Virginia Tech University Archive
Special Collections
University Libraries

The Role of the Academic Community in Campus Unrest

President T. Marshall Hahn Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
August 1971

This Symposium acknowledges the necessity of preparation for dealing with what really ought to be accurately termed campus disorder rather than campus unrest. The preparation for disorder, whether it's expected or not, is perhaps the best deterrent to experiencing such difficulty. Campus unrest and campus disorders probably have been studied as much as any phenomenon in higher education in recent years, perhaps over-studied.

Nearly every national organization concerned in any way with education has made a study and published a report on campus unrest. Future historians may read some of these reports and view them as major social documents of this era. These studies have shown the strength or, unfortunately, the weaknesses of our institutions of higher education and those who are responsible for the operation of those institutions in dealing with campus problems of this type.

One of the most basic factors underlying the numerous cases of severe campus disorder is the growing frequency of the use of demonstrations and mass assemblies as a means of expressing dissent or protest. These demonstrations and mass assemblies also represent one of the most complex problems we face, as we seek to protect the dimensions of freedom that must be afforded the various members of an academic community.

Consider for a moment the problems of mass assemblies. You know of the use of the mass assembly simply to attract the curious, to draw in the crowd, to get that large nucleus of people from which other activities may be generated. The mass assembly can be used to generate tension; in fact some of the same techniques that are used to draw in the curious and swell the crowd are ingredients of production of tension. The use of loudspeakers blaring rock music hour after hour, in some cases day after day, is among them. A crowd provides an anonymous cloak for individuals, so that individual acts of misconduct are encouraged. You are familiar with the rock throwing and the other individual acts that come out of a crowd because there is that protective cloak, and the individual involved in anonymous. A crowd of that type also can mill about without direction, and it is relatively easy for a troublemaker to goad such a crowd or an element of it into misconduct. You are all familiar with the way buildings can be occupied or destructive acts can grow out of mass assembly.

Mass assemblies and demonstrations on an academic campus represent potential for disorder and concern us then when we talk about being prepared to deal with such problems. Yet on the other hand, a peaceful demonstration is an effective means of expressing a particular point of view in a dramatic fashion. It is for this reason that peaceful demonstrations and assemblies are protected by the courts, though this adds to the complexity of this problem. Certainly we in an academic community, of all places, have an obligation to protect such basic freedoms as freedom of expression, including right to dissent; the right to express a different point of view; the right to protest. We should recognize, indeed proceed to emphasize to all elements of the academic community, that the most important way to protect such basic freedoms is to see that their being exercised does not in any way abridge the freedom. Certainly, just as we in the academic community have a fundamental obligation to protect freedom of expression, the right to dissent, we also have an overwhelming obligation to maintain safety and order, to preserve an environment in which free expression is feasible and can be encouraged. We need to see that those who want to go about business as usual do not have their rights imposed upon.

How, then, do we deal with such a complex obligation? How do we meet this responsibility? There's no magic answer. The answer must rest in the combination of preparation, organization, communication, integrity, plain hard work and in many cases endurance and stamina. The steering committee suggested that I make some comments about the role of the academic community in campus unrest. And in particular, let me make a few observations about the role of the central administration, the student personnel officers and the faculty, restricting my attention to those three elements because other segments of the Symposium will focus on campus security personnel, student roles, and external law enforcement activity. These are, of course, all related.

The central administration would accept, I'm sure, as it's first priority, that of seeing that there is adequate preparation -- preparation which can deter disorder, preparation which can minimize the disruptive impact if disorder should occur. This preparation, of course, covers a wide spectrum. It ranges all the way from having a schedule of facilities which can be called on as alternatives if, for example, a particular classroom building, for any reason, is not capable of being used for classes at a given time. The preparation would involve having alternate class schedules, so that at a moment's notice, if there is some good reason for it, classes my be moved to other locations. It also involves the timing of the decision of when to call in additional personnel and, for example, bring back people on overtime, so that you have personnel in buildings. It can involve simply having assured communications so that those people who will be involved in decision making are assured that the telephones will not be tied up; that there is a reliable way that the key decision making groups can communicate with one another.

