II. Learning and Success

Creating Safe Campus Communities

Dr. Larry Roper

Federal and state governments have created legislation to hold campus leaders accountable for campus safety and security. This legislation commonly focuses on requirements to track and report crime data, establish policies to protect campus community members from harm, and mandates to adopt procedures to share information with internal and external stakeholders. Public policies enacted by political leaders that attend to the physical safety of colleges and universities are generally viewed as important by campus participants and others. At the same time, campus leaders are also expected by their constituents to create and sustain social, educational, and work environments that attend to the emotional and psychological well-being of students, faculty, and staff—to address safety as being foundational to achieving inclusion. The calls for increased safety on campus can be heard from all segments of the campus community, but are particularly salient among those from underrepresented populations and those who consider themselves to be most vulnerable. Creating safe campus communities requires leaders to work from a comprehensive view of safety—addressing safety as a multidimensional construct that encompasses physical safety, secure spaces (including virtual), personal well-being, and concern for the overall welfare of those who work and learn on the campus and visit the campus.

Early Friday morning in mid-January, toward the beginning of my tenure as Vice Provost for Student Affairs, I received a call on my cell phone while I was off campus attending a community gathering at my son’s school. The legal counsel at Oregon State University was calling to inform me that seven people—maybe students, maybe not—were illegally occupying the office of the Dean of Veterinary Medicine. I rushed back to campus and quickly consulted with several top university officials to gain insight into what was known about the incident. As we collectively weighed various alternatives for action, I got a call from the protesters asking me to come to the veterinary dean’s office.

When I arrived there, I found seven women locked together in a metal device consisting of bars and chains called a “lazy dragon.” It was designed so that anyone attempting to remove them would have to remove the entire group at once. The protesters were accompanied by individuals with a video camera and a cell phone, the latter to link them to other protesters outside the building. I was able to determine that the protesters were a mixture of students and non-students, but they all belonged to a group calling itself the Vegetarian Resource Network (VRN).

The protests were aimed at drawing attention to concerns about the invasive surgical procedures used in a “small animal surgery” course, which required that the animals used in the course be euthanized following the teaching of techniques. The history of protests of the course had occurred over an extended period and involved such activities as picketing the laboratory storage facility, leafleting the campus, writing campus editorials, and engaging in a several days’ fast, inside animal cages, on the university’s quad. The more dramatic and disruptive efforts, which were greater sources of controversy, were picketing the home of the dean and staging a takeover of the dean’s office. The picketing and takeover activated fear and concern for the physical and psychological well-being of those associated with the college and the course—students, faculty, and staff. Because of my role in student affairs, I was called upon to intervene in the takeover and work closely with campus police, the dean and office staff, and faculty to get the protesters off the premises and address the immediate and anticipated ongoing threats posed by having their office being taken over, having the flow of their work disrupted, and having their professional activity challenged in such a dramatic way. After daylong conversations we were able to get most protesters to leave the office; some opted to be cited by local police. Ultimately, through a collaborative process among protesters, faculty, and other campus facilitators, supported by a W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant, over the next year we were able to bring an end to the protests and challenges to the course.

The significant lessons I learned from involvement with this incident, include: how I “show up” during incidents matters to all parties; showing up as a university leader is more important that showing up as my title; views of the world can be reconciled through conversation and shared commitment; there are always educational responsibilities and challenges embedded in controversies; and the importance of leading from the center (the importance of placing our educational values and mission at the center of the issues at hand).

Because the dean and faculty felt directly threatened by the incident, their expectation was that I would be on their “side” when addressing this incident. At the same time, the students, whom I had come to know very well, expected that I would be their ally and support their concerns. Some of the faculty and office staff who were present during the sit-in saw my “friendliness” with the students as an indication that I was not on the side of those in the college, while the students saw my convening in private conversations with other university officials as me possibly colluding against them. Successful execution of my leadership role in that moment required that I be viewed as being on everybody’s side, which meant that when working to resolve the incident, I did not have the luxury of closing off our ability to communicate with those who were at odds. As leaders, we are charged with providing effective leadership for all community members no matter their attitudes or politics. As such, we must show the ability to navigate extremes. By not choosing sides we create the potential to be an ally to all community members. At the same time our roles challenge us because during times of conflict on campus, others expect us to take a stand and choose sides. But because we are charged with responsibility for representing and supporting the growth of all students, faculty, and staff, we must learn to manage living in the middle and to straddle warring ideals. This is a difficult place to be.

