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How to work with student activists

Understanding their position is one way to start problem-solving on controversial issues.


Student activism is a broad term that can encompass a wide range of issues and organizations. While activism may automatically bring to mind protests about tuition fees and accessibility, students take on a huge number of political concerns in the framework of on-campus, provincial and federal student organizations.

Students also organize around specific issues, on both sides of the political spectrum. Each generation of students engages with hot-button topics that reflect, and often lead, social movements at large. Students have supported issues related to education, the environment, human rights, domestic and international politics, reproductive issues, and many more topics.

Some recent examples of high-profile activism include the 2012 Quebec student protests, sexual assault awareness, the Israel-Palestine conflict, divestment in fossil fuels, abortion and men’s rights groups. These all have the potential to spark attention well beyond the campus and in the media. This presents both challenges and opportunities for administrators working with students.

Activists use a number of methods to raise their concerns. Student associations and student groups will advocate through governance structures inside the institution and often at all three levels of government. To create a focus on their issue and impart a greater sense of urgency, they use protests, social media campaigns, and provocative displays or controversial speakers – all highly effective strategies. Publicity and messaging may be targeted towards the student body, the university administration, government and the public.

One of the complications for administrators is the number of people and groups that become associated with any controversy. The students involved can be individual activists, campus groups or student associations. Administrators can be involved at all levels, and they may not reach a consensus on how to approach the issue. Faculty are often involved on one side or the other, or both. University communications and media relations have a stake as well. Beyond the institution, an issue can involve provincial and national student organizations, the government, the media and the public.

With so many facets to every activist issue, it can be difficult to find positive and constructive outcomes, both for the students and for the administration. Moving away from adversarial approaches towards conflict resolution and problem-solving can help establish common ground. This begins by understanding each side’s interests.

So what are the interests? Activists want change. To accomplish this, a primary goal is to get the message out and galvanize their membership. Publicity, controversy, media attention and at times negative responses all raise the issue’s profile. By raising the profile, new people may want to engage in the debate and this can pull the resolution closer to what the students hope for. At a personal level, activists are often passionately engaged in the issue and their desire for change.

Conversely, university administrators will often want to resolve the issue quickly and quietly, and to manage the story in a way that doesn’t hurt their institutional reputation. Administrators will often be dealing with parties on each side of an issue demanding that the other side be stopped. Some issues have the potential to affect individual members of the campus community. All controversial issues can create conflict on the campus. It is hard to balance academic freedom, civil discourse, and ensuring the well-being of the people involved. At a personal level, given the range of potential issues, there will be topics that administrators believe in and agree with, and those that they don’t.

Open, direct and honest communication about each side’s interests is essential. If both parties can work together towards a best-case scenario that largely meets their needs, this is ideal. And the process itself can often reveal alternative solutions. Engaging with student activists in mutual problem-solving builds a more collegial relationship, even if both sides are far apart on the actual issue. When possible, a solution or victory affirms the value of passionate student engagement, and it sets the tone for future interactions.

In many cases, students protest publicly because they feel they have no voice in decisions. Cultivating an environment of genuinely open dialogue can mitigate this, and finding ways to involve students in decision-making can also help. When this is impossible, for example due to confidentiality, it is helpful to explain why. When students are consulted, and understand the range of considerations administrators are dealing with, they can become allies in problem-solving, and student input can often help shape decisions in creative and novel ways.

Student activists can be integral in making change on campus and beyond. They have spearheaded many significant social changes. So, although controversial issues can represent a huge challenge to administrators, working with student activists can be deeply rewarding.

Nona Robinson is the associate vice-president, students, at Trent University. This article is adapted from a conference presentation she gave with Jana Luker to the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services.

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  1. Chris S. / October 15, 2015 at 10:56

    (Name withheld for fear of retribution.)

    This article is full of weasel words. “Quick” and “quiet” resolution, in my many years of dealing with university admin, are synonymous with “silence dissent” and “ignore the problem.” I’ve never once had a conversation with an administrator that was “open, honest and direct.” Exactly the opposite most of the time, where they say appeasing phrases to get you out of their office, and then do a slap-dash follow-up in their attempts to dismiss the issue(s).

    The way to handle activists is publicly and transparently, which is something universities seem allergic to these days. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the problems currently afflicting post-secondary education in this country are not going to be solved “quickly” at all, unless your intent is to solve nothing. A sustained, long-term approach is required to reinvigorate public education.

    But then, given what senior administrators say about universities, we know that education falls well down the list of priorities. They run schools like a business, and businesses are about fattening their own pockets at the client’s (formerly known as a “student”) expense.

    • Ian S. / October 16, 2015 at 12:13


      The experiences you share in your response to the article about the relationship between student activists and administrators are all too common. From my read of the article, the author is making the point that we need to generate a better, more constructive dialogue between higher education administrators and student activists/leaders. If more people (whether it be a student activist or administrator) were to engage more deeply in issues and were more open and honest about the barriers or challenges in finding a common resolution, our institutions might actually change for the betterment of everyone and society in general. From my own experience, it is only by breaking the mindset of “us and them” that we are able to find creative and positive outcomes. Unfortunately, we don’t see this approach taken very often. Again, I think this is the point of the author. We need to collectively improve our ability to engage one another in difficult conversations and truly listen to one another in a meaningful, constructive way. In my opinion, it is the purpose of higher education to engage in dialogue about the issues that impact our communities and society. Also, I acknowledge this forum of a few hundred words may not change or influence the strong views held by some about this topic, but perhaps it might change just a few. I found the article to be a good attempt to address a difficult, recurring topic and propose a better way forward.

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