There is a wide range of elements of preparation, but basically every institution, in my judgment, should have a plan, a planned response that has been well thought out before conditions of stress develop. The response thus can be as reasoned, and as moderate, and as effective as possible when that plan needs to be implemented. The central administration has the key responsibility in communication. In times of disorder there is confusion. Communication is difficult. It is hard to keep all elements of the university community informed. There will be conflicting statements spreading across campus. One of the tactics of those who seek to generate disorder is to spread misleading and false information. While it is difficult, every effort must be made to inform all of the elements who are involved on a university campus. This means making every effort to inform the faculty through white papers, through telephone messages to faculty leaders, through meetings with faculty leaders, so that the faculty itself can be more effective and will not fall prey to rumors. It means making every effort to inform student leaders and the student body as a whole, and this is, of course, very difficult. It may mean the use of a question and answer kind of program on the campus radio station. It may mean white papers distributed to students. It may mean meetings with student leaders. It may mean a variety of activities, but the importance of adequate communication, accurate flow of information in the face of the efforts to distort information, cannot be overemphasized.

When disorder is serious the use of outside law enforcement personnel is almost inevitable. Campuses are not able to maintain large enough security forces on a continuing basis to deal with the types of problems that can occur in times of stress and crisis. I think we are particularly fortunate in Virginia that we have such a level of professionalism in our law enforcement agencies, extending from the local agencies, in communities where college and universities are located, to our superb State Police. We should remember, however, that responses of law enforcement personnel are determined to a very large extent by the information we can make available to them. The flow of accurate information to the appropriate leaders of law enforcement agencies should long precede the peak of trouble on the campus because law enforcement agencies need to plan too, for distribution and movement of manpower. They have to think about what is happening, or may happen, at other locations. I believe it is the obligation of the colleges and universities to keep law enforcement personnel informed on a continuing basis about what potential problems might be.

The central administration, of course, had to recognize that it is where the buck stops, and the decisions will have to be made by the central administration. Nothing could be more disastrous than to have conflicting decisions made in differing components of the university community. This means that there needs to be a key central team that is accessible. This accessibility really must be on a 24-hour-a-day basis during a time of disorder or pending disorder.

The central administration has to be prepared to deal with every type of problem. It has to be prepared, for example, to deal with the individual who is unable to accept the level of responsibility which is required in a time of stress. There is quite a temptation during a time of stress for various elements of the academic community to articulate their desires that prompt, firm action be taken. But after the time of crisis is past, there tend to be, in some cases, changes of heart. That student, for example, who was a member of a mob throwing objects at law enforcement personnel as they were seeking to prevent serious disorder, becomes instead that "fine young man" or that "fine young lady" who was engaged in a "prankish incident" and "we mustn't be too harsh" in the disciplinary actions meted out. It is important that the central administration be consistent and be supportive --- be supportive of its disciplinary personnel, the student personnel officers, the law enforcement agencies. It must communicate what the governing factors are, and why the decisions that has to be made to prevent escalation of serious situations cannot later be eroded by the second guessing and the third guessing that can result when the situation begins to ease.

Turn for a minute to the student personnel division. The student personnel division, of course, represents the interface between the central administration and the student body. And this places tremendously important and challenging responsibilities on thesepersonnel. Obviously, if credibility is lurking with these people, then the credibility of the institution is threatened. The student personnel division needs to be respected. It must have a high level of credibility with the student body. It must be able to maintain this credibility in time of unrest and in times of disorder. Certainly, student personnel officers should be visible during time of unrest, at times of unrest developing into disorder, and in times of actual disorder. This visibility means being seen; it means being observing, and when necessary taking names and making identifications. But this being visible has an important ingredient that I think is sometime overlooked. If the disrupters in a mass assembly can suggest, "well, the Dean of Students is cowering under his desk somewhere," or "they're not here," they can encourage acts of bravado by individuals in a crowd. So the calm, poised, competent student personnel dean or counselor on the scene -- visible, talking with students, observing, answering questions -- is a helpful oil to place on the water.

