Trustee Talk, Issue 8: Responding to Community Unrest (Part 1 of 2)


How should our board respond if our community experiences events similar to the shooting and protests that recently occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, and other communities throughout the country?


Upheaval in a community caused by the perception of racial prejudice in a police force is an issue a college board may not have anticipated. However, the impact of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent protests and police actions in the area demonstrate potential challenges that boards and presidents could find themselves confronting. There are steps the college should take immediately in responding to such community unrest. Just as important is proactively working with the affected communities to reduce the chance of community violence spillover onto the campus. Every college should have plans in place for handling an emergency or disaster of such magnitude, as similar events can happen in any community, be it urban or rural. At the same time, community colleges are in a unique position to work proactively with the local community to reduce the likelihood of violent outbreaks.

In researching this topic, we talked with St. Louis Community College Board Chair, Dr. Craig Larson, about how the college's board responded to the shooting of Michael Brown and the subsequent community unrest in Ferguson. Based on this conversation, we've assembled the following list of tips for your board to keep in mind should it ever face similar events:

Give the college's administration leeway to respond.

After the shooting, the St. Louis Community College board supported the administration's efforts to fulfill its role and responsibility to provide a quick and appropriate response. The board was kept fully informed. Dr. Larson noted: "We were very fortunate to have a president in place at Florissant Valley, Dr. Ruby Curry, who was extremely well connected and liked within the local community and within the city's African American community. She helped keep the campus open and safe and she helped Florissant Valley staff connect with students." Boards should remember that the college's response in the wake of such events should be led by the administration. The board should give the administration room to carry out its responsibilities, while the board can instead focus on the larger policy issues related to protecting and providing a safe environment for all.

It is part of the board's fiduciary responsibilities to ensure that the college has put in place the appropriate guidelines and safety systems. These would include an emergency action plan that is coordinated with official emergency agencies such as the police and fire departments, effective communication systems within and external to the college, and partnerships with local leaders with strong ties to communities in the service area. The board has a unique responsibility of supporting the administration while asking key questions and ensuring that key policy directives are in place.

Promote both student safety and an open forum for dialogue on campus.

Dr. Larson stated that a significant part of the board's discussion following the shooting and subsequent protests in the community was centered on "the role of the college in providing a forum for civil discourse and keeping students, faculty, and staff safe." The board examined how both of these interests could be promoted, and the administration took the lead on the college's response.

On the security side, the college's administration promoted campus police visibility and encouraged officers to speak openly with the campus community so that students and others would feel the campus police were present for their safety and security and available for dialogue given the heightened tension between the Ferguson police and the community at large. The administration also held open forums for students to engage in a dialogue about the shooting. Board members facing similar incidents in their own communities should support efforts to preserve the safety of those on campus while at the same time facilitating a larger discussion of the issues: civil unrest, campus and community connections and spillover, security systems, emergency response systems, and effective communication systems.

It is important for board members to appreciate the value of the right type of communication in sending the right kind of message to students, staff and faculty about their safety. Appropriate messages to calm the waters and support safe dialogue are of utmost importance. This is not the time for trustees or others to muddy the waters with personal views or agendas, but rather to assure that the administration is sending the right messages the right ways, whether by social or traditional media.
Support the "safe haven" concept.

In responding to events such as those that occurred in Ferguson, the board should support efforts to establish the college as a place of safety within the community. Dr. Larson noted that St. Louis Community College was seen as a "safe haven" during the events in Ferguson. The college campus became a place where students could peacefully engage in open dialogues about the shooting, expressing their concerns in an environment where they could be sure that none of the violence seen in the streets of Ferguson would spread onto the campus. Board members facing similar unrest in their communities should discuss what could be done to establish the college as a safe haven for community conversations.

Investigate the policy lessons that can be learned from the experience.

Unprecedented events that strongly affect a community can draw the board's attention to important policy areas. The violence that erupted in Ferguson was due to many factors, including high unemployment, low educational attainment rates as well as racial discrimination. Dr. Larson noted that the St. Louis Community College Board of Trustees focused on local critical issues such as examining completion rates and ways the college could partner with K-12 school systems to increase graduation rates and with local businesses to reduce unemployment. A board confronting similar events in their community can use the experience to kindle action on important policy issues and their accountability responsibilities.

The reality is that community unrest and demonstrations could happen in any community. As uncomfortable as it may be, they are part of the American tradition of freedom of expression. It is important for boards to ask themselves which communities are involved in the unrest and ask "Has the college provided adequate services to these communities?" This reflects the board's accountability role. Would your board be ready to respond?

Concluding Thoughts

If the community served by a college is affected by events such as those that took place in Ferguson, the board must allow the administration to respond yet also address the larger policy implications raised. Is the board willing to support the long-term commitment colleges need to make to help their communities? Will the college see itself as a neighbor or like some other institutions build a higher fence separating themselves from the community? Is there expertise on campus to handle community eruptions? Is there coordination with leadership in the disaffected communities, and if not, how can this be established? Have board members assessed the college's relationship with local law enforcement, community and business leaders that could be used to communicate the importance of peaceful protests, and with the local media to position the college as a community center where peaceful, thoughtful, open and even challenging dialogue can take place without fear of violent outbursts?

These are complex and important socioeconomic, political and racial issues to consider. Boards should examine their mission statement and core values across the institution. Additionally, Dr. Larson told us that St. Louis Community College was able to respond effectively in part because it is well connected with the community. A board assessing its readiness for such an event should examine its mission and the college's relationship with the community and how the institution can work with key stakeholders to make violent protests less likely to take place.

Disclaimer: This newsletter is offered for general informational purposes only. It is not offered as and does not constitute legal advice.

Do YOU have a Question for us? Email your question to: Norma Goldstein