When Your Meeting Gets Political

By: Jeff Waddle

Even your best-laid plans can be thrown off course by unexpected currents of political or social controversy. When the waves start to rise, don't panic: You won't go under if you gather the facts, communicate clearly with members, and stay true to your organization's mission. (Titled "Riding a Wave of Controversy" in the print edition.)

Association leaders frequently face difficult decisions, but they don't often come with stakes as high as the choice confronting the board of directors of NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education two years ago.

Following the April 2010 passage of Arizona's controversial immigration law, Senate Bill 1070, NASPA's board began analyzing the considerable implications of cancelling its 2012 annual conference in Phoenix, which had been booked about five years earlier. The choices were stark. They could relocate the 4,500-delegate event and face an $850,000 cancellation fee—and then scramble to find a suitable alternative city on short notice. Or they could stay in Phoenix and subject the association to potential backlash from its highly diverse membership as well as organizations such as the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights advocacy organization, which called for a convention boycott of Arizona immediately after the bill's passage. (La Raza lifted its boycott last September.)

NASPA could relocate its meeting and pay an $850,000 cancellation fee, or stay and
face potential member backlash.

SB 1070 sparked a national debate over illegal immigration and an individual state's right to enact legislation to curb it. Considered the toughest immigration law in the United States when it was adopted, SB 1070 includes several controversial provisions, such as requiring police to confirm U.S citizenship when stopping, detaining, or arresting a person in the enforcement of another law. The legislation also makes it a state crime (a misdemeanor) for immigrants not to carry immigration papers at all times.

In July 2010, acting on a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit, a federal district court judge issued an injunction blocking enforcement of parts of SB 1070. The U.S. Supreme Court announced in December that it will hear arguments on the legislation later this year. Since Arizona lawmakers passed the bill, several other states have approved similar immigration provisions that also are facing legal challenges.

"There were two reactions" to SB 1070 within NASPA, says Executive Director Kevin Kruger. "One was we need to think about cancelling the contract and taking the conference to another city. The other position was we should stay and exercise our voice while we're there about what we considered a social justice issue."

As an organization with members representing more than 1,400 institutions of higher education, NASPA's membership places high value on diversity and inclusion, Kruger says. The organization has a formal "Commitment to Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity" statement, and some of its members' job duties include providing support services to racial and ethnic identity groups on university campuses. "If you think about the college or university setting, that's a pretty diverse place, so the staff that works there are equally diverse as well," he says, explaining why the immigration and social justice issues swirling around SB 1070 struck a nerve with many NASPA members.

In June 2010, NASPA decided to keep its conference in Phoenix. Kruger says that while the hefty cancellation fee was a consideration, the decision had little to do with money. "We have a reserve account for just these types of circumstances, when you have to make a difficult financial decision," he says. "So [board members] were really making [the decision] based on the principle that if we are truly an organization concerned about this issue and the economic and political experience of the folks in Arizona, we can do more by being there and having a voice. If you don't go, you will have no voice."

Finding the Facts

During the board's fact-finding phase, Kruger says, the Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau provided insightful details about SB 1070 and facts about the city's diversity, and even arranged a meeting between NASPA and city and state officials.

"It's a complex issue, and we went through this exercise very carefully," he says. "The CVB was very helpful informing our board about the reality [of the legislation], because so much of what you hear is rhetoric. You try to sort out what was being covered by the media versus what was actually happening on the ground. Phoenix itself has a very strong track record of supporting a diverse community, so we were trying to sort through all these issues and not just focus on one piece of legislation."

Once the board decided to keep the conference in Phoenix, NASPA issued a detailed explanation to its membership, using all the communication vehicles at its disposal, including social media outlets, electronic membership newsletters, postings on its website, and a membership email blast. The email included links to the language of SB 1070, a statement from NASPA Latino/a Knowledge Community (which urged cancellation), and a statement from Patricia Telles-Irvin, then NASPA's president-elect, a Latina who supported the decision to honor the contract.