There is another role that the student personnel division has in such situations. Those student personnel workers on the scene answering questions have an important role because students will ask repeatedly, "Well if I do such and such, is this a violation of the institutional policy?" "If this should occur is this a violation?" It's tempting but dangerous to equivocate, and straight answers should be given. If the answer is, "I don't know," or "We'll see," you have increased the likelihood that an undesirable action will occur, and you have weakened your position as far as subsequent disciplinary or civil actionwould go.

So this interface of the university, the student personnel division, has a key role to play, and it is important that this visible presence and a calm, competent, poised manner, be readily apparent and perceived by the students themselves.

Finally, the faculty. The faculty, too, has an important role. The faculty role is perhaps the most complex in some respects because in one sense faculty members tend not to be involved, but their very noninvolvement is a form of involvement. In the first place, whenever there are protests and demonstrations, and expressions of particular points of view, you can be confident that there are some faculty actively involved in a peaceful fashion, expressing a particular point of view. But as the mass assembly perhaps escalates into disruption and disorder, then the lack of involvement of faculty is frequently misinterpreted by students to mean that the faculty condone such means of expressions. It is important that we encourage the faculty to make their stand clearer and more visible--make it very clear that disruption and disorder will not be tolerated in any sense. If students understood more clearly that while faculty members, in some cases, may support a particular point of view that these students are expressing, they do not support any escalation into disorder, students would be less inclined to allow their activities to escalate.

Finally, let me make a comment or two about the need to distinguish more clearly between campus unrest and campus disorder. I am a little concerned that the title of this symposium is the "Symposium on Campus Unrest," because unrest, ferment, the searching out of new ideas and concepts, are healthy ingredients of an academic campus. An academic community, of all places, must be a place on the frontier of knowledge -- seeking new ideas, inquiring, experimenting, hammering out new concepts and ideas into pragmatic, practical solutions. Healthy ferment and unrest have always been ingredients of a university community and must continue to be. WE need to make the distinction, on the campus and off the campus, of the difference between unrest and disorder, between dialogue and disruption.

We have a serious backlash in the support of higher education. There is a very evident deterioration in the climate of support for our colleges and universities nationally, and we see this problem beginning to be present in our State too. There are several reasons for this. One, of course, is the urbanization of our state; the greater concentration of people in urban areas and the resulting growth of their problems and their efforts in seeking state and federal financial assistance in dealing with those problems. As a result there is higher priority being placed for support for the whole gamut of urban needs and this had tended to add to the competition for the public dollar that higher education faces. The downturn in the economy is a factor relating to the climate of support for higher education. There are public impressions, greatly exaggerated in many cases, of the difficulties of college graduates in some disciplines, and graduate degrees recipients in some disciplines, in obtaining employment. The result is a public impression or a public question asking, “Have we gone too far in education? But the biggest problem is the public disenchantment with higher education -- the difficulty that lay people have in distinguishing between unrest and disorder. They see in the press accounts of a demonstration and the do not make the distinction between the demonstration and a disorderly activity. They hear about a faculty member articulating an unpopular point of view, and they do not make the distinction between that kind of activity and the faculty member who might condone disorder, who fortunately is very rare.

The colleges and universities face, then, a very complicated and a very important challenge in making this distinction between unrest and disorder on the campus and off the campus. Off the campus we have to articulate more clearly this distinction. We have to obtain a better public understanding that these young ladies and young men who are on our campuses are their sons and daughters. They are no worse than when they came to us; in fact, they are the best we have, they are the hope of the future. And the great majority, as you all know, are fine young people. We have to make the public understand that long hair, new life styles, and other hang-ups not withstanding, these young people are the hope of our society. And the great majority of them in no way support or condone disorder, even though large numbers may participate in a demonstration.

On the campus we have to deal with that very knotty dilemma of how best to protect those freedoms that are represented in demonstrations and mass assemblies and in protests of various types; and yet we also must prevent those activities from escalating into disorder which tramples the rights of others and which then further erodes the climate of support for higher education.

It's a complex challenge.

URL: ""
Last updated: April 9, 1997