Best practices for meeting with administration & trustees.
Much of your campaign could hinge on your meetings with administrators. It is thus important that the campaign put time into thinking through various aspects of meeting with administrators. (A great resource covering similar topics is REC’s guiding document on meetings with administrators - make sure to check it out.)
Likability goes a long way; the things people will do for their friends are often significant. Your task is then to get administrators to like you, if not be your ‘friend’. How? Ideally, by getting to know them. Meeting ahead of time with administrators one-on-one is smart. Don’t bring too many people so as not to overwhelm them. Two or three campaign members can be assigned to lobby administrators. Personal lobbying gives you an opportunity to introduce yourself in a non-adversarial setting. It humanizes you, and helps you build a relationship with the administrator. You can conduct trust-building activities, such asking administrators for their opinions and concerns (“Is there anything about the divestment campaign that bothers you? Or that we could improve? If you were us, what would you do?”). Get their feedback and tailor accordingly, and troubleshoot objections to divestment before the campaign officially meets with administrators.
During the negotiation of international treaties, it is well known that the bulk of the negotiating occurs well ahead of when the treaty is actually signed. In the same way, think of the official meetings between the campaign and administrators as ceremonial: officiating ideas, items, and conversations campaign members have already had one-on-one with administrators. A large group meeting is an inopportune time to first meet an administrator, to first learn how they feel about divestment, or to first hear their objections to divestment. This is the same reason that lawyers prep witnesses; to control the outcome as much as possible.
Skipping this step could lead to the campaign being ambushed by an anti-divestment administrator, look unprofessional by being unprepared for unexpected questions, or having administrators adopt a ‘pack mentality’ rather than meaningfully considering divestment. To minimize these in-meeting risks, work towards:
The process of relationship development could take several one-on-one meetings over months, so the campaign should start on this task early. To meet with an administrator, call their office and make an appointment with their staff person if they have one. If they lack support staff, email or call them directly. Be polite but unrelenting that you meet; you could also show up to their office hours if they hold them. Explain that you want to meet to introduce yourself and give some background on divestment, as you anticipate that you will be in contact with the administrator in the coming months regarding the university’s divestment.
When selecting campaign members to interact with the administration, be aware of and maintain gender, race, and age balance. Look for opportunities for freshmen and sophomore members, who have multiple years left at the university, to develop relationships with the administration. Also be cognizant of who the most qualified speakers are, and who knows and can best explain the arguments for divestment.
Planning the Meeting: Once you have individually lobbied administrators and the campaign is ready to meet administrators as a group, plan the following:
Creating an Agenda: Prepare an agenda ahead of time and share it with meeting participants for potential additions. Setting an agenda is an opportunity to clarify the meeting goals and time allocation per discussion area. Before the meeting, send administrators the agenda, and print hard copies to take with you. Administrators may want to set the agenda and may expect to run the meeting. In this case, seek to co-create the agenda and ensure the campaign has time on the agenda to speak and participate. Also consider having an internal agenda just for the campaign that is different from the external agenda. The internal agenda can have more inside information or items to raise at the meeting, while the external agenda is what the administrators think will be presented at the meeting. If possible, however, demonstrate good faith by meeting on agreed-upon topics.
Meeting Goals: Discuss what you want the outcome of the meeting to be. Determine whether you will be able to meet with the administrators periodically, or if a given meeting will be the only opportunity to meet with them.
Beware that administrators may give your campaign late or no notice of meetings, may promise meetings in the future that do not materialize, and may meet intentionally without the divestment campaign. If you accomplish more of your persuasion through individual lobbying, there is less pressure to convert administrators in whatever meetings do occur. Also, the better the campaign’s relationship with administrators, the more likely you will be to get accurate notice of meetings.
Keep the Meeting on Task: As you may have experienced, meetings are notorious for running long and not accomplishing their goals. Once you have an agenda and are in the meeting, encourage the administrators to stick to it. If the conversation veers outside the scope of the agenda, respectfully request that the group bring the focus of the conversation back to the points both groups agreed to discuss; do not let administrators use valuable time unconstructively. This may take some courage, so be prepared to speak up!
Setting the Tone: Work for a professional, pleasant tone. Arrive early, beat the administrators there. Dress professionally. See if students can be interspersed amongst administrators to reduce an adversarial ‘us v. them’ setup with parties on opposite sides of the table. It is ideal to all be around one table, or otherwise able to make eye contact. When administrators arrive, greet them warmly, shake their hands, and thank them for meeting with you. Offer them a business card (if your campaign does not have a business card, have them printed for this purpose).
