In California and Beyond, the Changing Nature of Campus Protests Frustrates Administrators

March 13, 2012

Campus protests don't always arise locally or focus on discrete issues or demands. Sometimes, they're not even led by students.

Those characteristics vex some senior student-affairs administrators in the University of California system, where a tumultuous combination of steep tuition increases and the high-profile national "Occupy" movement resulted in demonstrations that have ensnared at least two campuses—Berkeley and Davis—in lawsuits.

The California officials spoke at a panel discussion on Monday afternoon here at the annual meeting of Naspa—Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, saying that the recent events had underscored two points. For one, the origins and execution of campus protests are changing, and they bear little resemblance to the demonstrations of the 1960s and '70s, in the administrators' own undergraduate days. Also, the fluid Occupy movement, in particular, is challenging officials to rethink the way they plan for and respond to student protests.

One question they wrestle with: Who should be the first to engage student protesters, administrators or campus police?

"My philosophy is always administrators," said Griselda Castro, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs at the University of California at Davis. "Once you send the police in, you don't know what can happen on the ground."

Campus police at UC-Davis attracted international attention in November for pepper-spraying students taking part in Occupy protests on the campus. The incident sparked harsh criticism of the university's chancellor, Linda P.B. Katehi, who promptly apologized for the officers' behavior. It also triggered a federal lawsuit, in which 19 students and alumni claimed the officers' use of pepper spray violated their constitutional rights. (In a separate lawsuit against leaders of the Berkeley campus, also filed in November, two dozen students and protesters are disputing campus police officers' use of batons to break up an Occupy Berkeley protest.)

Ms. Castro was quick to denounce the police response to the incident at Davis, attributing it to "the actions of a few individuals." But she and other panelists acknowledged that the Occupy movement—which is both national and local, encompassing a dizzying array of social and economic issues—poses hard questions for university administrators accustomed to reasoning with students.

"For most protests that I've been involved with over the years, I have a relationship with the students. There's a sense of trust," Ms. Castro said. "In the case we have now—this new movement that's leaderless—it's presenting a challenge because we can't engage in the dialogue. It's changed the whole dynamic."

Davis has had Occupy protesters on campus since November, she said. But the university's approach since the pepper-spray incident has been markedly reserved. "Our campus model since then has been patience and restraint," Ms. Castro said. "We've had buildings occupied, and we're getting a lot of pushback that we're being too lenient from everybody else who feels like their rights are being violated."

Beyond California

Listening to the panel here on Monday was James R. Doyle, vice president for student affairs at DePaul University, in Chicago. DePaul has also had its share of protests recently: A demonstration this month on its downtown campus drew Chicago police officers, who blocked off a busy intersection, Mr. Doyle said. DePaul officials hadn't summoned the officers, and the students—caught off guard—dispersed, he said.

With that event fresh in his mind, Mr. Doyle considered the possibility that DePaul, with its location, size, and reputation for progressive politics, was attracting outside activists looking to gin up student protests on national issues. (The recent protest, ostensibly over tuition costs, unfolded under the Occupy banner.)

Mr. Doyle is now preparing for a summit of NATO leaders in Chicago in May—and a possible influx of demonstrators along with it. Campus leaders have decided to effectively close the campus for three days during that meeting, he said. Faculty members will have to make alternate arrangements, maybe delivering their classes online, on the Friday before the weekend meeting. It's an unprecedented move, but given the likelihood of disruptions or demonstrations throughout the city, it felt necessary, said Mr. Doyle, who has worked at DePaul for three decades.

These days, "campuses are friendlier toward activism," he said. "But it's a different dynamic now, with different influences."