Adapting your messaging amid political flux: what Columbia did wrong 

Adapting your messaging amid political flux: what Columbia did wrong 

The PR and marketing department at Columbia University must be tearing their hair out. 

It can be hard for institutions to know whether to express an opinion on global events or remain neutral. However, Columbia University is proving an example of what not to do. For the last two weeks, the campus has seen protests and counter-protests, student encampments, police crackdowns, faculty mobilisation, building takeovers, student suspensions and evictions. 

The protests started on 17th of April when students set up an encampment to demonstrate their support for Palestinians. They demanded that Columbia University divest endowment funds from arms manufacturers and defence tech companies that do business with Israel’s government, describing these companies as profiting “from Israeli apartheid, genocide and military occupation of Palestine.” 

How did Columbia respond? 

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By Beyond My Ken: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

The university’s response to the current protests was swift and controversial. Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik called in the NYPD to clear the student encampment, kicking off further protests. 

Hundreds of Columbia students have been arrested and suspended in a move that has drawn widespread condemnation from academics, students and members of the public. Columbia’s association of university professors have called for a vote of no-confidence against Columbia president Minouche Shafik.

“Armed counter-terrorism police on campus, student arrests and harsh discipline were not the only path through this crisis,” their statement reads, describing “shocking failures of decision-making and judgement over the last seven months.” 

What’s more, the university’s response has sparked further protests that have since spread across colleges all over the US and further afield. 

Student groups at many different universities are voicing similar divestment demands, faculty are walking out to defend the encampments, and members of the public are showing up to support or counter the protesters. 

Over 2000 students and faculty members have been arrested to date on dozens of college campuses across the country. In the age of social media and citizen journalism, the images of police arrests and crackdowns on protests are travelling further and faster, and headlines are being generated around the world, with Columbia the epicentre of a media storm. 

The UN human rights chief Volker Turk sounded his concern that “some of the law enforcement actions across a series of universities seem disproportionate in their impacts…It must be clear that legitimate exercises of the freedom of expression cannot be conflated with incitement to violence and hatred.”  

Governance and good public relations are not mutually exclusive

What can we learn from the unfolding events at Columbia University, where the administration’s handling has prompted federal complaints

It certainly raises a lot of questions about how universities and other educational institutions respond to both global events and related student protests – questions such as:  

  • What is your role as an institution? 
  • Should you express an opinion on global events or remain neutral? 
  • How do your actions impact a diverse student body – especially if you’re an institution like Columbia, where 45% of your students belong to a minority?  

Administrations have had ample time to consider these questions, which begs the question: why has the official response at so many universities been so misjudged? 

A history of student protest

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By Vhotchki: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Columbia is no stranger to student protest. There’s a significant tradition there, dating back to the 1960s when students mobilised against the university’s ties to the Vietnam War effort and its plans for a segregated gymnasium in the Morningside Heights neighbourhood of Manhattan. 

The protests culminated in a dramatic occupation of several university buildings by students, sparking a widely publicised standoff with university administration and resulting in the arrest of hundreds of demonstrators. 

This event not only brought national attention to the anti-war movement but also prompted significant changes within Columbia itself, including the establishment of open admissions policies and increased student representation in university governance.

Since then, Columbia University has remained a focal point for student activism on issues ranging from racial justice to divestment from fossil fuels. So, it was only a matter of time before students protested in support of Palestine. Yet despite this long tradition of protest, the university still doesn’t seem to know how to deal with it. 

Author and former Yale lecturer Jim Sleeper, writing in the Guardian, points to the counter-example of Yale president Kingsman Brewster. During the anti-war student protests at Yale in the 60s, Brewster supported the demonstrations, refusing to allow police on campus and opening it up to protesters.

He was severely criticised by some Yale alumni, but he managed to keep the campus open and tranquil as other universities (including Columbia) were engulfed in protest. “Maybe we’re finding that some university presidents now are not closely enough in touch with their students,” Sleeper points out, “and could be a little bit more canny and sophisticated in building trust and doing something affirmative.”

How strategy can help administrations respond

Certainly, calling the police on student protesters is not a great look for a university as a space for discussion and debate, especially in a country that values freedom of speech as part of its constitution. And lots of academics and university administrators are wondering what the impact of the crackdowns will be.

Short term, classes have moved online and graduation ceremonies have been cancelled. But what will the long-term fallout be from these protests in terms of applications and funding, not to mention institutional reputation? 

Maybe universities dealing with student protests should consider their responses in the light of their marketing strategy. They should already know who they are targeting (donors? employees? future students?) and how they are positioning themselves. When formulating their response to protest, it might be worthwhile considering who will be applying to that university in the next five years, and how the institution’s decisions might impact that. 

These types of missteps can seriously harm an institution’s brand. Columbia University describes its core values in the following way:

“At Columbia, we strive to educate future generations, create knowledge that will take humanity forward, and invest in community, both locally and globally.”

This mission sits uneasily alongside the images in global media of a phalanx of police in riot gear marching on a university campus. 

Five steps to a strategic approach

So, what does a strategic approach need to take into consideration when responding to student protests in support of Palestine? Let’s take a look: 

  1. Transparent communication

Universities should already prioritise open and transparent communication with their student body, faculty, staff, and the broader community. This is even more important in times of political flux, providing regular updates on institutional responses to political events and protests, as well as actively engaging in good faith dialogue with student activists. 

  1. Commitment to values

Most universities are committed to core values such as diversity, inclusion, academic freedom, and social responsibility. But what happens when these values run up against financial investments in arms tech or fossil fuels? It’s not enough for universities to articulate these values in their messaging – they need to demonstrate them in their actions, too. Otherwise, they run the risk of looking like hypocrites – a death knell for any messaging strategy based on transparency. 

  1. Empathetic engagement

Universities should demonstrate empathy and sensitivity to the concerns and experiences of their students, particularly those from marginalised or underrepresented communities. What does this look like? Actively listening to your students, acknowledging their grievances, and taking meaningful action to address systemic issues of inequality and injustice both within the university and in the broader society. What does this NOT look like? Cancelling your Muslim valedictorian’s graduation speech because you’re afraid of what she might say. 

  1. Educational initiatives

Universities can leverage the academic resources and expertise of their staff to facilitate constructive dialogue and education around political issues and social justice movements. This may involve organising forums, panel discussions, workshops, and other educational initiatives to provide students with opportunities for informed debate, encourage them to participate in the democratic process, and show them how to advocate for meaningful social and political change. 

  1. Adaptability and flexibility

Universities should remain flexible and adaptable in their messaging in response to unfolding events. Adopting a proactive, values-driven and student-centred approach is the most effective way to adjust your messaging and navigate political flux without alienating current or future students, faculty members or donors. 

Upholding values and protecting your brand 

As it stands, Columbia University’s crackdown on protests has provoked a huge backlash. The administration was attempting to balance free speech rights with complaints that the protests are antisemitic and have made Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. 

However, calling the police on campus made headlines around the world, and attracted even more support to the student protests. It also doesn’t seem that Jewish students and faculty feel any safer on campus. An anonymous Jewish student has filed a lawsuit seeking to “hold Columbia accountable for failing to provide a safe educational environment for its students.” So, a fail on all counts. 

Protesting a genocide and calling for divestment from arms manufacturers are difficult positions to argue with. So, the challenge that Columbia and other US universities are facing is how to balance their books with protecting their reputation and, arguably more importantly, being on the right side of history. After all, if you’re siding against a national student movement, history shows us that you’re probably on the wrong side. 

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