Frame of mind: Go into meetings with administrators in good faith. Though administrations may have violated trust in different ways throughout the divestment campaign, your campaign is likely to get farther by adopting a collaborative attitude in good faith, at least initially, and making an effort to demonstrate to the administration how it can benefit from divestment. Like many campaigns that have come before you, even working in good faith you may find yourself in a kangaroo court, where the administration has made up its mind already, or refuses to divest in the face of facts clearly pointing to divestment. However, if you skip the step of ‘exhausting our administrative remedies’, which is a legal term for ‘trying the formal process first’, administrators will hold it against you going forward. At least if you try to work with the administration and it fails, the campaign can’t be ‘blamed’ for escalating.
Perfect your poker face: If you are going to work with administrators, surprise them. Don’t be the unreasonable, young, hot-headed rioters that many of them have stereotyped you as before you walked in the room. Enter meetings in suits with positive attitudes, even if things don’t go your way and even if the administrator’s behavior is outrageous. To picture the ideal demeanor, think of a contestant on the television show “Shark Tank”. On this show, business people seeking investments present briefly on their company, and are then quizzed by a panel of investors on their company–often enduring insults to their work, selves, and company—and either get or do not get investments. In most cases, the emotions and stakes are high for contestants. Yet most of the show’s contestants hold it together regardless of what is said. Maintaining a poker face is key; administrators are looking for reasons to disregard you, don’t let your reaction in a meeting be the reason. Similarly, a meeting is the wrong place to express your hate of corporations, express controversial political or religious beliefs, or say anything else that would help administrators discount you.
Supplemental material: There is plentiful data about divestment that would be helpful for the administration to understand to make them more likely to endorse divestment such as data on how little risk divestment poses, etc. You may want to provide administrators with background material to contextualize and support your arguments in the meeting. If you opt to share background information with them, include a one-page summary or annotated bibliography; this summary might be all they read, which is why papers so often include ‘Executive Summaries’. Send administrators the documents in advance, and bring hard copies to the meeting. They may have misplaced or lost the original copy.
It can be difficult to persuade administrators to read studies, reports, and other materials you give them. Another way to deliver background information is to present it to administrators in one-on-one meetings. This is another reason you can offer for why you would like to meet with an administrator—to ’prep’ or ’brief’ them ahead of the meeting, and update them on recent research on divestment. If they accept, prepare a PowerPoint covering the research on divestment, present it in a small meeting, and leave them with hardcopies of the reports you cite.
Take Notes of the Meeting: Because so many administrations have acted in bad faith, it is critical to take rigorous notes of the meeting so you can reference what was said later. Another option you have is to request permission from the administration to record the meeting; be advised, this is likely to be rejected, but worth a try. DO NOT RECORD THEM WITHOUT PERMISSION. If a student ends up taking notes use a computer to type quickly, note who said what, and ask people to repeat statements that were spoken too quickly to be recorded. One way to track the conversation is to use the agenda as an outline and fill in sections as they progress. It is standard meeting procedure to send notes of a meeting out to all participants, and doing so gives you another reason to reach out to administrators.
Quantify the Campaign’s Breadth: Come to the meeting with data showing how extensive the divestment campaign is. Raised $X dollars, have diverted $X donations, have X members, X number of people attended the campaign’s rally, etc. Administrators are often former business people who are used to dealing with ‘metrics’. You could even make a fact-sheet or infographic summarizing the strength of the campaign in numbers. This hinges, of course, on having good numbers to show off.
Next Steps/Action Items: The following questions should be answered by the end of the meeting:
No later than a day after the meeting, send an email thanking administrators, summarizing next steps, and attaching notes and any documents that were referenced in the meeting. If a question came up during the meeting that the campaign said that it would check on, include the answer as well.
Some universities are more receptive than others to responding to divestment. However, recognize that no matter how well founded, administrators may interpret any request for change as a threat, and as public criticism that they are doing their job poorly. In an effort to keep that job, there is a fair chance that administrators will act defensively, as if the divestment campaign is attacking them and the university is the victim. Consequently it is not unusual for university administrators to deploy tactics for deterring, stalling, thwarting, or otherwise ending student movements. Here are some of the ways administrators stave off student advocacy, as well as ways your campaign can prepare for and respond to such maneuvers.
Lack of Process: It is difficult to hold administrators accountable when they do not have an established process for hearing student requests. For this reason, it is important to pursue established channels for requests as far as they can lead you. Some universities will destroy an established process when a divestment campaign is created.