College and university leaders, students, families, and other stakeholders have a mutual interest in creating safe community environments. During campus admissions tours, high school visitations, at community outreach events, and other activities for prospective students, among the most frequently asked questions I’ve encountered (particularly from family members) is “how safe is your campus?” Generally, those questions about safety are in reference to concerns about physical violence or property crime experienced by a campus community. But as many institutional leaders have come to recognize, discussions of campus safety now revolve around a much broader set of concerns. Thus, conversations about the role of leaders in creating a safe community not only emphasize leaders’ responsibility to mitigate incidents of violence and do what they can to protect campus constituents from physical harm, but also emphasize their responsibility to create spaces that ensure emotional, psychological, and personal well-being. As a leader, I found that it was essential for me to recognize that safety is a multidimensional construct and that feeling safe is foundational to student success, faculty and staff achievement, and nurturing a sense of community within the campus.

I came to rely on my understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as a helpful tool for making sense of the relationship among safety, human needs, human behavior, and to infer my campus leadership imperatives. According to Maslow, the most fundamental human need is physiological (e.g., for food, shelter, clothing). Some campus leaders have invested in addressing these basic physiological human needs because of how pivotal they are to our ability to attract and retain the most profoundly needy students. For example, at Oregon State University, in 2005, we established a Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) to address student basic needs. This program was an important intervention to reduce the marginality of students who had less access to needed resources than many of their peers. These basic needs interventions were a first step in providing safety from hunger, homelessness, and other poverty-related threats for students.

The next two important needs identified by Maslow are, in order, safety and love and social belonging. Discussions of creating safe campus environments should focus leaders’ attention on the connection between these two needs and the roles and responsibilities leaders have relative to facilitating campus development toward greater safety and increased sense of belonging. There is a powerful relationship between feeling personally safe and one’s ability to experience a sense of community on a campus. As I discuss the challenge and responsibility of creating a safe community, I will describe the dual task of attending to the physical and psychological dimensions of a safe community.

State and federal governments have provided substantial legislation and guidance to hold campuses accountable for ensuring the physical safety of campus community members and visitors. The Clery Act, also known as the Student-Right-to Know Act (Clery Center, n.d.), which was created in the 1990s and has been amended numerous times, provides a common standard for what the federal government deems important to monitor, with regard to campus safety. The Clery Act grew out of the advocacy of the parents of Jeanne Clery, a Lehigh University student who was murdered in her residence hall in 1986. The primary requirements of the Clery Act are that each campus produce an annual crime report and make it available to current and prospective students and employees; that the campus safety/security office maintain a detailed log of all crimes reported to them; that campus officials provide timely warning of incidents that might represent a threat to the campus; and that campuses must maintain eight years of crime statistics for incidents occurring in residence halls, surrounding non-campus buildings, and surrounding public property. The helpfulness of Clery is that it enables campus leaders to consult and collaborate with colleagues at other institutions to ensure that they are performing in compliance with federal expectations and the act provides a relative standard for comparing the safety of different campuses, based on published data.

Users of campus facilities need to feel confident that unauthorized individuals will not gain access to those spaces and that their safety will not be compromised. Collaboration among academic leaders, facilities leaders, campus identification card administrators, and others is necessary to achieve a successful security system that safeguards buildings for facilities users. Senior leaders on campus need to work together to ensure a spirit of collaboration among those who have responsibility for daily operational aspects of campus safety processes. The important points to understand are that campus safety is managed at all levels of campus leadership; it is important in all domains of the campus; and it is a concern for all campus community members. Creating a safe community is a matter that requires broad leadership, collaboration, and shared ownership.

Beyond the Clery Act, the other prominent federal policy that requires significant attention and resources is Title IX (Office for Civil Rights), particularly the section of the law that emphasizes campus safety and institutional responsibility in the area of sexual harassment and sexual violence. This legislation, like the Clery Act, continues to evolve as different presidential administrations amend the guidance. Consequently, campus approaches to compliance with Title IX will be fluid, based on the standard by which campus response will be evaluated by the federal government. The consistent expectation of campuses is that they have in place a designated Title IX officer; a clearly defined and published policy; processes to educate community members about Title IX; a clearly defined reporting structure; processes for investigating and adjudicating alleged violations; along with other expectations. Because Title IX incidents invariably involve the dynamics of sex, gender, and, sometimes, race and culture, these incidents can result in tense, polarizing, and challenging dynamics for leaders. The qualities and leadership character of Title IX leaders are pivotal to Title IX programs’ success and credibility. As with other campus safety issues, Title IX leaders play a meaningful role in ensuring that a collaborative and cooperative ethos exists and that they network with all campus units to construct the necessary working relationships.

