A Sit-In Threat on Day One

Peter Laipson considers what an administrator should learn from a well-intentioned student protest.

September 26, 2011

The letter arrived on my desk on the first day of my first year as head of Bard College at Simon's Rock. Four juniors and seniors, who claimed to speak for the student body at large, objected strongly to a new college policy -- and threatened a sit-in that Friday night if the administration did not respond satisfactorily to their demands.

The issue? Library hours. Students were upset by a plan to close the building on Saturdays.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. Simon's Rock is an early college; we accept bright, highly motivated students after the 10th or 11th grades. We emphasize the life of the mind – and as I was about to be reminded, our students take learning seriously.

Like most colleges, especially small ones, Simon’s Rock tries to economize wherever we can without hurting our core mission. Following the departure of a library staff member, colleagues and I decided to close the facility on Saturdays, a day it typically sees light use. We thought it was an easy trim – students have plenty of other options for quiet study spaces on weekends.

The students who wrote had a very different notion. Their letter – thoughtfully composed, beautifully written, and cogently argued -- contended that the library was, in fact, a hub of college life. To close it on Saturdays, especially without having consulted students, would be a grievous mistake. The letter took pains to assure me that students understood the need for painful choices in uncertain financial times. The authors also made clear they intended their letter with great respect and hoped to enter into a dialogue with the administration about how best to serve the needs of the entire community.

And then it concluded with the statement that, if discussions did not lead to the library being open at least some of Saturday, the students were prepared to lead a peaceful sit-in on Friday evening.

I read the letter with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was delighted not just by the eloquence of students’ objection to the closure but also by the importance they attached to their cause. College students ready to sit in for more time in the library? Really? How could I object? After all, the enthusiasm for learning at Simon’s Rock is what made me want this job in the first place.

But I was also piqued that students had planned a sit-in even before asking for a meeting. Real dialogue is an honest conversation in which both parties are prepared to change their minds, not a negotiation coerced by a display of power.

The standoff, I’m happy to say, ended amicably after a few hasty conversations. The head of the library and the dean of academic affairs arranged for coverage of the library for five hours on Saturdays to begin the semester. In addition, I promised (in best administrative style) “to review the library’s role in the academic life of the campus as the semester proceeds and to modify this arrangement as necessity demands.” The authors of the letter called off the sit-in. The semester has begun without further incident.

I am glad that this first potential fracas resolved itself so cordially. And I have taken from the event a few lessons that will help guide my work in the months ahead.

Say yes when you can so you can say no when you have to. Leaders, especially new ones, should take every opportunity they can to bank goodwill.

It would have been inadvisable simply to reinstate the status quo and keep the library open all day Saturday. But it made great sense to find an inexpensive way to make the facility available for part of the day. There'll be other times when I have to refuse student requests.

Look for common ground not just in practice but in principle. Wrangling over details is no picnic, but it's easier if you can affirm shared goals. In my response to the students, I stressed my strong agreement with the conviction that inspired their letter: that the preservation of the academic program had to be our first priority. Even if students didn't get everything they wanted, they at least knew I sympathized with their point of view.

Remember that it’s not about you. A former colleague used to say that the best advice he got about leadership was “Don’t be the show.” He’s right. Sometimes you're at your best when you're seen and heard the least. A few days after I replied to the students who had written me, they announced they were discontinuing the sit-in. They also made their letter available to the faculty -- without including my response. At first, I was disappointed. No one would know I had said yes when I could; no one would realize I had sought common ground in principle as well as in practice! I soon realized, however, that none of that was relevant. What mattered is that the life of the college went on uninterrupted, and students were talking, thinking, reading and researching. Even on Saturdays.

Oh yes, and I learned one other, very important lesson from this first-day tempest. At Simon’s Rock, you don’t mess with the library.


Peter Laipson is provost and vice president of Bard College at Simon's Rock.


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