How to prepare for protest potential on campus

4 strategies for empowering students and confronting uncertainty in an era of student unrest

In case you missed it, it’s an election year. The high schoolers who protested the 2016 election are now of college age. And colleges need to prepare for protests this fall—during a pandemic.

Kimberlee Josephson, Lebanon Valley College
Kimberlee Josephson, Lebanon Valley College

Only four years ago chants for “not our president” gained ground with the staging of high school walkouts in addition to unrest on college campuses stretching from Los Angeles to Philadelphia. Demonstrations concerning various issues and taking a variety of forms are getting creative in format and, according to Forbes, 2020 has not seen the end of student unrest.

For those campuses who welcomed students back for an in-person fall start, here are some strategies for empowering students and confronting uncertainty.

  1. Provide space – Activism doesn’t need to be adversarial, and academia doesn’t need to be only reactional. Social movements consist of a legitimate form of political action in democratic societies where they are granted legal protection and are “encouraged as important forms of political socialization and societal renewal,” as Helena Flam and Debra King wrote in Emotions and Social Movements. Acknowledge this fact and assess how your institution can create channels for constructive dialogue and expression.
  2. Provide parameters – It’s not to limit but rather to engage and even challenge students with designated times, modes and locations for discourse. The best way to feel power is to exercise it and just as repression may prompt revolt, so too can increased freedoms of expression rouse ambitions in political action. It’s best for the pot to be stirred a bit to avoid it bubbling over; and since students take cues from other campus communities it is important to have preestablished protocols to lessen the bandwagon effect.
  3. Provide training and resources – Students have historically and sporadically sprung up as a vocal vanguard group vowing to correct past injustices, and so help them do so in a constructive manner. There are several programs out there focusing on bystander intervention or even how to leverage cognitive conflict for learning. Universities can set up expression walls and educate students on the impact and misperceptions derived from political participation via social media use. Even educating students on the history of activism within their own campus community can be an illuminating point for discussion.
  4. Provide means for meaningful participation – If students wish to protest, channel those efforts. Don’t just march, march somewhere and do something. Assist disadvantaged groups within the local community or create fundraisers for struggling nonprofits. Use that time and energy wisely and promote community service opportunities or raise funds for campus programming and resources so students feel engaged and can be proud of tangible results.

Academia and activism tend to go hand in hand, and college campuses are known to serve as hot spots for social movements. So embrace the adversity and recognize that students (whether we like it or not) are likely to take part. And can we blame them? Social movements are unique in that they balance the inherent individual need to ‘belong’ while at the same time allowing for self-identity in that people can choose to support a cause based on personal preference.

Mass mobilization actually promotes self-affirmation along with self-expansion in that individuals are able to participate in something bigger than themselves while being members of a designated community. College leaders must therefore take up the charge and realize they have an important role they play—and avoidance isn’t an option.

Kimberlee Josephson is an assistant professor of business administration and the associate dean of the Breen Center for Graduate Success at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa.


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