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January 11, 2018

Consistency, Neutrality Paramount When Planning for Potential Controversial Campus Events

When the University is presented with a speaking engagement or gathering that could prove to be controversial, it is paramount that the University maintains a “consistent, viewpoint-neutral application of policies, procedures and guidelines,” according to Kenyon Bonner, vice provost and dean of students at Pitt.

Bonner emphasized that message in his presentation, “Student Safety and Activism in a Politically Charged Climate,” to the Senate student admissions, aid and affairs (SAAA) committee at its Dec. 14 meeting.

Bonner highlighted a rising nationwide polarization and what he described as “tension between free expression and an inclusive community.”

“I think generally we want to create an environment where people feel included and the campus feels like a place that people can thrive,” he said. “We also protect this notion of having an academic environment where we’re exposed to different ideas and different perspectives.”

There are several triggering circumstances, he said, that can mobilize students to act collectively, ranging from social media and national and international events to guest speaker invitations.

As long as public safety is not threatened, the University administration must approach speakers and organizations in a similar manner, said Bonner, whether they are Richard Spencer or Elmo.

“The minute we become inconsistent, we create problems for us and students,” he said.

The administration follows a three-part plan in response to the potential for controversial events on campus: preparation, collaboration and communication.

  • Senior administrators, Pitt Police and the Division of Student Affairs engage in tabletop exercises, practicing their roles in likely scenarios.
  • The Protocol Oversight Group includes senior administrators who work together to plan for and respond to an event.
  • Information about applicable policies and procedures is relayed to the appropriate parties.

Bonner said he tries to familiarize himself with the students who are most active on campus. He also attempts to gauge student viewpoints on a broader level at his “Dean’s Hour” sessions, where he listens to students’ thoughts, such as those about college affordability and transparency of the Board of Trustees.

The most unpredictable factor in controversial situations, said Bonner, are outside players.

“When you get people who are not students, who have no investment in Pitt, who maybe believe they have nothing to lose, those are the scariest elements of all of this,” he said. “It’s the person who shows up from Chicago or Detroit or California who could care less about me, Pitt and anything we value. So, I think that’s a variable that is very difficult to gauge.”


Katie Fike,, 412-624-1085


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