Campus Conflict and Preparedness for Activism

With the return to campus, another level of concern has reawakened: clashes over expression.

At Boise State University, the owner of a coffee shop that once had a service contract in the campus library sued the university for $10 million, saying her contract was severed after students complained about the owner’s support of law enforcement by displaying a Thin Blue Line flag at a different coffee shop location. A right-wing group promoting the lawsuit said the owner was a victim of “cancel culture.

Earlier this week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a presentation by a visiting lecturer and climate scientist was canceled after students pointed to an opinion piece he’d written in Newsweek saying the work universities are doing in the areas of diversity, equity, and inclusion violated the “ethical and legal principles of equal treatment.”

At the University of Massachusetts–Amherst, not only is the university hiring a cybersecurity firm to track down the source of racist emails sent to Black student organizations, but at the same time student organizations are complaining about the loss of dedicated spaces for their groups after a renovation project. The Amherst students wanted their former dedicated meeting spaces back, but to be equitable campus leaders said all the organizations must reserve multi-use spaces, a tactic similar to the use of designated interfaith spaces being made available to students representing a variety of different religious affiliations.

At the University of Maryland students recently gathered outside Stamp Student Union to protest the appearance of a conservative activist hosted by the university chapter of Turning Point USA.

However, according to a new report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, working with American University scholars, a majority of senior campus leaders, 59%, reported that conflicts between students of different ideological groups were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to occur. Just over 1% said confrontations like this were “very likely” and less than that were “very concerned” about clashes between student protestors and counter-protestors.

In contrast, nearly one quarter said their campus had no formal policies for managing protests like the one at Stamp Student Union, and a majority, 57%, said their institutions had no policies for managing confrontations between student protestors and counter-protestors. The administrators also reported that majorities of faculty (69%) and student groups (63%) had little or no training in managing conflicts, but student affairs staffers had nearly as much training in the area, 70%, as campus law enforcement (72%).

If confrontations did arise and escalate, 88% said they would involve local police outside of campus security to address the issue. Expressing concern about increased police funding on college campuses in the wake of a rising awareness over police brutality, three University of California researchers pointed to dramatic rise in law enforcement spending on UC campuses over the 10 years prior to 2021, from $75.3 million to $148.5 million annually. During the teaching assistants strike at UC–Santa Cruz last year, the administration spent $5 million and involved three other police agencies beyond campus security.

Even during the pandemic last year, higher education consultants EAB learned from interviews with 50 student affairs leaders that most of their institutions did not have an established process in place for responding to student demonstrations. Nearly three-quarters said there were no protocols for student demonstrations and 83% had no process for responding to student demands.

In the area of online activism and protest, such as organizers calling for action related to the anti-Black emails at Amherst, student affairs leaders said that, albeit warranted, they felt pressured to track and respond to student activism. A full 95% added they had room for improvement in being able to make those responses.

The report also noted that over 70% of the leaders felt prepared to respond to an activist event on campus in a way that was aligned with institutional values, but nearly as many, 68%, said that doing so while being able to support those activists was a Top 3 concern.

“It could be that many student affairs leaders are operating within an organizational culture in which they do not feel empowered to support student activists. Unsure of current boundaries and limitations, some may be hesitant to take any next steps because they may not be sure which ones are in the right direction,” the report noted. “This presents an opportunity to proactively evaluate and identify which methods of student activist support fall within institutional values and guidelines, and which do not. If student affairs staff have a clearer understanding of existing boundaries and limitations, they will feel confident determining next best steps in the moment.”


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

    View all posts