Columbia administrators failed crisis management 101

Columbia administrators failed crisis management 101

A university president has to wear many hats, just like a CEO.

There are every day administrators, handing out the joy of donors, and, importantly, keeping internal fires from becoming public, violent fires.

The latter is a public relations lesson, for which Columbia’s president may need a refresher.

See here: To understand why so many college campuses suddenly have students occupying parts of their campuses, you have to go back to two weeks ago, on April 18, when Columbia University called the NYPD to build an encampment that caused pro-Palestinian protesters was prepared just a day earlier.

In doing so, Columbia’s leadership threw out the playbook for managing protests that the university has honed for decades to keep students safe.

“There is a certain set of tactics that many of us in academics consider logically understandable that university administrators have used to manage and control protesters,” said Sarah J. Jackson, a professor who studies the role of media and technology in movements for justice at the University of Pennsylvania. , tell me.

Chief among those tactics: Delay and distraction.

The administration might tell activists, with good intentions, “OK, we heard you and we’re going to set up a committee to investigate what it will take to achieve some of your demands.” Officials may ask student protest leaders to compile a case to present before the Board of Trustees.
“Protesters don’t necessarily appreciate this tactic, because it’s a control strategy,” Jackson said. “But from my perspective, it’s also a strategy that has largely prevented the large-scale violence against protesters on college campuses that we saw in the 1960s.”

Academics are used to seeing the tactic used, especially when students stay a few days before the end of the semester — a natural time for troublemakers to lose heart and go home. But that’s not the case at Columbia. “That’s part of why it’s so shocking to see the level of physical repression that has gone on instead,” Jackson said.

The shockingly aggressive intervention by the police also led, overnight, to dozens of campuses across the country seeing students stage their own encampments in solidarity.

When nonviolent protesters are met with intense physical repression, “that tends to create a kind of anger effect that then generates more protests,” Jackson said.

“I think everyone can understand at this point that the reason all these encampments are suddenly popping up all over the country is because what happened in Columbia feels so horrible, and so sudden, and so unreasonable.”

Along the way, it became increasingly clear that the university’s communications team was not helping. Jackson echoed what Nadia Abu El-Haj, a professor of anthropology at Columbia, told the New York Review this week, that administrators appear to be “making up rules as they go along, often without announcing the changes.”

“We, as faculty members, know that the rules have changed when students are dragged into procedures that did not exist before,” Abu El-Haj told the publication.

To be sure, Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, knows his job may be on the line. Late last year, the presidents of Harvard and UPenn resigned after their overly lawyerly responses to antisemitism on campus sparked outrage. Meanwhile, thousands of students, parents and alumni will descend on the Columbia campus for commencement, adding even more pressure to remove the protesters.

Of course, other campuses have startup plans, and some have managed to deal with potential disruptions without calling the police.

Protesters at Brown University, notably, disbanded their encampment voluntarily, and peacefully, after the school engaged with activists and agreed to consider some of their demands. Other schools such as Wesleyan and the University of Chicago avoided police intervention with similar tactics.

Those campuses are the ones that don’t get the news, Jackson notes. From a PR standpoint, that “certainly seems like it would be a better outcome.”

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