Helping Foster Discourse vs. Disruption

University leaders advise students on how to engage in demonstrations while staying safe and respecting others.

women's march
Protestors gather on the National Mall during the Women’s March in January. (Logan Werlinger/ GW Today)
September 08, 2017

By Kristen Mitchell

George Washington University administrators and staff are meeting with student groups to discuss available resources for students who might plan or participate in a protest this academic year.

In a polarized political climate, GW’s engaged student body and the Foggy Bottom campus’ proximity to the White House mean it is likely some students will participate in protests during their time at the university. Peter Konwerski, vice provost and dean of student affairs, said he wants to make sure students stay safe if they choose to protest.

“We have a long history of discourse on this campus, and we want to encourage that. We want it to be civil and respectful, and we want people to understand that the university needs to continue to operate,” he said. “In that spirit, we want to do everything we can to foster that kind of vigorous back-and-forth between students on any range of issues on a daily basis.”

Student protesters should work with the university to reserve space for a demonstration and are encouraged to inform GW of their plans. Students can work with DSA, the GW Police Department, the Center for Student Engagement and Events and Venues to ensure a meaningful and safe protest, Dr. Konwerski said. Administrators also will meet with students to discuss concerns they may have about campus policies or operations.

While GW students express their views, they should also be mindful of dissenting voices, Dr. Konwerski said. Students should never put themselves in a position that compromises their safety.

“We know there are people who are going to have divergent opinions, and despite that, we want to have a culture where our students will listen and be respectful and also present their argument and their position,” Dr. Konwerski said. “It’s an educational opportunity for our students.”

Darrell Darnell, senior associate vice president for safety and security, said many of the streets that pass through the Foggy Bottom campus are public streets where protesters can freely gather. Students should be mindful of these demonstrators when they navigate campus, he said.

“Our students should be aware that everyone has a First Amendment right for free speech and to protest,” he said. “We may not always like, and may in some cases find some speech repugnant, but that individual has a right to free speech and to protest, so we have to be respectful of that.”

GW Police will do everything possible to monitor protests and preserve a safe campus environment, Mr. Darnell said. He welcomes peaceful protests from students and asks them to follow university policies on demonstrations, he said.

“These are some difficult times for our country and the division in our country, but we want people to exercise their First Amendment rights, and we will do everything we can to make sure they can do it in a peaceful manner,” he said.

Student affairs leaders at all types of colleges and universities have been bracing for increased protests on campuses, Dr. Konwerski said.

“College campuses tend to be places where there is a history of willingness to talk about difficult issues, and I think the reality is that it’s just going to be the way it is for a while now,” he said. “Where we see that debate happening out in the public sphere, we’re seeing that happening on our college campuses also.”

GW has weighed in on hot-button issues this summer. George Washington President Thomas LeBlanc condemned violence committed by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., in August Dr. LeBlanc also responded after the Trump administration rescinded protections provided by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals for children who came to the United States illegally.

Dr. Konwerski said he understands why some parents might be concerned about campus protests. He encouraged students and parents to have open exchanges on these political issues and for parents to reach out to Student Support and Family Engagement as a resource.

“We can understand why parents are concerned, at the same time, they have probably prepared their students to think critically about issues,” Dr. Konwerski said. “We’re fortunate that when we get students to come to GW they are really bright, and they're really attuned to what’s happening around them.”

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Hundreds of students marched to the White House chanting slogans before ending the demonstration in front of Rice Hall.