Process, Procedure, or Rule Revisions: Administrators may conveniently revise the university’s rules or policies to sabotage divestment, or to make organizing for divestment more difficult. For example, administrations have in some cases not let fossil free organizations become official student organizations, limiting their ability to organize and be recognized as a student group, to reserve rooms, flyer, etc. In one case, the administration broke the agreed upon process within an established task force to decide on divestment in a secret meeting excluding students. In another case, the university ‘revised’ the already established process for seeking a divestment, leaving chaos in place of process.
Giving day-before or otherwise inadequate notice to the campaign: Another method of excluding student campaigns from participation in university business is for the administration to give last minute notice of meetings, thereby preventing students from adequate preparation and/or attending at all.
Repeated delays: Even where there is a process, administrators can delay it for months or years. Administrators are aware that students move through the system every few years, transfer, drop out, get busy, study abroad, etc. They may attempt to wait your campaign out. This could be done by delaying a meeting, delaying conversations, delaying responses, taking vacations, not being able to meet with the campaign, etc.
Death by committee: Death by committee is another delay tactic. Universities may tell activists to engage with processes that only draw out a decision on divestment. This can occur when the administration invites activists to participate on committees—or when the administration creates committees—that have no decision making power. A committee may also not consider the issue fairly, or be weighted against divestment with little to no student participation. Offering activists a committee or task force may provide the administration with a reason that they have completed sufficient due diligence on a given topic and thus grounds to dismiss it, even if the issue was never truly considered and the task force was just for show.
Bringing in a consultant and/or commissioning a ‘study’: Administrators will often bring in an outside consultant or commission a study, with the intention of the study coming to conclusions that undermine divestment. This is a way for the administration to say, “We’ve done our due diligence, and the experts have spoken against divestment.” The administration may do this without consulting with you, and the study could simply appear without warning.
Negotiating with administrators and understanding the behind the scenes forces, known as the ‘inside game’, is often crucial to achieving a win on divestment. Here are some tips on effective inside game strategy:
Identify the campaign’s inside game negotiators: Select 2-4 students who are comfortable and skilled in negotiating and can approach administration with confidence, level-headedness, and knowledgeable insights. They can serve as the lead students in administrator meetings, and can report back to the larger campaign in regards to administration negotiations. They can also lead one-on-one lobbying of administrators. Keep diversity, gender-balance, and new organizer inclusivity in mind.
Find inside allies: A key part of a successful inside game is identifying allies and leveraging those relationships effectively. Your allies could be voting trustees, influential administrators, and people with influence such as key faculty, big donors, politicians, etc. Inside game allies can also serve as peers with other key decision makers and help convince the administration from the inside. Creating a map of relationships and power dynamics (power mapping) can be a helpful way to identify ways to influence decision makers and see if there are key individuals your group has access to who can become inside allies. Often inside allies are the most effective way to make change within the institution due to their influence with policy makers.
How and when to apply pressure on decision makers: There are moments at which administrators are more vulnerable or open to influence, negotiation, and compromise. The outside game, the larger campaign efforts, will help create these moments by applying pressure on the administration via actions, open letters, and media campaigning, among other tactics. For example, if the media covers the delivering of an open letter from several hundred faculty and a long list of donors, the power dynamic may shift in your favor—that is a moment at which the inside game should increase its pressure. The inside gamers should also capitalize on the chaos created by actions by appearing as the more rational, level-headed actors and letting the administration know what would appease the students. National momentum should also be leveraged to push and negotiate with decision makers.
Identifying administrative ‘weak spots’: Is the administration receiving criticism about anything in particular? Perhaps the university has a poor relationship with the city it operates in, a weak environmental track record, increasing tuition, or other non-divestment controversies. These are examples of ‘weak spots’ your campaign can capitalize on in the process of lobbying and negotiating divestment. The campaign can blend the administration’s current failings into a narrative, or you can put extra pressure on administrators that are already in political trouble. Divesting can then become a good thing the administrator can do to reduce their troubles and come out a hero.
Negotiating: After building allies, building pressure, and lobbying, it’s time to negotiate. Your campaign must coalesce around what, if any, compromises it is willing to accept. If your administration is not ready to divest from the Carbon Underground 200, but is willing to divest from coal and commit to continue the conversation, is your campaign willing to compromise? It may be worthwhile to consider what a win looks like to your campaign, what level of win benefits the movement nationally, and what is most feasible based on what you know about your university. Balancing and prioritizing those elements is up to the campaign.