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Advising Through Controversy

Civic Engagement Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Mid-Level Senior Level
Anne Graham

Even through controversy, institutions have a responsibility to foster dialogue grounded in civility while ensuring student safety. Drawing from direct experiences and grounded in the notion of campuses as open communities (Boyer, 1990), this briefing will focus on the role of the student affairs administrator during a campus controversy. The presenters, an associate dean and an assistant director, will provide insights and tools from their distinct administrative perspectives related to enacting a multi-faceted response in a variety of controversial campus situations. Participants will be prompted to consider how they would handle similar events on their campus and be challenged to examine their institution's values, priorities, and hierarchy as they think proactively about responding to controversy.

Protests, controversial speech, and contentious events are not new to college campuses, but students are entering college with an increased willingness and eagerness to engage in activism. The Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s (CIRP) described the fall 2016 entering class of first-time, full-time college students as the most polarized cohort in the 51-year history of its American Freshman Survey, with students placing increasing importance on influencing the political structure and social values. Activism can take many forms, but in this age of hashtag activism, online petitions, and Facebook events for protests, controversy surrounding a student organization’s event or campus incident can escalate incredibly fast. This presents unique and difficult challenges to the organization leaders and members, the general student population, and university administrators.

Historically, universities have been open communities, which is described by Ernest Boyer (1990) as “a place where freedom of expression is uncompromisingly protected and where civility is powerfully affirmed” (p. 17). As this notion has diminished on many of our campuses, administrators are put in the position to keep students safe from harm while also ensuring they are exposed to different ideas.

This briefing will present abbreviated case studies of recent instances of controversy at the George Washington University in order to frame a dynamic discussion surrounding advising and decision-making in these types of situations. The goal of this session is to challenge participants to think proactively about how they might balance competing priorities and values during a campus controversy in order to foster effective decision-making and advising that is in the best interests of all involved students. With each scenario, the presenters will engage the participants in a discussion about how a similar event might be handled on their campus and an examination of their institution’s values, priorities, and hierarchy. In addition to sharing scenarios, the presenters will share a set of practical tools that can be implemented at the participants' institution, including an event briefing template and an advisor training. 

Learning Outcomes

By participating in this session, attendees will:

  • be able to articulate the implications of controversial events and activities on students involved and on the entire campus community;
  • understand how to consider student development along with risk management and issues of public relations when managing controversy on campus;
  • be able to apply the practices and tools presented to controversial situations on their own campus; and
  • be able to develop a response plan to guide their own office’s response to student organization controversy.
Members: $149 Others: $220
Course Length
60 minutes
Course Type
On Demand

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