Leadership & Governance

How One University Took Its Student Protesters Seriously

Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory U.

March 25, 2016

Produced by Julia Schmalz and Carmen Mendoza

Last fall, a few days after activists at the University of Missouri at Columbia and at Yale University demanded that steps be taken to improve the racial climate on their campuses, students at Emory University staged protests and issued demands of their own.

Ajay Nair, senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory, says his initial reaction to those demands was "defensiveness." But after speaking with the activists, Mr. Nair oversaw his institution's unusually detailed response to the protests. Emory convened working groups to assess each of the demands, asked everyone on the campus to weigh in on possible solutions, and held a racial-justice retreat for students and members of the faculty and staff.

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"Our students are seeking change," he says. "They mean for the demands to be provocative and jarring. If we look at the demands just at face value, we're missing something." In an interview, Mr. Nair explains how and why the university embarked on such a lengthy process.


Hello, I'm Sarah Brown, a staff reporter here at The Chronicle of Higher Education. I'm here today with Ajay Nair. He's the senior vice president and dean of campus life at Emory University. Dr. Nair, welcome to The Chronicle.

AJAY NAIR: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

SARAH BROWN: So I wanted to start by talking a little bit about last fall.


SARAH BROWN: So a few days after the racial tension escalated at the University of Missouri and at Yale University, students at Emory held a march where they blocked traffic near campus, and they also presented a list of demands to Emory's administration. When you saw that protest and that list of demands, what was your initial reaction?

AJAY NAIR: It's a great question. Actually, I had a preview of those demands. Prior to the protest, the students had come to my office and shared the demands with me. And I have to admit, my initial reaction was a bit of defensiveness. Most people, their initial read of those demands led you to believe that the demands are somehow accusatory. Seemingly impenetrable. Lofty kinds of goals.

But I had an opportunity to chat with the students, fortunately, and sort of process what they were getting after. And a student had related a story to me that really shed some light and gave me great context for the demands. And she explained it this way. She said, oftentimes I find myself watching the news or watching TV or watching YouTube videos, and I'll see black bodies being murdered, and I'll take those images and I'll go to my dorm room and I sit with those images. And I think to myself, what can I do to make a difference?

And you know, at universities, we ask our students to be change agents. It's part of Emory's mission and vision to see positive transformation in the world. And so with that story, the context that I got from that conversation was that our students are seeking change. They mean for the demands to be provocative and jarring, and if we look at the demands just at face value, we're missing something. We're missing an opportunity to open up a conversation and educate not only our students, but for us to be educated on the lived experiences of our students. And so for me, it was a critical moment in making sense of the demands and unpacking the demands as a community.

SARAH BROWN: So can you take me through your process of approaching these demands? At first you and the provost released a sort of demand-by-demand response, and then you established some working groups. Is that correct?

AJAY NAIR: That's absolutely right. So we did that in concert with the desires of our students. So we talked to the students about what kind of process would make sense, not just to address each demand point by point but also to address the systemic issues that are creating the kinds of issues that we're seeing across higher education. I think that was the pivot for us, looking at the systemic issues rather than just point by point. We did respond point by point because we thought we had an obligation to explain at least our initial read of the demands.

But from there, we embarked on a community-wide process where we developed working groups for each of those demands, and together as a community we sat and we looked at those demands and really got at the core issues represented through each demand and developed action steps, timelines, and accountability measures. But the important part of it was that we also put out all of our recommendations — at least initial recommendations — to the entire community to weigh in on. And so we got a lot of online feedback as well from alumni from parents, from our current students or faculty or staff, and it really informed the process.

It ultimately culminated in a racial-justice retreat, and at this retreat we invited — we had capacity for 100 in this room and also to make sure that we can actually get the work done. We had 50 student stakeholders and 50 faculty and staff stakeholders. People that had great interest and authority to make change on each of these issues. And each working group got to the front of the room and presented on their action steps, timelines, and accountability measures.

And I have to say, it was one of the most powerful moments of my career. In that space, power, in many ways, was dismantled. Everybody was equal. Everybody had a voice. Everybody had an opportunity to participate in that process and take the demands and form them into shared passions and concerns as a community. And through that process we are now positioned to address the systemic issues rather than respond through surface-level initiatives that may not actually transform the community or change the contours of the university in ways that we think matter.

SARAH BROWN: Can you give me a sense of how you approach one of the specific demands? Perhaps the demand for improved mental-health counseling for minority students, or the demand for a specific academic-support program for minority students, or one of your choice?

AJAY NAIR: Yeah, and there's so many good examples, because ultimately, each demand, as we unpack the demands, really led us to incredible conversations and really important initiatives. And I think that was the beauty of the process. Sure, when we think about mental-health concerns, those are real, right? I mean the mental-health concerns facing students of color, but really all college students, and the incredible amount of stress deserves our attention.

For us, working with the counseling center — the counseling and psychological services — and with our Office of Spiritual Life, the dean of the chapel and spiritual life bringing those parties together to talk about support measures for our students and not just, again, students of color, but in this case, we are primarily focusing on students of color — created a valuable opportunity to look at our systems and how we're serving students. And so in ways in which partnerships weren't happening before, we were able to bring stakeholders together and deploy our resources more effectively to serve the needs of our students.

Another good example would be around faculty evaluations. You probably read that in our faculty evaluations, students were calling for students to have the opportunity to report bias incidents in the classroom. And it's seemingly noble to be able to point out when a faculty member has done something wrong in the classroom. But as we had conversations with students about what that really means and the effect that could potentially have, actually, on faculty of color — who are oftentimes teaching the most controversial issues in the classroom, particularly related to race and how they may be the ones who are being reported for bias incidents — the conversation shifted.

