The Role and Responsibilities of Governing Boards in Response to Student Action

The Role and Responsibilities of Governing Boards in Response to Student Action

Randall W. Brumfield
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7274-9.ch003
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This chapter outlines the issues associated with free speech and student activism, and how contemporary practices adopted by college and university governing boards facilitate learning environments that protect and promote First Amendment ideals. In order to accomplish this, boards must balance the competing views of student free speech while absorbing a diverse array of public and political pressures. Scrutiny by students, elected officials, and media is increasingly placed on institutions to implement policies accommodating a wide range of stakeholder needs. Governing boards are therefore called on to provide leadership that is responsive to these interests.
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21St Century Complexities

In light of these pressures, how does an institution, or system of institutions and its governing authority balance a forum for free speech and student activism while effectively responding to the provocation given the pervasiveness of social media and 24-hour news cycles? The position and approach a system or governing board takes in response to student activism must be consistent with the mission of its institutions. In light of the legal, fiscal, and public image risks associated with decisions by governing bodies, actions by boards and systems are progressively tethered to the expectations held by institutional stakeholders and the community at-large. As student crises have transpired on campuses in recent years, colleges and universities within a system are finding added value in speaking as one voice so as to provide consistency and continuity of shared values and business operations.

Institutions and systems are increasingly grappling with understanding the extent to which a line should be drawn between free speech and that which is considered hate speech. A national poll conducted in 2015 by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale University found that 50% of students often felt intimidated to share views that were in opposition of those held by their peers and faculty, while another half indicated that they would support banning political satire on campus that lampooned a particular religion or ethnicity. Inasmuch, questions are raised as to the structure provided for a ‘safe space’ culture, one by which students feel empowered to exercise their voice without punitive action. With free speech being offered by students as a substitute rationale for harassment of their peers and other members of the campus community, these competing dynamics have prompted governing boards to rely on legal counsel to review existing measures and make policies that clearly delineating the difference between behavior that is protected speech and that which is considered harassment.

With the advent and proliferation of social media and its impact on student decision-making and activism, governing boards are faced with assessing their role in this evolution. Social media is a tool that can be used to provoke behavior, and seemingly less so to facilitate a productive dialogue. It is possible for comments to be made, a response to be provided, and an action to follow. This sequence is amplified when comments are not true or accurate, or are rendered by anonymous parties and targeted to specific individuals. Individual perspectives on situations similarly can distort how a comment is written and read. The enormity of social platforms and messaging is beyond that which most individuals who last attended college prior to 2003 are not familiar, when the popular MySpace social media website was introduced. Of course, this demographic would include many of today’s governing board members.

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