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Volume 2, Number 1, Oct 2001

Student Protests, Negotiation,
and Constructive Confrontation

by Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess
Co-Directors
University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium
August 28, 2000
Going back at least as far as the turbulent 60's and 70's, universities have served as a focal point for confrontations over many of the key moral questions confronting society--racial inequity, gender discrimination, fair treatment of people with different sexual orientations, environmental protection, and workers’ rights.

When constructively handled, the policy changes that have emerged from these conflicts have helped transform universities into institutions which are among society’s most progressive (in the best sense of the word). Unfortunately, there have also been cases in which such conflicts have been quite destructive. Miscommunication and misunderstandings portray inaccurate (usually negative) images of the positions and actions of others. Especially destructive are confrontations which have escalated to the point of property damage, physical injury, or even death. Destructive escalation processes can also lead to intense interpersonal animosities which replace any thoughtful examination of the difficult moral issues being addressed. Under such circumstances, opportunities for mutually beneficial compromise and institutional learning are usually lost.

For the past 10 years, the University of Colorado Conflict Research Consortium has been developing more constructive ways of handling the intractable conflicts that so often surround debates over questions of social justice and morality. Based upon this work, this essay suggests a series of strategies that can be used by university administrators and students seeking more constructive ways of handling student protests. (These ideas are also applicable to similar conflicts involving university faculty, staff, and the larger community.) More specifically, this essay offers guidelines for determining when negotiation is and is not appropriate. It also suggests some things to consider before negotiations begin and gives a few guidelines about how such negotiations might best proceed. (These topics actually take a book to cover in detail, so what we have here are just some key points and references, at the end, for more information.) In cases where negotiation is inappropriate, we also offer suggestions for limiting the destructiveness which all too often accompanies the resulting confrontation.

Advice is offered from an impartial perspective which seeks to equally serve the interest of university administrators and protest groups. While some of the suggestions are more applicable to students and others apply more to administrators, by presenting both in the same paper we hope that we can encourage all the people involved in such disputes to confront them in a more constructive way, and to understand how each side can encourage the other to be more constructive in their response to the issue in dispute.

Conflict and Dispute

One key toward what we call more "constructive confrontation" is an understanding of the distinction between long-term underlying conflicts and shorter term dispute episodes. Universities have been and will continue to be a focal point for a broad range of social groups seeking redress for past injustices. One of the university’s most important pedagogical functions is to provide a forum in which its students and the larger community can examine these issues. This suggests that constructive social justice confrontations should be encouraged, rather than suppressed. It also suggests that hopes of resolving the underlying conflict in ways which eliminate future confrontations are unrealistic.

Within the context of these long-term underlying conflicts, there are numerous dispute episodes, such as controversies over the promotion or retention of minority faculty members; the disposal of university investments in companies engaged in unacceptable environmental or social practices; the addition of new, social justice-related curricula; animal research policies; and controversies over the university's association with businesses that utilize "sweatshop" labor and/or support for organizations which oppose "sweatshop" labor policies.

In some cases these disputes can be resolved using alternative dispute resolution processes (most often negotiation or mediation). In other cases, the parties will not negotiate and the disputes are resolved by more traditional legal, political, or administrative decisions. In any case, the cumulative effect of all of these dispute resolution processes is a continual setting and resetting of the moral policies under which the university operates. In short, university administrators and protest groups need to take a long view of social justice confrontations and seek to establish institutions and traditions which foster more constructive confrontations over the long term.

Students also need to realize that these issues are not simple, nor are they easily solved. Most of these conflicts involve deep-rooted moral questions that people feel very strongly about. Policies are not going to be changed overnight, nor perhaps, in a semester or a year. These are issues that will be considered, changed, reconsidered, and changed again. Everyone involved needs to know that progress, likely, will be slow. But individual disputes and their resolution are stepping stones to the long run goal of significant social change. So pursuit of these issues, even on a small scale, can eventually have significant social policy implications that go far beyond the local campus and community.

