Students

How the Missouri Protests Might Change the Game for Other Colleges

November 13, 2015

Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism at the City U. of New York’s Hostos Community College: "Administrators are taking a step back from the more punitive approaches to handling student protests that they were taking a few years ago."
Student protesters at the Show Me State’s flagship university had much to show the rest of the nation this week.

With the help of faculty members, administrators, and the football team of the University of Missouri at Columbia, they pulled off the unprecedented feat of pressuring both their campus’s chancellor and their system’s president to resign in the face of accusations they had responded poorly to racially charged incidents there.

Fresh off their victory, however, they faced a backlash from footage showing they had forcibly obstructed journalists’ efforts to cover their encampment on the public university’s main quad. They also ended up feeling besieged as a result of threats against them that had been posted on the anonymous social-networking application Yik Yak.

Meanwhile, Yale University and Ithaca College have experienced similar student protests over their handling of racial incidents, and colleges elsewhere have been the subject of recent student unrest over their handling of issues such as sexual assault and the cost of attending.

The Chronicle asked Angus Johnston, a scholar of student activism who teaches history at the City University of New York’s Hostos Community College, for his take on such events. Following is an edited and condensed version of the interview, conducted on Thursday.

Q. How are the student protests of recent weeks different from those we were seeing a year or so ago?

A. There is a lot more continuity than change, but we are definitely seeing an increase in the amount. What we are seeing right now is really three broad areas of protest: against racial violence, against sexual harassment and sexual assault, and over access to higher education. There are other issues, but those are the big three.

Administrators are taking a step back from the more punitive approaches to handling student protests that they were taking a few years ago. That is not unrelated to the topics of the protests themselves. Administrators are very aware of the public-relations and public-opinion implications. They don’t want to be perceived as coming down in a really draconian way on students of color who are protesting against police violence or women who are protesting against the administration’s treatment of sexual assault on their campus.

Q. Previous student-protest movements have been thwarted in their demands for the ouster of presidents, yet the two top administrators at the University of Missouri resigned this week in response to protests on its Columbia campus. What made the difference there?

A. There was a growing dissatisfaction with both of these administrators over a long period of time. But it does seem clear that the involvement of the University of Missouri football team was a decisive moment in the growth of the protests. That suggests that student athletes have, for a variety of reasons, an influence on the campus which, to date, they have largely not exercised.

Q. What lessons will student protesters and college administrations elsewhere draw from the resignation of the two Missouri officials?

A. It is too early to tell for sure what this portends for the future. It’s not clear at all whether this is going to be an isolated incident or whether this suggests that other administrators at other campuses are perhaps at more risk from large-scale student protests.

One thing does seem clear: The expansion of student protests to the Missouri football team suggests that students who we have not anticipated being involved in campus protests in the past are becoming more involved. We see that more broadly in the society as well. That suggests new challenges for administrators and new opportunities for student organizers, who may not be relying on the same relatively small sliver of the campus community to get out and support their organizing efforts.

Q. The Missouri protesters suffered a backlash from the distribution of footage that showed their obstruction of journalists trying to cover events there. How big of a setback was this for them? What lessons are protesters elsewhere likely to draw from the incident?

A. It’s clear that there was a very strong negative initial reaction. But one of the things that I have seen over the course of the last day or two is that a lot of voices among progressive pundits and liberal voices, who had previously remained silent on student protests, are speaking up in favor and in defense of the Missouri students.

There is a lot of complexity to the question of where one person’s free-speech rights end and where another’s begin. Certainly there were moments in that video which were inexcusable on the part of faculty and administrators who were supporting the students, and they have admitted as much.

The question of how much of an obligation student organizers have to defer to the interests and the requests of journalists, and the question of what is the best approach for a journalist to take when interacting with student protesters — those are open questions. I am really excited to see them begin to be debated more than they have been in the past.

Q. How common has it been for faculty members and administrators to be involved in student protests? How dangerous is such a move, career-wise?

A. It’s certainly unusual to see faculty and staff sort of standing, arm in arm, with student protesters and taking a kind of a leadership role in a confrontational student protest. It’s something you have not seen very often at all. I suspect that, given the fallout that two members of the Missouri staff received for their involvement in that protest, there is going to be even more caution going forward.

Q. Yik Yak has played a significant role, at Missouri and elsewhere, as a means of protester communication, as a barometer for gauging the mood on campus, and as a tool for those seeking to harass or threaten the protesters. Just how much do you think it, and other anonymous applications like it, have changed the game? Are they going to make students more, or less, likely to speak out?

A. It is not clear to me that Yik Yak, specifically, has a huge impact right now. The number of students who are actually using it is still relatively small. We generally understand that, when people are hiding behind a veil of anonymity, you can’t really rely on what they are saying or how they are describing themselves.

There certainly is room for real concern about threats of violence that are communicated via Yik Yak, and those certainly are to be taken seriously. But I am not sure that it really has a tremendous amount of importance as an organizing tool for student activists.

Q. A year ago two groups, the Education Law Association and Naspa — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, issued a guide to dealing with student protests. Among its recommendations, the guide urged colleges to monitor social media. Do you have a sense of whether colleges are seriously engaged in that?

A. We are certainly seeing evidence on certain campuses of administrators and other officials monitoring social media. We have seen coaches and staffs monitoring athletes’ social media, for instance. But I suspect that most of what is going on in terms of campus monitoring is going on very quietly, that they are not announcing publicly that they’re doing it.

That’s the case for at least two reasons. One is that administrators are concerned about the potential backlash against them, if they are seen to be spying on what their students and faculty are saying on social media when it is not related in any direct way to any institutional relationship to the college or university.

The second thing is, frankly, that if a university announces that it is going to be monitoring social media for potential threats or for potential bias incidents or anything like that, they risk being asked some very serious and difficult questions if something bad happens which has been announced or predicted on social media and they did not take action to prevent it.

I strongly suspect that what we are aware of is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is actually happening.

Peter Schmidt writes about affirmative action, academic labor, and issues related to academic freedom. Contact him at peter.schmidt@chronicle.com.