Leadership & Governance

Student Activism and the Social-Media ‘Trap’

Kevin Kruger, Naspa-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education

June 15, 2015
Produced by Carmen Mendoza

Kevin Kruger, president of Naspa-Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, focuses on issues that bedevil college campuses, like sexual assault, mental health, substance abuse, hazing, and Greek life. A firm believer that the work of student affairs helps equip students for success in and after college, he is trying to expand his group’s role in public policy, research, and professional development. Mr. Kruger visited The Chronicle's newsroom recently to share his thoughts on student activism, why administrators shouldn’t be afraid of it, and how social-media firestorms change the equation.


SARA LIPKA: We are here today with Kevin Kruger. He is president of a student-affairs association, Naspa, and a national advocate for students. Before Naspa, he was at a couple of University of Maryland campuses, College Park and Baltimore County. And he is especially interested in leadership development and technology. Kevin, thanks so much for being here.

KEVIN KRUGER: Great to be here in this newsroom. It's awesome.

About This Series

The Chronicle’s On Leadership video series explores various aspects of campus leadership with movers and shakers across academe. The series is hosted by Chronicle editors and reporters. Visit our complete collection of interviews. 

SARA LIPKA: One of the things we hear about a lot is student activism. Students are organizing, they are making demands. And you've been in student affairs for 30-something years. I'm curious what's changed about how students mobilize?

KEVIN KRUGER: It does seem that activism is up. It does seem like students are really mobilizing in some ways that maybe we haven't seen for a while. And I think it's kind of interesting. I think there's two things going on. I think the techniques that students are using have really become pretty varied.

You see two things. You see students employing strategies that maybe we saw during the civil-rights era, or during other times of activism, which are more-traditional kinds of activism — like sit in the president's office, take over the president's office, take over a building, put the institution in a position where they would have to actually have police remove them from this space. We're seeing hunger strikes, which, I think, are on the rise, as students are concerned about different policies or actions the institution might take.

And those seem to be more-traditional activism, nonviolent activism. But I think we're also seeing sort of the intersection between those strategies now and the real impact the social media has on the ability for students to connect with other campuses and with each other. You can think of a couple examples like that. I think that clearly the social-media platform and things like change.org and other kinds of places are allowing students to mobilize very quickly, really quickly, on a single issue and put pressure on the institution to address a certain issue.

I think it's a unique time, in terms of students' really rallying around a wide range of issues.

SARA LIPKA: Sometimes you hear that one technique colleges would try is waiting students out. If there's a particularly active group of students, just wait until they graduate, that these movements come and go. Do you think that's still the truth, or are you seeing more campaigns sustained?

KEVIN KRUGER: It's a terrible thing to say, but I think that, given the life cycle of student governments, I think you could potentially wait them out to some degree. I think that depends, frankly, on the strategies that they are employing. And some strategies are so compelling or so immediate that there's no waiting them out. Actually, I think that campuses should stop being so afraid of activism. And so even to suggest that they might wait them out, I think, suggests that they're not wanting to address the issue at all.

I'm a strong believer that student activism is what we want students to do. Don't we want to actively engage citizenship? And if that citizenship means taking on issues on the campus, we should actually celebrate it rather than trying to push it away. Obviously, if the students are disrupting the academic endeavor, then we obviously have to take action. And I think you see — campuses certainly know that — don't let them get to the point where they're sitting in the president's office, because that is disruptive. And, eventually, you will have to do something that you don't want to do. And, I think, the reputational issues of seeing police come in and cart students off — no institution wants that.

So, I think, there's maybe strategies you can employ not to co-opt the activism but to work with them in allowing that activism to occur, but in a way that is consistent with the educational mission of the institution.

SARA LIPKA: What are some of those strategies that a college could think about ahead of time, before it comes to a sit-in?

KEVIN KRUGER: Yeah. I think, dialogue. This is sort of a student-affairs kind of tenet a little bit, maybe college presidents as well. If the first time that you're interacting with student leaders is at the protest, you probably are already down a few notches. I think you should find ways to engage students in active dialogue before the protest occurs and create opportunities for students to have that kind of voice, whether it be through advisory boards or through individual meetings with students or open forums — those kinds of things. I think that is one place where institutions can be much more successful, to develop a relationship with the students that suggests that you're interested in hearing them, not trying to squash any activism that they might have.

SARA LIPKA: One challenge colleges run into is trying to balance free speech and community standards, or some might call civility. What advice do you have for them there?

KEVIN KRUGER: Well, I think you should take a very careful look at your speech codes. I think most places have, but it's been pretty clear that hate-speech codes are not standing up in court, so I think that would be A. And, secondly, I think we have to return to the understanding that the university really is the marketplace of ideas that the Supreme Court talked about in the very beginning. While offensive, as long as that speech is not threatening, individually harassing, that we probably have to have a tolerance for the pretty wide range of things that are going to get communicated. And that ought to be part of the educational environment.

That's probably the hardest thing that we do. Look at some cases where there's been some bigotry that's been expressed, and some institutions have acted in support of that freedom of expression. They get a lot of critique for that. So you have to be willing to stand for an ideal and a principle that is, I think, really important. This most recent case with the Northwestern faculty member is another example, where we're really pushing the edges of academic freedom and what is permitted, as a faculty member, to speak out in an essay. As much as people may disagree with that essay, I think there ought be a space for that to happen, as well.

So if something occurs that is abhorrent and really offends us as a community, I don't think — and I think it's appropriate for leaders within higher education to speak out against that, without limiting that expression. I think we have to find that balance. I think it's going to be really, really important. And I think that takes some courage. I think it takes some leadership.

SARA LIPKA: Let's talk again about social media. Students can get the word out so quickly. We saw just recently the student who filmed a staff member at Kennesaw State appearing to ask a black student, who was waiting for an adviser, to leave or she would call security. How does social media and students getting the word out on social media change the relationship between students and administrators?

KEVIN KRUGER: I think the part where it gets really tricky is you can say anything about anyone with some, little, or no facts or reality behind it. So I think that we cannot be in a place where for a faculty member or a staff member that becomes a sort of a fear of being unpopular, that we do the wrong thing because we're afraid that somehow someone is going to call us out on it. And I think we should be acting responsibly, but this really raises the bar in terms of the tough skin you have to have as a college administrator or a faculty member. Because we already know this for faculty, right?

We're getting faculty surveys about their classroom teaching, but now it's happening — live tweeting is happening in people's classrooms that sometimes can be pretty mean-spirited. And if you're in a position where you're a student-conduct officer, or a dean of students, and you're in that kind of tough position with students, to know that within the hour you're going to have some kind of interaction from a social-media standpoint. That's pretty tough.

I think, again, we're going to have to be in a place where we take a breath from an institutional-action standpoint and make sure that we understand the whole situation before we act. Just because there is an uproar on social media doesn't mean that it happened that way, doesn't mean that the act of the individual staff member was wrong.

I don't know that institutions have to act as quickly as social media demands. And I think that that sometimes is a trap for us. There's a firestorm on social media. And we feel like, by 5 o'clock today, we have to have a response. We might have a response. But, with the final action, maybe we need a little more fact-finding, a little more research, trying to find out what happened. I think that's going to be a hard thing to do, but it's going to be increasingly important, so we're not just bouncing back and forth, making quick decisions without the information we need.

SARA LIPKA: Kevin, thanks so much for visiting us today.

KEVIN KRUGER: It's been a nice conversation. Thanks, Sara.


Sara Lipka edits coverage of campus life and other topics. Follow her on Twitter @chronsara, or email her at sara.lipka@chronicle.com.