My daughter arrived home for the summer just a few days before protests erupted on her college campus. She wanted to get involved in the activism and, concerned for her safety and well-being, I sat down with her for a discussion.

Pro-Palestinian protestors in front of GWU campus building A pro-Palestinian protest at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, in May 2024 (Ted Eytan / CC BY-SA 2.0)

As we talked, it became clear that she was not well-informed about campus policy. She couldn’t answer my questions about potential consequences and guidelines. I advised her to educate herself on the complex range of issues, understand her rights, seek out her institution’s policies—perhaps in her student handbook, if she knew where it was, or in conversation with her advisor—and call me if she needed bail money or legal representation!

When I talk to my daughter about these topics, I wear my parent hat, but as a qualitative researcher at the Constructive Dialogue Institute (CDI), I often find myself asking similar questions of higher education leaders. What is your familiarity with your institutional policies? Where are your policies kept? Who reads them?

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For several months this year, I conducted interviews with 21 college presidents, administrators, faculty, and staff (from civic engagement centers to offices of diversity, equity and inclusion [DEI]) about their goals for their campus communities around the 2024 election, another major source of conflict on campuses today. These interviews were in addition to conducting other interviews and reading as much information as possible from education leaders about lessons learned from past elections.

My team and I collated these learnings into an election guidebook to share knowledge about what works to contain campus conflict and transform discourse. The insights are intended to assist college educators and campus leaders in encouraging students to become thoughtful, engaged citizens. The interconnected social and intellectual skills that students acquire to thrive in postsecondary civic spaces are invaluable across all facets of their lives. 

Why policy review is needed

According to the cultural design group, The Gaping Void, “Culture is something you can design, and you design it with your decisions.” One of the places where culture is operationalized is in policies. Policies are tangible signals of institutional culture.

The research that led to the creation of the election guidebook stemmed from an awareness that higher education is in a painful cycle of high conflict, putting strain on the culture of many campus communities. As we head into a potential repeat of the 2020 election, the climates on U.S. campuses could get worse before they get better.

When we asked about previous election experiences, we heard that many institutions felt under-prepared for the 2024 election. University leaders told us they were hoping for a climate of respect and civility, but they were anticipating some anxiety, polarization, and hostility.

Campus tension resulting from the Israel–Hamas conflict exposed gaps and inconsistencies in existing campus policies related to speech and demonstrations. In a study of 331 provosts from a mix of public and private universities, Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research found that almost 40% of provosts think their speech policies need revisiting. In addition, only around a third of their institutions had policies for dealing with “student complaints about professors’ extramural speech” and “online trolling or other outside attacks on professors.”

A critical question I commonly ask of higher education leaders is “When was the last time you conducted a policy audit?” At CDI, our research suggests that institutions should regularly review and revise these policies to ensure they are fair and transparent and that they uphold the community’s values. Colleges and universities should:

  • Start with their physical environment. Examine speaker- and event-oriented policies. Revisit policies around posting fliers and other materials.
  • Consider who has awareness of these policies, where they are housed, and how and when they were last disseminated.
  • Develop content-neutral restrictions on where, when, and how speech can be made (referred to as time, place, and manner restrictions) or risk violating the First Amendment.
  • Evaluate policies using scenarios that their campus community would recognize that can provide clarity and help make policies feel relevant to their unique context.
  • Enforce these policies consistently to scaffold institutional trust and help them avoid inadvertently creating their own crisis.

Policy review may not be popular, and a participatory review process will take time. In a recent New York Times article, PEN America’s CEO, Suzanne Nossel, stated, “There is this tension between wanting to enforce the rules and also acknowledging that college is a learning environment. You want people to be able to make mistakes without facing lifelong consequences because if you’re too heavy-handed, it can reinforce this sense of grievance.” The same article mentioned that the University of Michigan had drafted a disruptive activity policy aimed at providing improved clarity and clearer definitions of terms. However, the draft faced criticism for being “too vague and broad” regarding activities such as impeding the flow of foot traffic on campus and interrupting lectures or performances. In response to these concerns, Michigan’s president indicated that they plan to take their time and collect community feedback on the draft.

Policy enforcement during an active crisis can be perceived as an abrupt escalation. This perception may arise from a history of inconsistent adherence to or enforcement of policies at the institution. A study conducted by CDI and More In Common found that students’ views on speech are closely tied to their beliefs about systemic fairness and collective responsibility. Michigan appears to be addressing accountability through a key issues tracker and a campus climate update, both available on their website.

Three lenses through which to view campus policy

Based on our interviews, three principles emerged that could help campuses prepare for the 2024 election and create cultures that foster open dialogue and mutual respect.

1. Rather than treating the 2024 election as an isolated event, leverage your existing campus investments in cultural transformation and trust building. In the fall of 2023, staff from the University of San Diego’s (USD) student affairs and public safety departments collaborated to facilitate community discussions about DEI. USD benefits from an existing emergency management infrastructure, including an assembly policy and a critical incident response framework, both updated within the last two years. However, inspired by our election guidebook, USD’s emergency preparedness manager began to consider two implications for his campus.

