The University of Virginia became the focal point of the increasingly dangerous challenge faced by higher education leaders in balancing a commitment to free speech with extremist activism. As the Washington Post reported, a Unite the Right rally by white nationalists and supremacists escalated into violence on campus during the weekend of Aug. 13, leaving students and protesters bloodied. Law enforcement was not prepared for the confrontation. One person died when a car plowed into the crowd and two state troopers were killed in a helicopter crash related to the Charlottesville events. The state’s governor called for a state of emergency to try to calm the situation.

The Charlottesville incident highlights the new challenges that higher education leaders face in dealing with these explosive and toxic situations. For one, students are becoming more politically active. A report entitled Navigating the New Wave of Student Activism found that 10 percent of incoming first-year college students in 2015 said they are likely to become involved with some form of protest. Almost 70 percent of respondents also said they would support policies limiting offensive speech on campus.

In addition, higher education institutions offer a ready target for agitators looking to reach young minds while also creating chaos. “Speaking on a campus is a symbolic significant act,” Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism and assistant professor of Hostos Community College of the City University of New York, told Inside Higher Ed. “It has a lot of cultural salience in the United States.”

Growing Protests

What exploded in Charlottesville has been brewing for a while. For instance, African American students at the University of Missouri protested what they considered race-based marginalization on the predominantly white campus. Issues began in 2010 when two white students scattered cotton balls in front of the university’s Black Culture Center. Four years later, unarmed black teenager Michael Brown was killed in nearby Ferguson (located 120 miles away from Columbia), which led to the start of the Black Lives Matter movement. A number of incidents in fall 2014 – including verbal and written racial slurs, the creation of Concerned Student 1950, a hunger strike by a student leader, a student boycott and finally a decision by the football team’s black players to forego practice and games — led to increasingly heightened tensions on campus over the weeks. Those events led to the resignation of Missouri University System President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin.

The current crop of extremist protesters started showing up on campus in the aftermath of the noxiously-toned 2016 presidential election.  In December 2016, alt-right leader Richard Spencer accepted the invitation of Preston Wiginton, a white nationalist who briefly attended Texas A&M, to speak at the university. Spencer did speak that evening to about 400 people; of those audience members, approximately 100 seemed to espouse his beliefs. At the same time, about 1,200 protesters as well as Texas A&M students, faculty members, staff and community members participating in a prayer vigil gathered outside Texas A&M’s Memorial Student Center, where Spencer’s speech was held. In addition, 7,000 students, faculty and community members gathered in Kyle Field (which is located directly across from the Memorial Student Center) for a university-organized Aggies United event designed to highlight the university’s commitment to its core values and diversity.

Becoming Proactive

Many university leaders have encouraged students to avoid these types of events because of their safety, but some students – especially those who are part of groups that perceive themselves to be under attack – feel that they need to take a stand. Unfortunately, the mix of people attending these events can become explosive, especially when white supremacists, outside “antifascist” activists and radical left-wing groups – none of whom have ties to the higher education institution – enter the fray.

Therefore, it becomes important for higher education leaders to take a strong stand in defining these agitators. Lecia Brooks, the Southern Poverty Law Center outreach director, encouraged college presidents to strongly denounce and identify people such as Spencer as white supremacists and neo-Nazis so that young white college men are not sucked into their movement. She also encouraged higher education leaders and faculty members to help students understand the power of nonviolent resistance, such as what was used in the Civil Rights movement.

Brooks also encourages universities to sponsor alternative events to pull the media focus away. For example, Texas A&M’s proactive approach in creating Aggies United as a counterpoint to Spencer’s visit in 2016 resulted in the university being named to the top spot in the Anti-Defamation League’s 2016 list of “Top 10 Most Inspirational Moments.” Other events that were recognized by the group included the community response to the Pulse nightclub shooting and the participation of the team of international refugees in the Brazil Olympic Games.

Changing Policies

Few university leaders had anticipated the need to review their policies but increasingly, this step offers a way out of a potentially violent clash. Auburn University’s experience offers a cautionary tale. According to NPR, Spencer rented an Auburn meeting hall through a third party. Inside Higher Ed noted that Spencer successfully won a lawsuit against Auburn University because the university at the time had policies that allowed any outsider to rent the use of a building. Spencer spoke at the university in April 2017.

In the spring following Spencer’s 2016 visit to it campus, Texas A&M changed its policies so that the university would no longer allow outside speakers or groups that did not have an affiliation with the university to rent space in its campus facilities.  This policy change also requires external speakers who want to hold an event on A&M’s campus to secure a sponsorship from a recognized Texas A&M student organization before submitting a request to rent space in one of the universities’ facilities. The policy also states that student organizations that sponsor an unaffiliated group or speaker must attend the event and also “assume responsibility for any unpaid costs or property damage associated with the event.” However, securing a student organization sponsor doesn’t guarantee that Texas A&M officials will approve the request. Factors such as space, weather and the academic schedule are considered as well.

That policy change proved helpful for the university in avoiding another visit by Spencer in the wake of the Charlottesville event. Spencer planned to return to Texas A&M on Sept. 11 for a “White Lives Matter” rally put on by Wiginton. However, Wiginton could not reserve A&M facilities because none of the university’s 1,200-plus campus organizations invited Wiginton or choose to sponsor the Sept. 11 event.  Wiginton then decided to schedule an outdoor event at Rudder Plaza (which is located in the middle of Texas A&M’s campus) during a school day. He titled the press alert as “Today Charlottesville, Tomorrow Texas A&M.”

After consulting with law enforcement and studying the event, Texas A&M leaders decided to cancel the event. “Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus,” a Texas A&M press release stated. “Additionally, the daylong event would provide disruption to our class schedules and to student, faculty and staff movement (both bus system and pedestrian).” In the wake of this decision, Wiginton released a statement that he no longer plans to come to Texas A&M.

Other universities have followed a similar path recently. Both the University of Florida and Michigan State University canceled or declined to rent space for an event featuring Spencer. These universities also cited what happened in Charlottesville for their decision.

Final Thoughts

Higher education leaders must find ways to be proactive in developing policies that protect their campuses, create programmatic offerings that channel student and media attention into positive avenues, and look for ways to work closely with state and local law enforcement officials to make sure that an encore of the deadly Charlottesville tragedy doesn’t happen on their campuses.  Because, for the foreseeable future, colleges and universities will continue to face challenges from fringe groups that want to create divisiveness on campuses. Changing policies to bar campus outside speakers from the groups and refusing to rent the institution’s facilities offers a way out of a potentially violent clash, but inclusion is critical for the way forward in today’s society.