Student activism is a broad term that can encompass a wide range of issues and organizations. While activism may automatically bring to mind protests about tuition fees and accessibility, students take on a huge number of political concerns in the framework of on-campus, provincial and federal student organizations.
Students also organize around specific issues, on both sides of the political spectrum. Each generation of students engages with hot-button topics that reflect, and often lead, social movements at large. Students have supported issues related to education, the environment, human rights, domestic and international politics, reproductive issues, and many more topics.
Some recent examples of high-profile activism include the 2012 Quebec student protests, sexual assault awareness, the Israel-Palestine conflict, divestment in fossil fuels, abortion and men’s rights groups. These all have the potential to spark attention well beyond the campus and in the media. This presents both challenges and opportunities for administrators working with students.
Activists use a number of methods to raise their concerns. Student associations and student groups will advocate through governance structures inside the institution and often at all three levels of government. To create a focus on their issue and impart a greater sense of urgency, they use protests, social media campaigns, and provocative displays or controversial speakers – all highly effective strategies. Publicity and messaging may be targeted towards the student body, the university administration, government and the public.
One of the complications for administrators is the number of people and groups that become associated with any controversy. The students involved can be individual activists, campus groups or student associations. Administrators can be involved at all levels, and they may not reach a consensus on how to approach the issue. Faculty are often involved on one side or the other, or both. University communications and media relations have a stake as well. Beyond the institution, an issue can involve provincial and national student organizations, the government, the media and the public.
With so many facets to every activist issue, it can be difficult to find positive and constructive outcomes, both for the students and for the administration. Moving away from adversarial approaches towards conflict resolution and problem-solving can help establish common ground. This begins by understanding each side’s interests.
So what are the interests? Activists want change. To accomplish this, a primary goal is to get the message out and galvanize their membership. Publicity, controversy, media attention and at times negative responses all raise the issue’s profile. By raising the profile, new people may want to engage in the debate and this can pull the resolution closer to what the students hope for. At a personal level, activists are often passionately engaged in the issue and their desire for change.
Conversely, university administrators will often want to resolve the issue quickly and quietly, and to manage the story in a way that doesn’t hurt their institutional reputation. Administrators will often be dealing with parties on each side of an issue demanding that the other side be stopped. Some issues have the potential to affect individual members of the campus community. All controversial issues can create conflict on the campus. It is hard to balance academic freedom, civil discourse, and ensuring the well-being of the people involved. At a personal level, given the range of potential issues, there will be topics that administrators believe in and agree with, and those that they don’t.
Open, direct and honest communication about each side’s interests is essential. If both parties can work together towards a best-case scenario that largely meets their needs, this is ideal. And the process itself can often reveal alternative solutions. Engaging with student activists in mutual problem-solving builds a more collegial relationship, even if both sides are far apart on the actual issue. When possible, a solution or victory affirms the value of passionate student engagement, and it sets the tone for future interactions.
In many cases, students protest publicly because they feel they have no voice in decisions. Cultivating an environment of genuinely open dialogue can mitigate this, and finding ways to involve students in decision-making can also help. When this is impossible, for example due to confidentiality, it is helpful to explain why. When students are consulted, and understand the range of considerations administrators are dealing with, they can become allies in problem-solving, and student input can often help shape decisions in creative and novel ways.
Student activists can be integral in making change on campus and beyond. They have spearheaded many significant social changes. So, although controversial issues can represent a huge challenge to administrators, working with student activists can be deeply rewarding.
Nona Robinson is the associate vice-president, students, at Trent University. This article is adapted from a conference presentation she gave with Jana Luker to the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.