"As an educational organization that stands for justice, inclusion, and access to education, as well as analyzing and solving the great challenges of our times, we must make a statement by going together and being very purposely present in Arizona with programs that will educate, enhance the dialogue, and reach a greater understanding on issues of immigration, justice, and human dignity," Telles-Irvin said in the statement.

In the email message, then-President Elizabeth Griego acknowledged the varied opinions on the issue that NASPA received from its members, detailed the decision-making process the board undertook, and explained why the board decided to honor the contract. The letter also outlined how the organization intended to address immigration and related issues in the conference program and invited members to continue to express their opinions and to get involved in planning conference sessions.

"I think our members trust us and appreciated the position we were taking and the rationale for our decision as well," says Kruger, adding that while NASPA Latino/a Knowledge Community initially requested that the conference be moved, it accepted the board's decision and became actively involved in the conference-planning committee. While some members vowed not to attend as a result of NASPA's decision, Kruger says the conference, which will take place this month, is on track to be among the association's most well-attended.

The conference-planning committee was "very deliberate about providing some experiences where our members can engage in dialogue around this issue," he says. "On their own, our members have submitted 15 different program sessions, not just to debate this issue but to address the impact on the college and university setting as well."

In addition to providing the member-driven sessions, NASPA created numerous ways that immigration and SB 1070 could be addressed at the conference, including adding former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson as a keynote speaker. "We wanted to make sure we had at least one speaker who could address this issue, and Bill Richardson has the most direct connection," says Kruger. "As governor of New Mexico, he dealt with many of the immigration issues Arizona has, and being Latino, he can give us some perspective that would be useful on this issue."

NASPA also will have a display wall at the host hotel where members can write their thoughts on the issue, and members will have several opportunities to help local grassroots organizations during the conference. "We're also having a candlelight vigil one evening for our members to be able to reflect on not just this issue, but other issues that affect different economic and political issues across many races and ethnicities," says Kruger.

While acknowledging the importance of addressing the immigration question during the conference, Kruger says NASPA was careful not to let its mission of providing quality member education get lost in the controversy.

"We didn't want this issue to hijack the entire conference agenda, but we wanted to make sure that people who were there and concerned about it would see us addressing it," he says. "It's important to make sure you're not swayed by the winds of whatever political issues happen to be blowing at that moment so that you get off mission and don't meet the professional development needs of members who are paying their good money to come to the meeting. You have to strike a balance. You need to be aware of what's taking place in your community, whether it's an immigration issue or a union issue at a specific hotel, and then choose your strategy based on the mission of the organization."

Jeff Waddle is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Face Controversy Strategically

When Arizona passed its controversial immigration law, NASPA–Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education was forced to decide whether to cancel or keep its 2012 annual conference in Phoenix. If you find your association facing a political firestorm that could have significant consequences for the organization, NASPA Executive Director Kevin Kruger suggests you consider the following as you formulate your strategy.

  • Seek help to truly understand the issue. Don't rely solely on media reports during the fact-finding stage. NASPA leadership met with the local CVB and city and state officials to learn more about the details of SB 1070, and it solicited opinions from key stakeholders, such as NASPA Latino/a Knowledge Community.
  • Know that not everyone may have the same opinion. The larger and more diverse your organization, the greater the chance that your membership will represent an array of opinions, especially on an issue as controversial as illegal immigration.
  • Realize the situation can change. Since major associations typically book their conferences several years out, the circumstances surrounding a political controversy can change significantly before the conference date arrives. Since NASPA announced its decision to keep its conference in Phoenix, for example, calls for a convention boycott in Arizona have been dropped by the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights advocacy group. La Raza cited hardship on the workers, organizations, and businesses it seeks to help as a key reason.
  • Provide a clear and comprehensive explanation of your decision. Use all the communication channels at your disposal, including social media outlets, member publications, your website, and membership email blasts.
  • Keep your organization's mission in mind. If your primary mission is education, for example, don't let a political controversy dominate your conference agenda to the point where it affects your ability to meet the educational needs of your members.
  • Create dialogue between members and the organization. Find ways before, during, and after the conference for members to address the issue and share opinions, including how the issue could affect the industry or profession your membership represents.