IF THE CONSTITUENT SERVICE town hall meeting allows politicians to perform accountability theater, the town hall meeting has emerged as a way for a university to perform similar work on campus. The campus town hall meeting can present a simulacrum of affective labor by university administration, offering students, faculty, and staff the same kind of cathartic ritual we saw with the constituent service town hall meeting. At the same time, the campus town hall meeting overlaps with the corporate town hall meeting when it functions as a tool of campus governance. Campus town hall meetings can be important outlets for a community when they are held in the wake of an incident that traumatized some portion of the campus community. But this same type of meeting can also take a managerial form that often does more to provoke trauma than to allay it. Especially in times of financial austerity, university officials will hold town hall meetings to announce decisions that university leaders have already made. As with constituent service town halls, the difference between a conversation before a decision and a conversation after a decision is the essence of what separates these rituals from anything like a deliberative democratic process.
As an example of the logic of the managerial campus town hall meeting, consider the following 2014 invitation from Robert H. Jones, the provost of Clemson University, to the faculty and staff: “A strong university is built on the engagement of its faculty, staff and students. For that reason, President Clements and I invite you to our first State of the University town hall, which will take place from 1–2:30 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 19 at Tillman Hall auditorium. . . . During the event, President Clements will deliver his State of the University address and I will talk about the university’s strategic planning process.”
This event took place almost exactly a year into President Clements’s tenure at Clemson. This email from his provost is symptomatic of the kind of transformation the institution of the town hall meeting can undergo on campus. To begin, this event is a mash-up of two political rituals: the town meeting and the State of the Union address. At the federal level, the State of the Union discharges the president’s constitutional obligation to “give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” In addition, many state and municipal governments have similar events called “State of the State” or “State of the City.”
Like the constituent service town hall meeting, the State of the Union address is a prerogative of someone who holds an office rather than an event that determines who will hold an office. As such, a “State of the University town hall” verges into incoherence—the “State of the” part implies a unilateral delivery of information, while the “town hall” part suggests some kind of deliberative process, or at least the appearance of such an exchange. At the same time, the provost’s language suggests that this ritualized form of the town hall meeting has become naturalized: “Because the campus community will be the drivers of our goals and our plan to get there, it is important for us to be transparent in every step of the process. While we are there to share information, it is equally important for us to hear from you. Toward that end, the campus town hall will include a question and answer session.” Specifying that a campus town hall includes a question and answer session suggests that there could be a town hall that does not include a question and answer session, which would be something like a staged reading of a press release. But in any case, the primary business of this town hall meeting is to “share information,” even as the rhetoric of the email affirms the importance of the campus community.
The language of transparency is also telling here. Transparency is better than its absence in government, but objects either are or are not transparent. So the invocation of transparency suggests that there is an object, either transparent or opaque, interposed between the members of the community and the process that affects them. As Gregory A. Petsko succinctly observed in an open letter to the president of SUNY–Albany about a proposal to eliminate foreign language programs, “You did call a town meeting, but it was to discuss your plan, not to let the university craft its own.” The ritualized nature of these events can lurch toward self-parody. For example, a 2018 town hall meeting for Clemson student-athletes solicited prescreened questions for the event and required student-athletes to submit a “comment of appreciation” if they wished to ask a “question of importance” to the athletic director.
Examples of campus town hall events like this could be multiplied endlessly—if you attend or work for a university, there may well be a message inviting you to one in your inbox right now. Unless your university is a radical outlier, managerial town hall meetings like this probably have a similar structure and function of relaying news about decisions leadership has already made rather than gathering to make decisions. At the same time, meetings like this also normalize the town hall meeting as a unilateral managerial process. It might not be overstating the case to suggest that town hall meetings hosted by educational institutions work to lower expectations for the democratic nature of all town hall meetings.
A 2009 town hall meeting at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) demonstrates how the town hall meeting inverts the structure and function of the town meeting. The intrinsic power of a town lies in the power to tax and spend. This power is regulated by the town meeting. The power to tax, and thus to spend, devolves from the state’s monopoly on the power to kill, imprison, and confiscate—if you don’t pay your taxes, you eventually go to jail. Aspects of this power are distributed variously at the national, state, and town levels, but the degree of autonomy a town can claim is a function of its ability to tax and spend, as well as to deliberate on how much to tax and how much to spend.
In the UCSD instance, the deliberation suggested by a town hall meeting is a ritual. The budgetary decisions have been made elsewhere, and it falls to the UCSD leadership to implement them:
Salary cuts, furloughs, retirement benefits, equity and the need for political action were on the minds of the more than 2,000 UC San Diego faculty and staff members who turned out in the past two weeks for a series of town hall meetings outlining how the University of California plans to respond to cuts in state funding. During the meetings, Chancellor Marye Anne Fox presented the three options offered by the UC Office of the President, including an 8 percent pay cut, furloughs equating to an 8 percent cut and a mix of pay cuts and furloughs equivalent to an 8 percent decrease in salary. Employees making less than $46,000 a year would take a 4 percent cut. Fox also took questions and feedback from the audience.
