Do We Intervene? How?

Interesting op-ed from the New York Times on the recent student protest during a talk by Christina Hoff Sommers at Lewis & Clark Law School. As the author points out, the current political moment is fraught and toxic, which can make people “jumpy” when it comes to certain topics. Extreme rhetoric begets more extreme rhetoric, as we attempt to set baselines for what is normal and acceptable.

I have not been present for any of these confrontations between speakers and students. I have been wondering whether and how I would do anything if I had been present. Uncivil dialogue and fractious disagreements apparently are becoming commonplace, and as someone who wants to be helpful/effective in the dialogue space, I feel like I should be ready to jump in. But I’m not sure what that looks like, and I feel worried about self-aggrandizing behavior on my part. And what about my own feelings on the matter? Do I put those aside, or integrate them somehow into my response?

With all this in mind, I would very much value hearing from ADR professors who have seen first-hand these confrontations, like those between student protesters and controversial speakers. How did you react? If you did “intervene,” do you think it was effective? Do ADR people have special/extra responsibility to respond when these things happen, or to prevent these kinds of things from happening? If so, what does that look like — before, in the moment, and afterward? Do we set ground rules before people come to talk, for example? Or is even the idea of “setting ground rules” and thus deciding in advance that the speaker gets to speak rife with assumptions that work to reify existing and undesirable power disparities?

Part of the reason I’m thinking about this is that I have been reflecting on an incident that happened at the University of Oregon two years ago. One of our professors wore blackface at a Halloween party. My response consisted of signing an open letter calling for her resignation; attending some student forums and listening to students talk; speaking with my classes and with students who came to my office; and giving a short talk on this experience to another student forum on diversity a few months later. I did not feel (and still don’t) like I did enough. Was there more I could have done, in terms of promoting dialogue and community? Although this is not the same as intervening in a student protest, it raises some of the same issues.

So I am searching for examples of people who have contributed productively in these kinds of uncontained, unplanned spaces. If you have examples or stories — or if you have ideas or theories about what might work — feel free to post in comments or write me directly (jwr at Thank you!

2 thoughts on “Do We Intervene? How?”

  1. You raise really good questions, Jen.

    During the protests at Missouri several years ago, a friend in our field emailed me, asking if anyone in our DR center might intervene. I don’t believe that any of us did, perhaps for several reasons. I think that we generally didn’t have the skills, time, and (actual or perceived) neutrality to do so effectively. I think that this is the sort of thing requiring planning and intervention along the lines of techniques promoted by Ohio State’s Divided Community Project.

    Last fall, Missouri’s DR Center and Journal of Dispute Resolution sponsored an excellent symposium, The First Amendment on Campus: Identifying Principles for Best Practices for Managing and Resolving Disputes. The Journal will publish articles from the symposium.

    1. Can’t wait to see the papers from that symposium! I am hoping to find skills that can be deployed without much coordination or planning.

      Additionally, I wonder if controversial speakers on campus should always be accompanied by a facilitator (not just someone who introduces the speaker, but who actively facilitates the session).

      Relevant piece from today’s NYT: “When Smug Liberals Met Conservative Trolls,” available here:

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