Determining When a Dispute Is "Ripe" for Negotiation

As used here, the term “negotiation” refers to the parties’ voluntary efforts to find a mutually-acceptable compromise which settles the immediate dispute. It seldom resolves the underlying long-term conflict, but it sets a policy that at least resolves the immediate problem and may set the direction for future decision making as well. Negotiation can be pursued by parties themselves, or it can be facilitated by a mediator who helps the parties overcome the barriers to agreement.

Regardless of whether or not a conflict is negotiated or mediated, before beginning it is useful for all sides to assess the conflict's readiness or "ripeness" for negotiation. In personalized and highly escalated conflicts, people may become so angry and distrustful that they will not negotiate in good faith, or they may refuse to negotiate at all. Students may make the assumption that the university administration "will not listen to them," or "doesn't care," and therefore negotiations are a waste of time.

Similarly, administrators may assume that the students have made their demands (which the administrators may or may not view as reasonable) and further assume that the students are not willing to consider alternative approaches. Sometimes this is true: the protesting group may believe so strongly in a moral issue that they are unwilling to compromise their basic beliefs. As a result, they may prefer a principled defeat to what they see as a "hollow compromise." In this case, they will likely refuse to negotiate or will reject any proposed agreement, preferring to continue the confrontation and paint the administration as the "bad guys." While the administration can try to exhibit an open mind and a willingness to discuss the issues, they should not feel they have to bend to unreasonable demands to avoid confrontation. They should just maintain a willingness to talk, if and when the students are ready.

In other cases, the students' or the administration's refusal to negotiate may stem from a rational assessment of costs and benefits. If either party believes that they have an alternative to a negotiated agreement which is more desirable than what they expect to gain from negotiation, they are likely to take their alternative and reject any negotiated settlement. (Conflict scholars frequently refer to this alternative as a "BATNA," which stands for "best alternative to the negotiated agreement.") For example, a faculty member who believes that he or she can win an employment discrimination case in court is unlikely to agree to a less desirable negotiated outcome. Similarly, students who feel that they can sue the university and get what they want, or that they can stage further, more disruptive demonstrations and get their demands met without fear of serious consequences, are likely to try to do so. If they suspect that the administration still won't budge, and is likely to expel them from school, they may be more interested in negotiation. Likewise, university officials with strong backing from regents and political leaders may also be less likely to bend to student demands, knowing that they will get backed up in their decision to hold firm.

Thus, as a general guideline, if the parties on all sides do not indicate (by word and deed) a willingness to sit down and really listen to the interests and concerns of the other side, and to work together in a positive way to reach a joint solution to the problem, then negotiations most likely will not work at that time.

That does not mean that negotiation won't work later–it just means the time is not ripe now. Generally, a conflict is not ripe for negotiation until both sides know how much power they have relative to the other side, and thus, what their BATNAs are. Once they understand what they are likely to be able to get through power-based alternatives, then they will know whether negotiation will make sense or not.

Thus both administrators and students should carefully consider their alternatives to negotiation–their BATNAs--before they decide whether or not to negotiate. If either side thinks the other is making an unrealistic assessment of their BATNAs–if the administration, for example, thinks that the students expect to get more through protests than they can possibly get, sometimes an administrator can talk with one of the leaders and explain how the administration's hands are tied, for example, and how further demonstrations will not yield the results the students want. Through clarifying their own options to the students, the administration may thus encourage the students to reassess their own BATNAs and then, perhaps, open negotiations when they would not negotiate before.

It is also important to distinguish between a willingness to participate in negotiations and a willingness to actually accept the negotiated settlement. People are often willing to give negotiation a try on the chance that it may ultimately offer them a good deal. Still, they are unlikely to accept the final compromise unless the negotiated agreement is better than their BATNA. (We actually prefer the term "EATNA"–the "expected" alternative to the negotiated agreement. A party may expect something far better than what they will actually get, but those expectations are what matters, not their actual BATNA.) While parties will know their EATNA, they will not know if they can beat it through negotiations until they try. So it is often worth attempting negotiation, if parties will do so in good faith, and see if it is possible to match or beat each side's EATNA. If it is, the dispute will probably be resolved more quickly and with less cost than if the parties continued their confrontation.

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