First, there were some vulnerabilities in their assembly policy that warranted review. During their policy audit, they realized that the vulnerabilities in the assembly policy could largely be addressed through time, place, and manner restrictions. This language typically includes guidelines about event hours and duration, designated areas and restricted zones, allowable use of amplification, and information about permits. By specifying these details, many college campus assembly policies aim to balance the right to free expression, and inclusivity and belonging values, with the need to maintain safety and fulfill the primary mission of the institution.

USD’s existing policy designated only one person for assembly approval, which was neither fair nor practical. Consequently, they drafted a new approval process and recognized the need for an appeals process for denied assembly requests. The revised policy is now underway and may take up to 12 months to complete the stakeholder review.

Second, USD realized that maybe they could use their existing crisis response framework for civil unrest or DEI flashpoints, informed by what they had been hearing in their community forums. Last summer, Student Affairs and the Department of Public Safety began to think about what the election cycle might look like and their state of readiness to address potential unrest. The result was a three-part discussion forum at the intersection of DEI and preparedness. As a community, they sought to explore how to handle extremely uncomfortable discussions while also supporting young people in engaging in these conversations in a safe and enriching way.

  • Dialogue and policy

    The Constructive Dialogue Institute published the election guidebook, which raises the question: Why does an organization focused on dialogue care about policy? If culture is designed and experienced through decisions, policies embody those decisions. Policy is shaped, revised, and disseminated via dialogue. Norms, which exist in the liminal space before and around policy, are established through dialogue. As Seth Godin posits, culture changes horizontally—person to person—through relationships built on a foundation of dialogue. When conflict inevitably arises, dialogue becomes an essential resource for helping communities respond and rebuild.

2. Investing heavily in proactive strategies before November 2024, rather than relying solely on reactive measures, will pay dividends in preventing conflict. Muhlenberg College is an example of a school that is routinely updating policies and sharing them widely across campus.

Raising awareness of changes to campus policy is no small feat. At the outset of each semester, Muhlenberg College disseminates comprehensive policy updates via email. Subsequently, the institution uses both email and social media platforms to apprise student government, clubs, and organizations of the latest policy developments. To bolster the understanding and implementation of recent updates, six training sessions are scheduled throughout the semester. Mandatory for all student clubs, these sessions incorporate case studies and a dedicated question-and-answer segment.

Looking ahead, Muhlenberg College has plans for a similar series in the upcoming fall term, commencing with the dissemination of their partisan political policy. The institution intends to highlight this policy prominently at events such as the club fair and other student-sponsored activities. To ensure broad policy distribution, including to resident advisors, the nonpartisan, student-led political engagement organization, Berg Votes, will play a pivotal role.

Student clubs and organizations are a very effective way to spread new policies, with many student touchpoints and word-of-mouth opportunities.

3. Campuses require proactive leadership and a clear vision from the top to inspire coordinated efforts across every layer of an institution’s system. In November 2023, the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) formed a Bears Vote Coalition co-chaired by the dean of student development and the assistant vice president of administration. Since the coalition’s founding, it has selected cochairs and has rounded out a cross-functional team to meet its goals, one of which is to “increase civic education, voter education, and political discourse programming and initiatives.”

The initiative charge document explicitly connected their efforts with institutional learning objectives, student affairs learning aims, and the organization’s vision. The coalition launched a web presence in March 2024 that prioritizes resources and policy information related to freedom of expression. On it, UNC clarifies the kind of culture they seek to provide, stating, “Distinctive service to society can only be offered in a student-centered atmosphere of integrity that is grounded in honesty, trust, fairness, respect, and responsibility.”

Based on lessons learned from past elections, where campus efforts were more siloed and policies were sometimes inconsistently followed, engagement and logistics are more coordinated for the 2024 election. Representatives from across the campus, including campus police, student affairs staff, library services, administration, the general counsel, and the director of the student union, among others, are coordinating their efforts. For example, one of the co-chairs meets monthly with the associate deans of all the academic colleges to generate awareness of coalition efforts. As soon as their speech resources went live online, they began promoting those resources in weekly campus emails.

As fall 2024 nears, the coalition plans to embed engagement information into the school’s learning management system, making information extremely prominent and accessible for faculty and students.

I have sifted through a mountain of advice on choosing colleges, and I find myself returning to two suggestions. The first, from former university president Elaine Maimon, recommends “look[ing] closely at signs of respect at the colleges.” In this regard, I look closely at institutional policy and the example set by the university’s leaders, who I hope will act with my children’s future in mind. The second suggestion is a reminder that the choice should be rooted not in what the student is today, but who they hope to become. And I hope my children will become adults who pay attention and raise their voices, but who also prize community and cherish the feeling of connecting with other people, even if they don’t agree, for a fulfilling and surprising life of impact and contribution.

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