Nichol protests: a cost-benefit analysis

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February 19, 2008

9:39 AM

p. Within hours of former College President Gene Nichol’s resignation, my e-mail inbox was bombarded with requests to join approximately 37 pro-Nichol Facebook groups and attend 418 more associated rallies, demonstrations, vigils, bake sales, book clubs, sing-alongs and protests.

p. The campus was in an uproar — or so it seemed. Classes were canceled. Students and teachers would join together in a general academic strike. There would be massive demonstrations on the Sunken Garden. Our voices would finally be heard. So what happened?

p. I rolled out of bed Wednesday morning intrigued by what might happen. Before leaving to go to class, I checked my e-mail one last time. No canceled classes for me — bummer. I stepped out the door into a gloomy, rainy morning and trudged toward Washington Hall. As I crossed the soaked Sunken Garden, I noticed one thing: it was empty. As I discovered at lunch, the “protest” had been moved into the University Center to escape the rain. There, as I stood in line to eat, I witnessed the 85 or so students that had gathered to relax in a public space, eat, talk, study, sit alone against a wall with a laptop or otherwise demonstrate their support for the ex-president and disdain for the Board of Visitors.

p. Our parents would be disappointed in this weak excuse for a protest. I know I was. In the days leading up to the BOV’s ultimate decision not to renew Nichol’s contract, it had become increasingly fashionable for students to express their support for the then-president, proudly wearing buttons or T-shirts that read “If President Nichol’s Not Welcome Here … Then Neither Am I.”

p. When it was announced that Nichol would not be returning as our president next year, students rushed to their computers so that each could boldly proclaim that he or she was more indignant about his “firing” (a frustrating misnomer) than the next student. By the time I checked my e-mail, many of these groups had as many as 1,500 members.

p. Where were these kids Wednesday?

p. Even the several dozen students that did brave the inclement weather to gather inside the UC atrium seemed to lack an understanding of what a protest is — what it’s supposed to accomplish. Protests are all about gaining leverage in a bargaining situation by altering the authorities’ cost-benefit analysis. The idea is to take action that raises the costs for the authorities to the point that these costs exceed those of acquiescing to the protesters’ demands, or at least reaching a compromise solution.

p. The dissident efforts of our colleagues have failed in many respects. It was unclear exactly what the protesters’ goals were. Obviously, Nichol isn’t coming back. Even if the timid assembly in the UC was aimed at expressing dissatisfaction and “demanding answers from the BOV,” the protesters created no incentives for the authorities to meet their demands. A handful of students peacefully gathering in a public space designed for that purpose will hardly make the BOV members or school administrators tremble, and it takes little effort for these figures to click “delete,” sending the array of angry e-mails and “open letters” directly to the trash can.

p. It will take much more radical action to make those in power to take notice — not to simply be heard, but to be listened to. If you want the school administration not only to take notice, but also to take action, you have to force their hand — be disruptive. Imagine if, instead of gathering in the atrium, the protesters had simply moved into the adjacent UC dining hall. With sufficient numbers, the protesters could have occupied all seats in the dining room, effectively shutting down the facility for the day.

p. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately), the protesters are also subject to their own cost-benefit analyses. For the protesting students, they have to see the potential gains of the protest as exceeding the present and potential future costs of engaging in the act of dissidence. The low turnout and tranquility of Wednesday’s demonstrations suggest that either the costs were too high or the perceived benefits were too low. It is easy to join a Facebook group for which there are no consequences and only slightly harder to gather at night outside the president’s house to pay tribute to a beloved leader. It is amazing how quickly minimal costs, such as rain or skipping class, dissuaded further participation, and how the fear of additional costs by career-minded students at the College prevented the type of escalation that would have been required to achieve any sort of favorable outcome.

p. Clearly, if the protesters truly believed as strongly in the injustice of the Nichol situation as they like to tell us and saw tangible benefits to their actions, they would be willing to go to much greater lengths — that is, incur much greater costs — to achieve those benefits.

p. As I was walking to my class in Washington that afternoon, I passed a friend posting a flier for the “strike” on one of the bulletin boards. “I guess you won’t be in class today,” I said.

p. “No,” he replied, “I think I have to go. I’ve missed too many days already this semester.”

__Christopher Burks is a junior at the College.__

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