And it wasn't so much the students were no longer interested in thinking about a campus climate where they could thrive and learn. That was still the objective. But that became the objective as opposed to just faculty evaluations. And through academic leadership at Emory, the conversation opened up into what can we do to help faculty members be thoughtful, more thoughtful about pedagogical strategies or strategies to create a classroom learning environment where everyone can flourish, as opposed to being the thought police or faculty members having to watch every word that they say.

Rather, to state to all of our faculty members that this is a concern, and we want you know that this is a concern, and it's up to you how you're going to deal effectively with that. And if you want training or support in how to do this more effectively, we have resources for you. So it just changed the nature of the conversation once students understood the implications of the particular demand. But what they were asking for it, ultimately, at the core of it — what's essential and important — how we get there changed through the course of the conversation. Again, through partnerships and open dialogue.

SARAH BROWN: So I haven't seen many other college leaders go through this extensive process. I can think of a couple of college presidents who have met extensively with student protesters, maybe even a five- or six-hour meeting, and ironed out some differences. But I haven't seen another university go through a weeks-long process to address these demands. So why was it so important for you to go through this process?

AJAY NAIR: I spent the past 20 years as an administrator managing diversity, negotiating diversity issues, and I think Emory is the kind of community where the opportunity exists where we can reimagine structures. As I said before, we can change the contours of how the university operates, and that was inspired by our students. We were able to ask the question that I don't think any other institution is really asking, and that is what does it mean to prioritize racial justice in our campus community?

What does it mean to really have that as a core priority? And I'm hard-pressed to find any institution that's been bold enough to say this is a priority. Once we did that, it opened up another series of questions, really important questions, that at a place like Emory was highly relationship-based. that we can have.

First, it pushed us to think about what our principles and values are as a community. Who are we and who do we want to be as an institution? It pushed us to consider why our best practices aren't working at Emory. If the best practices aren't working, shouldn't we be creating best practices? Shouldn't we be innovating and leading on these issues in creative ways?

It pushes us to think about what community means, the notion of community, and that perhaps our multicultural models of community need to evolve into more-progressive models where students can still be affirmed. Their identities can be affirmed, but we can also explore intersectionality and the deep intersections among cultures. Viewing culture as porous and more fluid in our work.

And so it opened up a series of questions for us, because I think many of us at Emory realized that the demands that we've seen over time are exactly the same demands over and over and over again. And this recognition that we have to do something different. We have to approach this issue and problem in a different way if we're really going to have an impact and really effect systemic change. And for us, that meant starting with the key question of prioritizing racial justice and what that means. And I have to say, the credit goes actually to our students for pushing us to think in intellectual ways about this, but also then for us to take responsibility and truly, truly operationalize that, and that's how we've landed here at Emory.

SARAH BROWN: So as I'm sure you're aware. the protesters have garnered their fair share of critics. One of the criticisms really centers on the fact that these protesters seem to be demanding protection from offensive speech, and that that inherently threatens freedom of speech. One of Emory's demands sort of touches on that debate: their demand to ban Yik Yak on campus. So I wonder, do you see such a ban as threatening of freedom of speech on campus?

AJAY NAIR: So it's interesting. We talked a bit about the process that we've used to come together to unpack the demand through the Yik Yak conversation, involving a number of different stakeholders. I think it was recognition that banning Yik Yak probably isn't the answer. In fact, it's almost impractical to ban Yik Yak. We don't even have the capacity, really, to truly ban anything. And not that we'd want to. It's actually a violation of our policy our open expression policy to do so.

But in that conversation, there was a recognition that the core issue is how students feel when they are attacked and they're threatened on these different social-media platforms. And it revealed how students feel and what the university's responsibility is in that particular situation to support our students. And it revealed that most institutions of higher education aren't doing enough to be supportive of students who are being attacked.

And so the answer, in my opinion, this is my personal opinion — isn't to necessarily ban Yik Yak, but it's to ensure that we have the appropriate support measures and the educational tools to have debate and dialogue that happens outside of social media, in real time with real people with their names associated with it. Having the most difficult conversations — we call it at Emory the impossible conversation — so that there can be new ways of knowing and understanding. Things that aren't happening on Yik ak. And so for us, it moved us to a completely different paradigm, a different way of approaching this problem with more-creative solutions that move us away from banning things as a resolution, but rather opening up new opportunities and new strategies to address perennial issues about a sense of belonging. The campus climate and welcoming nature of the university.

SARAH BROWN: More broadly, what do you think is the significance of this moment for minority students on college campuses with all of these protests nationwide?

AJAY NAIR: This may be the zeitgeist of our era. I mean, it's such a critical moment for all of us — in the nation and the world, in higher-ed institutions — for us to think about the opportunity of actually prioritizing this really important social-justice issue and doing something with it. It can have a profound impact on the lives of our students as future change agents, as change agents at their institutions. It can change the paradigm of higher education if we roll up our sleeves and work really hard at it and do it collectively as a community.

We are, in fact, reimagining the way the university operates. We're thinking about how power operates at the institution, how structures operate, and when structures aren't working at the institution, do we have opportunities to create new structures, new ways of approaching issues? This has opened up new avenues for us to think about how higher education operates and to ensure, at the end of the day, that every student can feel a sense of belonging and every student can leave a footprint on our campus community and the world around them. That's something historically that we've really struggled to do, and now we have the opportunity to do it thanks to the leadership of our students.

SARAH BROWN: Great. Well, thank you so much for joining us today, Dr. Nair. I really appreciated it.

AJAY NAIR: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.