On April 21, The Echo released an Oct. 22, 2021 draft of The College’s Policy on Protests, Rallies, and Similar Events. Students were upset by the draft’s language, which they felt inhibited their free speech rights.
In 2019, President David Greene established a Presidential Task Force on Free Expression and Free Inquiry. The faculty and students on the taskforce aimed to review and evaluate current College policies and practices on freedom of expression and inquiry and recommend further measures to protect both free expression and the campus learning environment, among other things. They released a report that can be found on the College website.
Dean Karlene Burrell-McRae `94 explained that recent protest policy drafts were based on the Task Force’s report. The first such draft was created in January 2020.
“The initial draft was created by looking at other schools’ policies and processes,” Burrell-McRae said. “But that was after the collection and the review of all of the feedback that people gave when the report was being written. And so from those two things, a group of people tried to draft an initial policy. And then folks began going out to different groups.” Such groups included people involved in Student Government Association, hall staff, civic engagement, religious and spiritual life, and faculty and staff groups.
“We wanted to make sure [that] similar to the task force report being written… lots of people got a chance to have feedback,” she said.
Burrell-McRae and Richard Uchida ’79, Vice President, General Counsel, and Secretary of the College, were instrumental to the process.
“We found, as you know, student government and hall staff, and folks connected to civic engagement and religious and spiritual life, and different staffing groups and faculty members,” Burrell-McRae said that the search for feedback provoked “lots of spirited conversations, from the ‘why do we need to have it?’ To, ‘okay, if you have to have it, here are things we don’t particularly care about,’ or ‘it has to change.’ And so we collected that.”
After a brief pause amid the COVID-19 pandemic, administration created a second iteration of the policy in Sept. 2020. They are hoping to create another version of the policy over the summer.
“We have a complete other template where we’re literally just tracking, we have pages on pages of suggestions and recommendations and concerns that people have.” Burrell-McRae said.
“We don’t want to be reactive to something,” Burrell-McRae said, acknowledging concerns that the most recent draft came as a response to the Oct. 2 protests at the homecoming football game.
Burrell-McRae expressed that multiple aspects of the current policy need to be changed.
“We really need to start with elevating this idea of what it means to aim to be a restorative community,” she said. “And so I think we need to both start the policy with this idea of restoration and I think we need to be able to include [this] right up at the top.”
Students have expressed concerns that the policy sanctions all forms of protest, which Burrell-McRae explained is not intention of the policy.
“I want to articulate that disruption is part of protest. It’s inherent with protests,” she said. “We need to be very explicit that this policy is not suggesting that disruption shouldn’t or couldn’t happen. So those things need to be there. Because the truth is, places have become better because of disruption and protest. So we need to be able to sort of move that up front and center.”
“The way what people are reading from right now reads, it’s almost as if students have to get permission from someone to be able to have a protest, regardless of what form. So we really need to make sure that we’re clear that no, folks have a right to protest. And folks don’t need to come to anybody,” Burrell-McRae continued. “We have to go back and find ways to be able to say, ‘No, we know disruption will likely happen. And people have given us a lot of language to consider; examples of how we might be able to think about reframing that.”
Defining sanctioned disruption has proven difficult and complicated, and is one of the reasons the policy has taken so long to finalize. There are many components involved in defining disruption. It is a difficult line to draw, but administrators hope to develop guidelines that allow for fair case-by-case evaluation.
“We want to be fair; we want people to feel like we are actually celebrating folks having a choice to be able to act in the ways they want to act,” Burrell-McRae said. “I think the only thing that I would say is very clear, is if somebody is physically harmed; if there is violence.”
Violence, however, can also be difficult to define. Burrell-McRae said that physical and property violence are fairly clear-cut, but speech violence can be more nuanced. She explained that there is an all-College standard regarding physical and property violence, and that the protest policy will adhere to this standard.
She also stressed that inconvenience and disruption are two different things.
“We have to also make sure that we are articulating that well: folks might decide to disrupt by creating inconvenience… So I think we have to make that distinction as well,” Burrell-McRae said.
One of the most difficult parts of creating the policy has been trying to include the voices and concerns of over 3,000 community members.
Burrell-McRae said that it is “challenging working on something… when you’re trying to honor so many different constituents, so many different experiences, so many different voices, and recognizing that, no matter what you do, somebody isn’t going to be happy about it.”
“The most important piece is being able to create space for people to be able to share,” Burrell-McRae said. “Folks will be able to see themselves in the end product, even if it’s not all of what they wanted. And so for me, that’s both the eye opening and the affirming piece of balancing this.”
The Offices of the Provost and Human Resources have to consider how the policy applies to faculty and staff, respectively. Burrell-McRae explained that since it is an iterative process, the policy will likely need to be revisited regularly.
“We are not doing this with this idea that from the beginning, it’s going to be all of what we need or want it to be or it’s going to be alright,” she said. “So being open to creating the continued feedback loop over time [is important], because the people change, life changes, our environment and the way we think about things change. And so that has to be connected to how we think about this policy.”
Dean Burrel-McRae encourages students to comment or provide feedback on the current protest policy draft with this survey: https://forms.gle/Xqj2SBCix1HeFhMa7.
~ Elsa Russel ‘22