There is growing awareness of and sensitivity to the tension between responding to perceived safety concerns of a community and the potential for racial profiling, stereotyping, and implicit bias in treatment of potential perpetrators. Failure to successfully negotiate these challenging human interactions can result in tense leadership dynamics. Poorly executed responses can send a message to some community members that they either do not belong or that their presence is being treated as if it were problematic. This is especially important given the attention to and sensitivities to inequities in policing and the mistrust that exists among many campus community members.

Though we were clear on our processes and procedures for addressing issues that compromise the physical safety of our campus community, there was almost always messiness in responding to the affective reaction of community members to administrative responses to cultural/identity-based incidents. Even the most casual observer of current campus dynamics knows that campuses have been confronted by activism and protests over concern with the perceived lack of urgency in institutional response, appropriateness of action taken by institutions, or the incongruence between the institution’s response and the institution’s expressed values of diversity, equity, and inclusion. It is this arena of creating a safe community that poses the greatest challenge to leaders, because leadership at this level seldom has policy guidance. Leading toward the creation of a sense of belonging cannot be distilled to an administrative process. Creating a campus that affords safety through a sense of inclusion is much more challenging, as it requires emotional engagement, risk-taking, high-stakes conversations, and personal vulnerability.

While there is an expectation that leadership for a safe community starts with the president, it is the responsibility of leaders throughout the organization to construct and implement processes and programs necessary to create an emotionally and psychologically safe campus. I recognize that the range of responsibilities for which campus leaders are held accountable can often seem exhaustive and feel exhausting, but, issues of safety cannot be an afterthought. During my time in my various roles at Oregon State University (Vice Provost for Student Affairs, Interim Dean of Liberal Arts, and Interim Director of the School of Language, Culture and Society), my faculty and administrative colleagues expressed feeling especially taxed by the range of roles they are asked to assume and the accountability they bear for addressing the issues that students and others bring to the campus. Faculty colleagues experienced great anxiety at trying to enact approaches to create safe classroom learning environments. Leaders at all levels expressed trepidation about their ability to create culturally respectful norms within work groups and to nurture civility and cultural safety for the diverse mix of people in their organizations. Some leaders identified their need for support in responding to and engaging appropriately with colleagues whom they viewed as highly sensitive to and aware of the dynamics of “isms” that surface in campus interactions. Some expressed concern for how to respond when openly confronted about what others identified as their inadequate leadership in promoting a safe work or learning environment. Leaders throughout our campuses need support to cultivate the knowledge, skills, and awareness to advance the safety needs and expectations of campus community members. We need to be clear about where responsibility for that learning resides and to be directive in ensuring that such learning is an ongoing activity.

It is important to acknowledge the perilous landscape with which campus leaders are confronted. In our current context, we have witnessed leaders being relieved of their roles because of negative judgments about their cultural sensitivity, the sufficiency of their actions, the words they used to describe situations or explain their actions, and the appropriateness or the timeliness of their response. There are numerous examples of faculty members being challenged and, in some cases, dismissed because of culturally questionable assignments or nomenclature used to discuss course material. Rightly, we have witnessed dismissals that were justified based on clear violations of the human dignity, safety, and well- being of others. It is understandable that a climate such as the one in which many are leading can provoke trepidation on the part of some. However, the gravity of the issues at play demands whole-hearted response. When it comes to the safety of campus community members, leaders are presented with the choice of whether to take the perceived easy path or the path that will best benefit their community, recognizing that the more complicated path may bring with it more inherent risks.

Throughout my time as a campus leader, I found that many students would arrive at campus unprepared to engage with the diversity of those around them, in ways that aligned with the aspirations we have for our community. When some students arrive on campus, they join organizations, some of which have traditions and rituals that contradict our espoused values. Because of a lack of awareness and minimal prior interaction with individuals from diverse cultural backgrounds, some students inadvertently say things or do things that compromise the feelings of safety and dignity of their peers or other community members. At the same time, other students, with forethought, engage in behaviors to target others in ways that cause the targeted individuals to feel violated and disrespected. Our response to this range of behavior will speak volumes about our commitment to safety, our educational commitments, and the faith we have in the efficacy of our educational interventions to transform behavior and cultivate the type of campus climate toward which we aspire—there is legitimate tension between achieving a safe community through educational processes and achieving our desired outcomes through punitive means.

I knew that my response to incidents would be seen by some as an indication of our university’s readiness to educate the students who came to us. I also knew that if my first response was to immediately distance myself and the university from students who demonstrated socially unacceptable attitudes, I would be making a powerful concession about our educational limitations and our ability to show compassion toward students who had not yet achieved their full humanity. To some, taking an educational approach could be viewed as dishonoring the seriousness of the insult or injury for the targeted individual. While I often experienced my own frustration, anger, and disgust at the hurtful behaviors directed at others, I also knew that those emotions on my part were not compatible with the mission of reinforcing leadership expected of me. I also knew that my response to those who create unsafe environments for others could also become a source of tension within the community.

