Brown explains end to Gaza campus encampment with empathetic executive comms

A look at why Brown President Christina H. Paxson’s statement worked.

Amid another week of campus protests and corporate activism around the Gaza war, it seemed like no organization handled its response properly.

While Google CEO Sundar Pichai attempted to justify the firing of employee activists last week, police cleared an occupied building at Columbia University last night and arrested dozens of protestors. As stories of student encampments and ongoing protests continue to make headlines, communication from university leaders has been minimal. In a multifaceted conflict that engages stakeholders at an intersectional level, many leaders seem to take the route of saying less.

Then, just as it seemed that no institution offered a model response, Brown University announced on Tuesday evening that it reached an agreement with student leaders pushing for divestment. Details of the agreement were further contextualized in a letter by Brown President Christina H. Paxson.

Here’s what stuck out.

Leading with context

Paxson’s message to the Brown Community begins with a sober acknowledgment of what’s unfolding across the country.

“Many of us have watched with deep concern the tensions and divisions that have escalated across the country as colleges and universities have experienced intense confrontations at protests and encampments over the ongoing conflict in the Middle East,” she wrote before distinguishing Brown’s activism and announcing the news:

Brown has not experienced the heightened hostilities we have seen nationally, and I am writing to share that we’ll see a peaceful end to the unauthorized encampment that was set up April 24, 2024, on the College Green. After productive discussions between members of the Brown University administration and student leaders of the Brown Divest Coalition, we have reached an agreement that will end the encampment by 5 p.m. today.

In a moment where many institutional leaders are hesitant to comment at all, this acknowledgement doubles as recognition for anyone who has felt the emotional toll of the war and the protests. Paxson’s ability to contextualize the news and its response as different positions this decision, and her message, as an example to follow from the outset.

The most radical element is transparency

After announcing the agreement with the students who represent the Brown Divest Coalition, Paxson shares a public link to the full document and explains the broad terms:

[T]he students have agreed to remove the encampment and refrain from further actions that would violate the Code of Student Conduct through the end of this academic year, including through Commencement and Reunion Weekend.

The University has agreed that a group of five students will be invited to meet with a group of five members of the Corporation of Brown University while trustees and fellows are on campus for the May Corporation meeting. The meeting responds to the students’ interest to be heard on the issue of “divestment from the Israeli occupation of Palestinian Territory,” which was a core demand of their protest action. It is important to note that this topic will not be on the Corporation’s business agenda, and there will not be a vote on divestment at the May meeting.

Between linking to the full agreement and unpacking it in plain language, Paxson’s letter further demonstrates an unusual level of transparency from leadership. Rather than impose new guidelines or rules for handling the matter, she holds up the existing Code of Student Conduct and demonstrates a focus on protecting the community’s shared celebratory events.

Her explanation of the upcoming May meeting, and how it will work, simultaneously reinforces documented expectations while acknowledging that student concerns have been heard and will be addressed — another notable example of recognition from leadership.

Paxson then explains how any member of the community can request that Brown divest its endowment from specific companies, even sharing the process of submitting a proposal to the appropriate advisory committee. “I have committed to bring the matter of divestment to the Corporation, regardless of ACURM’s recommendation,” she wrote. “I feel strongly that a vote in October, either for or against divestment, will bring clarity to an issue that is of long-standing interest to many members of our community.”

This level of personal perspective and accountability is rare from leaders, demonstrating Paxson’s commitment to acknowledging and engaging all community perspectives. She continues this in the closing paragraphs.

 Closing on mission

The final sections of Paxson’s letter further bridge her personal hopes and perspectives on the encampment with Brown values:

I hope the meeting between the students and Corporation members will allow for a full and frank exchange of views. As I shared with the protesting students in my letter yesterday, the devastation and loss of life in the Middle East has prompted many to call for meaningful change, while also raising real issues about how best to accomplish this. Brown has always prided itself on resolving differences through dialog, debate and listening to each other.

I cannot condone the encampment, which was in violation of University policies. Also, I have been concerned about the escalation in inflammatory rhetoric that we have seen recently, and the increase in tensions at campuses across the country. I appreciate the sincere efforts on the part of our students to take steps to prevent further escalation.

During these challenging times, we continue to be guided by our mission of advancing knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry within a caring and compassionate community. We remain focused on four major priorities: (1) protecting the safety of our community; (2) fostering open and respectful learning environments; (3) providing care and empathy to affected members of our community; and (4) taking the strongest possible stance against any form of discrimination, harassment and racism against any race or ethnic group.

Even with this agreement, there remain many differences within our community about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These differences have been heightened in the months since October 7. And, I know that we will continue to have — and express — a broad range of conflicting beliefs and opinions about the situation in the Middle East, and the University’s response to it.

This stands out as a bold, empathetic example of executive comms a time when examples seem few and far in between. It’s also an acknowledgment of the fact that students’ rights to be heard and protest can co-exist within campus codes of conduct, committees for reviewing divestment, and other mechanisms put in place to protect civil, solution-oriented discourse.

Most importantly, the willingness of a leader to offer resources emphasizes Brown’s ultimate commitment to educate, inform and provide a path for progress to its community. That’s where the institution’s mission and actions align.

Justin Joffe is the editorial director and editor-in-chief at Ragan Communications.  Follow him on LinkedIn.

COMMENT Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive the latest articles from directly in your inbox.