Leadership & Governance

When White Supremacists Descend, What Can a College President Do?

August 12, 2017

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
White nationalists, neo-Nazis, and members of the 'alt-right' clashed with counter-protesters during a rally on Saturday in Charlottesville, Va.

The University of Virginia became the latest public-college campus to be thrust into political discord and deadly violence when white supremacists paraded through the streets of Charlottesville, Va., this weekend.

Carrying torches, protesters supporting a so-called Unite the Right rally gathered Friday night around the statue of Thomas Jefferson on the Charlottesville campus. The evening ended in physical clashes that continued on Saturday, which resulted in the university canceling numerous activities it had planned to respond to the protests. Virginia’s governor, Terry McAuliffe, declared a state of emergency. At least one person was killed when a car crashed into a crowd, and skirmishes played out between extremist groups and counter-protesters.

The chaos in Charlottesville added a dangerous element to what was already expected to be a contentious climate when students return to college campuses this fall. While several controversies over free speech on campuses have, so far, stemmed from students opposing visits by far-right figures, the mayhem in Virginia presented a very different kind of threat.

It brought to light questions about what college leaders can do when extremists descend on campuses, at a time when presidents may draw fire — as Teresa A. Sullivan, UVa’s president, did initially — for not speaking out as strongly as some people want.

Patricia A. McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, said the actions by the white-supremacist groups represented a natural continuation of months of provocations by such organizations.

“This is the threat we’ve been seeing all along just metastasized into the worst possible situation,” she said Saturday evening. “We’ve seen the alt-right trying to provoke campuses, trying to incite students, trying to corrupt higher education’s ideal of freedom of speech and pushing it to the very edge of the concept,” she said.

College campuses are obvious targets for such groups because they promote the ideals of universal equality and liberal democracy, Ms. McGuire said. The white supremacists, however, are promoting a “we versus they” ideology, and academe is part of the “they.”

The silence of college leaders in the face of protests and violent threats only encourages such groups to act, she said.

“It’s wrong for presidents to be timid,” she said. “It betrays the leadership we are called to exert. I think the right-wing element is poking for the soft underbelly of the academy and sees silence as weakness.”

Campus leaders, instead, should prepare their institutions, Ms. McGuire said, not against controversial speech and microaggressions, but against the real possibility of physical confrontations and violence.

“It’s not our business to block speech,” she said. But the actions of the extremists who descended on Charlottesville were not just about promoting controversial speech, she said. “This is about the violence and hatred of white supremacists.”

‘Be Ready’

Edward L. Ayers, a prominent historian of the South who is a former president of the University of Richmond and a former dean at Virginia, said that the nature of universities as “open places” makes them “so wonderful most of the time.” But, he added, that quality also makes them vulnerable to events like the violence that took place in Charlottesville.

As a university leader, he said, “all you can really do is be ready.” These days, that means taking necessary steps to protect your students, faculty, and staff.

Mr. Ayers was scheduled to take part on Saturday in a broad-ranging workshop on the UVa campus that had been organized as a response to the march, but it was canceled for the sake of the participants’ safety.

W. Kent Fuchs, president of the University of Florida, who on Saturday announced that a group had requested space on his campus in September for an event featuring Richard Spencer, a white nationalist, said he too believes such groups are drawn to colleges because they’re seeking media attention. One way to do that, he said, is to go where they can “get counter-protesters to engage.” And, he said, college leaders might have to get used to it.

“To be very frank, I do not believe that any of us can prevent or stop this from occurring,” said Mr. Fuchs. He said that his university had not finalized any arrangements yet for the speech, and that having seen the violence at Virginia, and on other campuses, his institution will take steps to ensure safety considerations are covered.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said in an email that major shifts in American higher education in this century represented “everything that white supremacists think is wrong with this country,” including the celebration of diversity and the integration of diverse histories into college curricula.

At the same time, he said, it “doesn’t take a rocket scientist” to discern that the most fertile place for those extremists to provoke a reaction is on a college campus. Presidents and administrators need to figure out how to respond to harmful speech “by doing the job of a university,” he said: fostering constructive debate. But finding the best way to do that is still a challenge.

Mr. Grossman suggested that the white-supremacist groups thought they could present themselves “as part of a spectrum of opinion” by bashing colleges. But they may have miscalculated, because some Republican senators condemned their actions.

Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, said he believes that colleges can do a better job of presenting a diverse set of perspectives by inviting speakers who are not on the fringe of political dialogue.

Extending an invitation to the controversial political scientist Charles Murray, for example, might help you undermine the argument that your campus is not a welcoming place, he said. In doing so, you may head off requests for talks by even more extreme speakers, like Mr. Spencer and his fellow white supremacist Milo Yiannopoulos.

Deborah McDowell, director of UVa’s Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies, grew up in Birmingham, Ala., during the civil-rights movement. She said that while the university’s administration should condemn the rally in the strongest language possible, once the events reached a state of emergency, it was President Trump who should be held accountable.

“It is an outrage, but it is an outrage that needs to be condemned from the highest offices in the land,” she said. That condemnation, she added, needs “to be reinforced by actions taken to remove the elements fomenting this kind of white supremacy.”

‘No Good Response’

Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at UVa, said his family decided not to attend the counter-protest, given that they knew the white-supremacist groups would be armed.

He rejected the idea that their presence was a free-speech issue. Instead, he said that it was about a small but growing number of people who think there are others who don’t deserve respect. That population of white supremacists, he said, has grown bolder now than at any point in his lifetime.

“College towns make sense for them,” Mr. Vaidhyanathan said, because there are likely to be concentrated numbers of people there who oppose their views. And they know they’re more likely to get a reaction from those communities.

The Confederate monuments in Charlottesville were especially attractive, he said, because they gave the extremists “something to rally around.”

As for how colleges should respond, he acknowledged that it’s a complicated issue. Campuses need a plan “that makes it clear that this sort of behavior is unwelcome,” but beyond that, he acknowledged that he didn’t “know how to finish that sentence.”

“There’s no good response to that level of hatred and irrationality,” Mr. Vaidhyanathan said.

University leaders need to “make it clear that this country is facing a serious internal threat from racism and other forms of bigotry, and it’s violent, and it’s coming right at us,” he said. “They’re not interested in the Socratic method. But they are interested in bashing Socrates.”

Goldie Blumenstyk writes about the intersection of business and higher education. Check out www.goldieblumenstyk.com for information on her new book about the higher-education crisis; follow her on Twitter @GoldieStandard; or email her at goldie@chronicle.com.

Nell Gluckman writes about faculty issues and other topics in higher education. You can follow her on Twitter @nellgluckman, or email her at nell.gluckman@chronicle.com.

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.