During my first couple of years at Oregon State University, we experienced a racist incident in which a White student urinated on and shouted racial epithets at an African American student who was walking past a fraternity house on a Friday evening. As one might expect, the incident created an immediate uproar and stimulated outrage throughout the campus, including numerous threats of harm directed at members of the fraternity. The student who was the target of the assault called me at home shortly after the incident occurred. I immediately went to campus to visit with him and to ensure that he got connected to the necessary supports. The next morning, I called the fraternity’s president and asked him to call a house meeting of all members of the fraternity for Sunday evening. When I went to the fraternity house, I discussed the incident with those present and set the expectation that by noon the following day I expected to hear directly from the fraternity’s president the name of the person responsible for the assault. At the same time, I asked them how they were feeling about the threats directed toward them, the demonstrators who showed up outside the house on Saturday, and the characterization of the fraternity members as being racist?

As an African American, I had to manage my own deep anger in order to exercise my responsibility to attend to the safety of the victim of the assault, the perpetrator and other members of the fraternity, and students, faculty, and staff of color who expressed feeling unsafe on campus and in neighborhoods where fraternity houses were located. The aftermath of the incident necessitated deep community engagement, including several town hall meetings; discussions with faculty; meetings with members of underrepresented groups; and responding to calls from parents, alumni, and others. Calls from two groups were particularly reflective of the leadership challenge before me, as I received calls from parents of Students of Color and parents of fraternity members, all wanting to know what I and the university were going to do to ensure the safety of their student. As was suggested earlier, the student conduct process was well-defined, it allowed for a clear path to adjudicating the incident and reaching a sanction for the offending student. However, addressing the fear, disgust, anger, racism, perceived privilege, and other dynamics revealed and created by the incident took far more time and had no prescribed process. As a leader, I felt extremely vulnerable during this time. While responding to such incidents, one’s character and commitments can be challenged. In those moments, it becomes clear that facilitating in the direction of a safer community is not just an administrative task. Engaging with this incident, and so many others, involved navigating through the issue of safety to ensure that a sense of belonging was cultivated and reinforced and that the rights of all involved were protected. When we lead toward the creation of a safe community, we are charged with doing so on behalf of all community members.

Successful leadership and an educationally consistent response to the above incident required the negotiation of a nuanced relationship between our university’s president and me as the student affairs leader. In this incident the power of the president’s voice was utilized to reinforce and elevate the institution’s core commitment to diversity and inclusion, while my leadership was exercised to lead the community through the resolution of the incident through our student conduct system and the continued pursuit of a more positive campus climate. During response to the racial violence incident, restoring a sense of safety and cultivating a sense of community were concurrent processes. It should also be noted that the above incident demonstrates how essential it is to have a robust and competent internal and external communications infrastructure, as dialogue and transparent communication with our community members were foundational to our recovery.

In the face of the current high-stakes issues that have been thrust upon institutional leaders, we must demonstrate the courage to walk into the heart of our communities’ struggles and show the courage to lead. Our communities need engaged, values-informed stewardship—leadership that is thoughtful and conscious, and that is respectful of the lives and life situations of those presenting the issues. We need leaders who are keenly aware of their own personal values, politics, and histories and who are able to balance those factors with their responsibilities to serve the mission and articulated commitments of their campus.

When we are presented with the question, “Is your campus safe?” we will not have a neat and clean answer. We can certainly respond with comparative data from our Clery report to tell the story of how our campus numbers compare to others. But, certainly, numbers do not tell the story about whether we can declare our campuses safe. We can begin our response by asserting the metrics that we reported to the federal government and what we feel they say about safety on our campus. At the same time, we should be able to affirm to the questioner that we have put in place leadership and education to create and sustain a campus culture that is increasingly focused on making our campus a safe place from physical and property crimes, as well a place where each person has the ability to feel emotionally, psychologically, and culturally safe. Leadership for a safe community demands that leaders nurture a sophisticated view of the dimensions of campus safety and that we communicate our understanding through our leadership, communication, and personal engagement with incidents.


Clery Center. n.d. “The Jeanne Clery Act: Summary, Reporting Requirements, and Clery Center Resources.” https://www.clerycenter.org/the-clery-act.

Office for Civil Rights (OCR). 2019. “Title IX Education Amendments.” HHS.gov, October 17, 2019, https://www.hhs.gov/civil-rights/for-individuals/sex-discrimination/title-ix-education-amendments/index.html.

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Creating Safe Campus Communities Copyright © 2024 by Dr. Larry Roper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.