Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Trying (Too) Hard to Relive the 1960s

This story may not get much beyond regional coverage, but for those of us in higher education, it's an interesting one:

About 100 students protesting a plan to offer high-priced courses at Santa Monica College this summer tried to storm into a meeting of the college's Board of Trustees on Tuesday evening. 
A handful of protesters suffered minor injuries as campus police tried to prevent dozens of students chanting, "Let us in, let us in" and "No cuts, no fees, education should be free," from disrupting the meeting during a public comment period.

There are a number of notable items here. What's not so surprising is that a group of people, obviously quite exercised about a decision being taken by the college's board of trustees, decided that their disagreement gave them a right to try to disrupt the proceedings.

In the heat of the moment, there is an admittedly fine line between "my voice should be heard" and "I can shout you down and stop you from doing what you're doing". But that line is there, and anybody trying to protest against somebody else's decision needs to understand their core options. Either you persuade those who have the decision-making power to change their minds, or you force them to do something other than what they intended. The latter almost never works in our society, because groups of protesters rarely have the power necessary to force a different outcome - if they did, they would use it. But sometimes, people lose sight of that distinction and try to force the outcome they want anyway.

Persuasion, of course, can sometimes come from gathering a crowd and loudly proclaiming an opinion. But it's not as successful as you might think. It helps if that opinion makes sense. Shouting "education should be free" persuades nobody; you might as well shout "the sky is green". Nothing is free.

The real argument is, who should pay for it? If students want to argue that they should not pay for their own education, they had better be able to articulate a really clear vision of who will, and how that is going to come about. You have to convince other people with money that they should pay for your education. I'm not saying that's impossible - but it's not very easy, and shouting at a board of trustees isn't going to get it done. Contrary to some popular belief, boards don't conjure money out of the air.

Finally, it's worth noting the response of the board to this particular protest [emphasis added]:

No arrests were made
The meeting room was cleared and trustees adjourned to another room. Santa Monica police were called in to secure the perimeter of the building. 
President Chui Tsang said the small boardroom wasn't able to accommodate all of the students who wanted to speak and that an adjacent room had been provided for the overflow. 
When the meeting resumed, most of the students were allowed to address trustees from an adjoining room. Many urged the board to find other solutions to maintain access. 
Board Chair Margaret Quinones-Perez announced at the end of the comment period that the college would pay medical bills for any students who suffered injuries during the disturbance.

Here's a lesson in calm crisis management. The board continued its meeting safely. Everyone who wanted to speak was allowed to. And anyone hurt in the fracas - even if their injuries were the result of their own behavior - would be treated at college expense. For a college in financial trouble, this sends a powerful signal: yes, we're listening. Even when those doing the talking cross the line of force, we're still listening.

This won't be the last time that a college faces these kinds of tough choices, or that students want to express their opinions about them. Hopefully both students and boards will learn from this incident. For students: stop pretending that quasi-violent mass action will get you somewhere - it won't. For boards: remain calm, and be the adults in the room even if the students aren't.

The lesson to both is simple: persuasion is built on respect. Treat the other with respect, and you are much more likely to get what you want - or, at least, closer to what you want than you might otherwise.

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