What Can Campuses Do in the Aftermath of Charlottesville?

Reflections for university leaders and their communities

Photo credit: University of Virginia Today

The violent neo-Nazi and white supremacist marches in Charlottesville and on the University of Virginia campus last weekend unleashed a torrent of hate-filled animosity beyond anything we have witnessed in several decades. Across the country, leaders are speaking out, social media is ablaze and citizens are challenging the abhorrent racism and bigotry on such sickening display.

Yet we know that many more racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic events are planned in coming weeks, just as our nation’s colleges and universities welcome their students back for the upcoming academic year. Campuses are likely to be targets for ugly protests, protests that challenge the values of diversity and inclusion that America’s universities foster and cherish. Every campus will deal with climate issues—these were already palpable in the past two years, and now will be exacerbated by the events and violence in Charlottesville.

Like our many colleagues Julie and I have been deeply disturbed and saddened by what occurred, but our thoughts have also turned to how colleges and universities can plan and act as constructively as possible given this backdrop. We offer some initial reflections:

Speak out forcefully: Our country needs leaders who are strong and direct in their condemnation of hate. Calling out bigotry for what it is—racism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism, hate—makes it clear what we’re talking about. “Alt-right” and its synonyms are euphemisms that sanitize and neutralize. And permitting the expression of abhorrent ideas does not require us to pretend those ideas are in any way acceptable. The core message is a clear and simple one:  We reject hate and violence in all its forms. Bigotry and racism have no place here. Diversity and inclusion are core institutional values and commitments, and essential to our excellence.

In the hours after Charlottesville, we saw several strong and powerful statements from university presidents.  Carnegie Mellon University Interim President Farnam Jahanian said this: “I want to express my shock and outrage at the racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic hatred and violence that broke out over the weekend in Charlottesville. We must be clear: We condemn this evil.”

Towson University President Kim Schatzel issued a statement underscoring her university’s “relentless pursuit” of diversity, condemning “any and all forms of hatred, racism, bigotry, or supremacist ideology that seek to hurt, terrorize, bully or marginalize any members of our community.”

Here is a sampling of statements from college and university presidents and other leaders in the aftermath of last weekend’s events.  Some leaders spoke directly to their communities in written messages or at gatherings, while others gave media interviews. A number of campuses have organized vigils and peaceful counter-rallies, such as this event at the University of Michigan-Dearborn joined by Congressman John Dingell. Whatever the forum, communicating clearly about your values is essential as the new school year launches.

Plan proactively, and actively: This time of the year is incredibly busy for university administrators as they prepare for the day-to-day needs of the fall semester.  However, campus leaders will need to plan now for what they will say and do before and shortly after the start of school to reinforce core values and foster a sense of unity amidst tension. The community will need opportunities to listen carefully to one another, hear a variety of voices, celebrate shared values, acknowledge viewpoint difference, come together, and stand against hate in constructive, active ways.

During times like these we have seen the wisdom in this advice: Reach out, then reach out more. Engage actively with students and the campus community in empathic, human ways. Perhaps you have existing programs that can be expanded or repurposed, or programs in the works that can be accelerated. You can also invite administrative, academic and student leaders to suggest new efforts. The key is to be highly visible, unrelenting in reinforcing the value your institution places on diversity and inclusion—and purposeful in partnering across campus to engage in active, thoughtful, multi-directional dialogue.

Through it all, we need to encourage the campus community to stay together even as its members hold different points of view. We all have ” romantic notions” of about what it means to be in a community. This kind of hate mongering can blunt romance  but surely can strengthen commitment. It means staying committed not only to our values, but to one another.

Focus on safety: A commitment to the free expression of ideas, even ideas found repugnant by many, is a core value upon which universities are founded. The First Amendment is not a constitutional tool we pull out of the toolbox only when convenient, but a guiding principle that we must live into even in the midst of speech and expression we despise. But university leadership has a fundamental commitment to safety as well, and protests with weapons, torches or the high probability of violence put the entire community at risk. It is important to work closely with police and safety personnel to assess the potential for violence. When Texas A&M officials canceled an upcoming white supremacist rally scheduled for 9/11, they did so after judging the situation a serious situation for injury and damage. (A recent Inside Higher Ed article looks at the legal considerations public universities, especially, must keep in mind when determining whether to allow certain events on campus.)

Here is a guiding question that a very smart colleague at Michigan, Royster Harper, taught us to use when assessing risk and prevention: If something goes horribly wrong, when we look back on this moment, what would we wish we had done?

As part of the campus safety review regarding protests and speaking events, it is important to review (and refresh, if necessary) university policy: time, place and manner restrictions; room reservation guidelines; ticketing and ID protocols; media access; speaker invitation and speaker disruption policies. We have already seen that outside groups are testing campus access policies, such as this request from white supremacist Richard Spencer to rent a room at Michigan State University. Officials should conduct a careful environmental scan to determine what programmatic and special event planning is underway across campus for the new academic year so organizers and those staffing and monitoring the events are up to speed on and adhere to the relevant institutional policies.

Model civil expression and constructive citizenship: Students, in particular, do not come to campus automatically understanding what it means to live in community with others. They are testing boundaries and learning what works. Even for new faculty and staff, campus culture and values may be foreign—and those values are being tested to the breaking point by the collapse of civil discourse in our country. Universities are, first and foremost, educators. We have seen campuses get good results from regular, consistent, educational programming and dialogue around civil discourse and protest before a particular event or incident looms. This could also mean encouraging and organizing counter-events when hateful outsiders take advantage of the openness of your campus.

Debrief incidents both on your campus and elsewhere: Sometimes, despite best efforts, hate is on full display and ideas clash in ways that lead to tragedy. At that moment the second-guessing begins in full force; we have already seen that happening with the University of Virginia’s response. We have always had a “there but for the grace of God go I” philosophy—understanding that smart, caring people do the best they can in difficult circumstances. At the same time, every such circumstance is an opportunity for learning. We encourage every campus to look closely at the events in Charlottesville and ask yourselves, “What would our plan be if that were to happen here?” We will learn much in the days and weeks to come that will make our work more proactive, empathetic, and effective.


One thought on “What Can Campuses Do in the Aftermath of Charlottesville?

  1. Julie Peterson

    As faculty consider how to engage topics of race, identity, inclusion, activism, and free speech in their classrooms, the Chronicle of Higher Education has published this compilation of resources:
    ‘Teaching the Lessons of Charlottesville’


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