps I should have taken. I could have tried to find ways to make the protest a more significant learning experience for the students—especially when it comes to how free speech and civil disobedience differ, and how peaceful protest can influence policy. I could have worked with faculty members to create forums for the students to express their views. Although I wrote a news article on the need for a hiring policy that would bring greater diversity to our college, I could have encouraged the students to write news articles, as well. Perhaps most important, we could have organized campus forums about how individuals can influence policy by registering to vote and voting.

Changing conditions will always require presidents to adapt and come up with new approaches to campus protests and unrest. I hope as college leaders we can continue to share with each other both previous lessons that have stood the test of time as well new ones that help us best guide our students through the constantly evolving challenges that confront us and the world around us.

George R. Boggs is the President & CEO Emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges and Superintendent/President Emeritus of Palomar College. He teaches doctoral classes in emerging issues in higher education for Kansas State University and San Diego State University.

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