Addressing Campus Violence Online and in Your Classrooms

It is easy to feel helpless when contemplating the dangers assaulting campuses lately. Higher education is facing everything from coordinated alt-right attacks on faculty members to threats of public violence directed toward invited speakers to political mandates that could destabilize campus life by targeting people on the basis of immigration status. Volatile situations create complicated dilemmas: for example, should faculty members under attack be removed from classrooms for their own safety, or does doing so simply allow the trolls to win?

Campus representatives who are underprepared to deal with threats are more likely to succumb to public pressure in handling situations and ultimately to leave victims more vulnerable and less supported than they should be.

However, there are proactive steps members of a campus community can take before an incident is imminent or underway, to help ensure that situations can be handled efficiently and effectively, preserving both academic freedoms and individual and campus safety to the greatest extent possible. These involve anticipating key areas of conflict, identifying the teams that will respond, and having a clear consensus about the basic principles and procedures for how to respond—whether you are a graduate student, faculty member, department chair, staff member, or member of the campus administration.

Campus policies are highly specific, based on the size, location, and type of institution, the level of imminent danger, and many other factors. Similarly, individual concerns depend on one’s place within institutional structures. For example, department chairs need to know that faculty members whose names appear on the Web site Professor Watchlist are likely to have different needs than do non-tenure-track faculty members who are developing syllabi for courses that have come under public scrutiny for contentious content. Thus, what follows makes no effort to shape policy. Rather, it argues that every campus constituency should know what to do ahead of time to help minimize dangers, where to turn if facing threats, what intervention protocols exist, and, more broadly, which campus offices undertake routine preventative measures to address potential threats.

Protecting Yourself and Students on Campus

You should know the answers to the following key questions about general campus safety and targeted threats. These may provide starting points for faculty members to bring issues to the attention of their chairs, deans, or provosts, which in turn may encourage them to disseminate information, open discussions, or even enhance campus procedures.

  • Does your campus have a dedicated e-mail address you can write to or a number you can text or call to report an emergency incident as it is occurring? Does it have an alert system you need to sign up for so that you get incident alerts in real time?
  • Do you know the number for campus security? Who else on campus has been trained to de-escalate face-to-face situations, and how do you contact those people in the event of an emergency?
  • If you live in a state that has adopted or is considering adopting legislation regarding campus carry of firearms, what is your campus doing to comply with those regulations while ensuring safety on campus? How do the specific laws in your state define your rights and responsibilities for regulating the presence of guns in your office or classrooms?
  • FERPA legally prevents faculty members from giving out any information about students to anyone, including someone with a subpoena or a badge. To whom does your campus want you to refer an official who approaches you with any questions related to students?
  • What is your campus’s position on DACA students? What resources are available to these students? Who are the contact people for students who need to access those resources? How is student confidentiality protected?
  • What are the policies and procedures for providing support to a member of the campus community who is being targeted online? Faculty senates, unions, and other governing bodies often work to protect their members’ academic freedom. What procedures have they adopted for responding to public attacks on course content and design, social media, or public writing by faculty members? What are their protocols for getting public statements approved before release, if such a thing is necessary? How do they extend protections to non-tenure-track or graduate student members of the faculty?
  • Communications offices and campus security typically coordinate procedures to protect members of the campus community who are facing online threats. How do they monitor social media? What statements have they drafted about policies for dealing with online harassment?
  • Upper administration’s policies and procedures to support members of the campus community who become individual targets are often complex and for security reasons may not be widely publicized. Do deans and department chairs know what roles they play when acting on these policies and procedures?

Reducing Threats: Preparing Online and in Person

It is possible to minimize your own vulnerability without compromising your intellectual integrity, your participation in public discourse, or your students’ educations. Taking precautionary steps is a concrete action that can be empowering in the face of growing fears about safety in academic settings. To help reduce the risk that ensuring personal safety will require curtailing academic freedom, you can do the following:

Many campus offices operate on the principle that a campus is not safe if its individuals do not feel safe. Campus police want to know about anything you have to report to local law enforcement if it is in any way related to campus work or your status as a student, faculty member, or employee. They are likely to have specific physical protections available for classrooms, offices, and other campus venues. Offices of campus communications and administration want to ensure that everyone who could be potentially affected by incidents is informed about them, whether isolated or ongoing—so include those offices in any reports you must make.

There are also numerous resources beyond the campus level that can provide support networks and resources:

It is highly likely that campuses have plans in place, but it is also likely that members of the community are not clear on what those plans are, since such plans are complicated and may feel irrelevant until they are suddenly urgent. One of the most reassuring things I did when I became the chair of my department was to have a meeting with the head of our campus communications office to clarify what our campus was already doing about many of these issues. (There was a tremendous amount I did not know.) The net result of that meeting, and answers to some of my follow-up questions, was an increased sense of confidence, both because I knew that there were already procedures in place and because I had a clearer sense of whom I would contact in various scenarios.

At the very least, members of the faculty and staff ought to feel assured that their offices of the president, communications, and campus security all support a statement like the following: “We do not make staffing decisions on this campus on the basis of pressure from any external groups or individuals.” It would be worthwhile for chairs and deans to consider crafting similar statements for public release, which can be used in a wide variety of situations, and to clear them with the offices who oversee such statements, before an incident occurs.

Too many campuses in the last few years have been caught by surprise when a crisis hits and have had to release statements or make decisions without much time to think carefully about the ramifications of their words and actions. Some have thereby ended up stifling the free exchange of ideas, undermining their own faculty members, or inadvertently letting the bullies win because they allowed protecting campuses from physical threats to take precedence over protecting intellectual inquiry. There are times, of course, when curtailing imminent violence has to be the only objective. But careful planning about campus procedures—and the language through which they are communicated to the public—has the potential to enable responses that do not require deleting publicly available scholarship, firing faculty members, or compromising students’ education in order to maintain campus safety. And every one of us can participate in that kind of planning.

Andrea Kaston Tange is chair of the English department at Macalester College. She served on the MLA’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities from 2015 to 2018 and chaired the committee from 2017 to 2018.

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