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Administration Strategies Against Student Activism and Organizing

Student organizers have a wealth of strategic analysis and history to pull from when we start any campaign. Everything from power mapping to the classic Tactic Star, I'm sure we've all been to our share of workshops to hone our activism. However, the point I want to make today is that college and university administrations across the country do the same thing. As Saul Alinsky wrote in Rules for Radicals:

Once a specific tactic is used, it ceases to be outside the experience of the enemy. Before long he devises countermeasures that void the previous effective tactic.

Since the explosion of innovative (and successful) student organizing and protest in the 1960s, administrators have sought to understand our tactics and strategy so as to work out the most effective ways to defuse our campaigns and actions.

Just as we have trainings and conferences, so do administrators: conferences with exciting names like the "Conference on Legal Issues in Higher Education", and "International Conference on Learning and Administration in Higher Education". There are also journals, magazines, and conference calls all devoted to the job of subjugating administering your campus.

Most of what's discussed is behind paywalls, or simply isn't available online. However, there are exceptions. I'd like to focus on one document in particular (this will be the first post in a series).

From the 13th Annual Conference on Legal Issues in Higher Education at the University of Vermont, we have a fascinating little paper that was presented, entitled "Protests, Activism, and Student Riots." I've uploaded a PDF here - it's very much worth reading. Much of it is blockquotes from other resources, but I'll pull out the most interesting section here:

Don’t overreact. Be patient. Although nobody to my knowledge has ever done an empirical study, we all know that the overwhelming majority of protests are short-lived and end without any adverse consequences. Let protests run their course. Don’t do anything that might convert the administration’s reaction to a protest into a separate and independent ground for protest.

But if the situation shows signs of escalation and tension, and if a protest slowly evolves into something more ominous, then—

Don’t overreact. Be patient. Any administrator worth his or her salt can cope with a protest. But it takes guts, experience and sang froid to handle an escalating campus confrontation with campus activists hell-bent on achieving an idealistic goal. Although situations like that are dynamic and not easily susceptible to generalization, I would offer two pieces of practical advice.

Time works to your advantage. Students pay awesome amounts in tuition. Neither protestors nor uninvolved bystander students want their parents to start griping about classroom days missed. Eventually, exam time comes, followed by vacation—both of which can dissipate disruptions quickly. Without being disrespectful to students who are acting for the best of motives, it will always be true that our time horizon is longer than theirs. We can afford to be patient.

Try to convert disagreements over substance into agreements on process. Administrators may never agree with dissident students about the university’s policy for licensing apparel. But all can agree to set up a committee to study that problem and make recommendations. We can agree on the composition of the committee and the schedule for its deliberations. By the time the committee completes its work six months hence, the leaders of the protesting students may have graduated.

So, what can we learn from this? Well for starters, here is solid documentation we can show the reformists among us who are so enamored of "working within established processes" and who jump for joy when administrators suggest setting up an advisory committee to address issue x.

We also need to redouble our efforts to ensure continuity of both activist organizations and momentum across both winter break and, crucially, summer break. We need to make sure there's institutional memory in our groups, and rapid education and getting-up-to-speed for incoming freshmen.

We should also think about what kind of strategies and tactics will make the administration do exactly what it doesn't want to do, that is to say, overreact and look dictatorial/petty/unreasonable in the eyes of the public. History tells us that it's been the heavy hand of the administration that brings to activists the sympathy of the student body, and sometimes the community at-large. We should work on tactics that will maximize the perception of our reasonability and the administration's unreasonability. 

A close and critical examination of the kinds of demands we make is also warranted. We should be asking questions like:

  • What kinds of issue demands are difficult for the administration to divert into procedual hell?
  • How can we craft and frame demands so that they make the administration's stalling/process tactics look unreasonable to the campus community?
  • How can we create structural demands that short-circuit futile advisory committees and, once those demands are met, make it harder for the administration to deflect demands in the future?

The author of this paper is right - like (tenured) professors, high level administrators and trustees/regents can afford to take the long view, and can wait us out — if we let them.


Awesome post

Thanks for posting this! We're working on demands in our campus activist group right now.

Didn't Nixon commission a "how to stop those crazy hippy kids" report back in the 70s, too?

 Yep, that's right! It was

 Yep, that's right! It was the President's Commission on Campus Unrest:


There was quite a bit written about what to make of our activist predecessors, especially in the very last days of the sixties and the start of the seventies - when everyone from campus organizers to worried conservative think tanks thought that the coming decade would be even more potent than the 60s. (sigh)

Great Work!

Thanks for posting this document. It basically confirms almost everything I've experienced about campus activism and the administration's response to it. It just seemed like too much a coincidence that creation of a committee was an admin response to nearly every student protest.

I think it's also worth talking about how these kinds of strategies are used in city, state and national politics.

Now, to convince people that creating an "advisory committee" is not a legitimate response to demands...


Admission by those damned administrators that their main goal in dealing with student activism is to wait for us to graduate.

Sadly their plan of creating meaningless bureaucracy to waste our time and not go anywhere, often works. Don't fall for it!!! Keep your protests going, if necessary under the guise of a different "club", while others sort through the molasses of advisory committees. If it gets too boring, it may also be better to rotate delegates to those committees, and submit demands from your club or organization through that rotating person. This would help keep the damn committee from absorbing one of your members and controlling the process. YOU need to control it!

Great job with this essay Patrick! Can't wait to read more.


Thanks for the information.

Thanks for the information. It clears the facts about administration strategies on student activism.