Managerial events like these suggest some of the inherent challenges facing a university town hall meeting intended to address a campus in crisis. Regardless of the challenges, such events remain commonplace. In the fall of 2015, the University of Kansas held a town hall meeting as a response to racial tensions on other campuses, including the University of Missouri and Yale University. The press release from this event offers a compact summary of the considerations driving the reactive campus town hall meeting:
LAWRENCE—Recent events at Yale University, the University of Missouri and other schools have amplified the ongoing national conversation about race and, more broadly, about respect and responsibility. To further the discussion, the University of Kansas will host a town hall meeting on the topic of race, respect and responsibility at 4 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 11, in the Big 12 Room of the Kansas Union. The town hall meeting is designed to be an open conversation among students, faculty and staff on the topics of race and inclusion, as well as respect and responsibility. The goal is to create an affirming space for voices from a number of communities and backgrounds to be heard and considered. The event is organized by the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Diversity and Equity, in conjunction with the Office of Multicultural Affairs. “Diversity is a foundational value for the University of Kansas,” said Nate Thomas, vice provost for diversity and equity, “and we remain committed to fostering a welcoming and inclusive campus environment where individuals of all backgrounds can succeed and feel comfortable. Additionally, we want our students to be part of the national conversation on race and respect, a conversation that has accelerated in recent weeks on campuses across the country. This town hall meeting is an opportunity for us to advance the conversation.”
The language of the press release reveals more of the logic of an event like this than its sponsors might intend. The big news concerning this town hall meeting is that it will be held—in other words, the salient news is that the event even exists, as far as the University of Kansas is concerned. Framing the meeting in this way suggests that it is a foregone conclusion that it will not produce any newsworthy outcomes—the news is that the university cares, and that is that. The only update on this town hall in the University of Kansas press release archives indicates that Chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little would be moderator. It fell to external media sources to report how the town hall unfolded, which turned out to include a protest by African American students. Diagnosing the dynamic often present in events like these, Katherine Rainey, one of the protesting students, announced to the assembly, “Today’s only purpose is to silence and appease students.” Responding to these events, the University of Kansas deployed the same rhetoric of seeing and hearing we observed with constituent service town halls.
The University of Kansas was far from alone. As a sample, in October of 2016, the University of Memphis president announced a town hall meeting in response to racist incidents on campus. Just after the 2016 presidential election, Southern Methodist University student leaders held a town hall to address an uptick in racist incidents since the election.
A series of events at American University in the spring of 2017 indicates the appeal of the town hall meeting to administrators, while the student response suggests the limitations of the town hall meeting. Many of the students attending the meeting left early in frustration: “Students said the meeting recapped what people already knew and did not go far enough to address what the university would do. . . . Some administrators went into the crowd to try and assure students they are being heard.” Considering that the next academic year at American University opened with another racist incident, the frustration of these students is understandable. Administrators sought to mollify students of color by telling them they were being heard. Racist incidents continued. The campus town hall offers many opportunities for a university to listen but does very little to compel a university to act.
Westfield State University, on its Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) webpage, demonstrates how town hall meetings are embedded in the culture of the contemporary U.S. university. In the wake of a bias incident report, which is “any behavior or act . . . which is personally directed against or targeted toward an individual or group . . . based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression . . .” there will be both an “individual response” and a “community response.” The community responses may include the following:
- Provide additional support for those directly affected by the bias incident
- Student/campus forum
- Campus notices and fact sharing as appropriate (e.g. campus newspaper article, e-mail alerts, text notification, fliers, website updates, etc.)
- Educational programming
- Response to the media, if appropriate
- Personal counseling for students
- Town hall meetings
- Speaker rallies
- Policy revision recommendations
In some ways Westfield’s BIRT webpage is a model for universities in offering a clear outline of the consequences of a bias incident on campus. At the same time, the town hall meeting is as an end in itself in terms of responding to these incidents. It is worth noting that town hall meetings, along with student/campus forum and speaker rallies, come before “policy revision recommendations,” and even those are just recommendations.
These meetings can be both an important part of campus life and part of a more transparent model of running a campus. It would be worse for university leaders to implement new strategic plans without indicating what they are. It would be worse for university leaders to ignore traumatic events on campus or around the country that affect their students’ well-being. At the same time, the bifurcation of town hall meetings into administrative and affective subcategories effectively segregates the university that speaks (announcing new strategic plans) from the university that listens (fielding student concerns about sexual violence or racist incidents). It is reductive, but perhaps not unfair, to suggest that the burgeoning category of student affairs professionals creates a category of university employees whose job it is to make students feel heard, freeing up other administrators to do the work of actually running the university. At the same time, student affairs professionals are often put in the position of simply viewing the college student as a paying customer of tuition and room and board. This conception of student as customer echoes some of the alarming trends Wendy Brown details in her consideration of higher education in the era of neoliberalism, which she calls “Educating Human Capital.” For Brown, “Human capital is distinctly not concerned with acquiring the knowledge and experience needed for intelligent democratic citizenship.” Instead of engagement in any kind of deliberation with jurisdictional power over the future shape of the university, the campus town hall focuses on making students feel as if they have been heard. The culture of these campus town halls cleaves the deliberative process in two and works to disenfranchise the community that is ostensibly the reason for these meetings in the first place. The campus town hall meeting disrupts the deliberative process, even as it seeks its aura.
One of the peculiarities of the campus town meeting is that it exists outside the contemporary university’s infatuation with outcomes. For instructional design, “learning outcomes” have become the coin of the realm. At the instructional level, embracing “learning outcomes” can be an exercise in finding ways to say that wheels are round: “In this class on medieval literature, we will learn about medieval literature by reading medieval literature.” But the demand for learning outcomes is also one way to impose a neoliberal rhetoric of college as a place to acquire skills to compete in the twenty-first-century economy on top of a more traditional notion of college as a place to learn things. If education as an end in itself is a fading idea, the campus town hall meeting asserts itself as an end in itself. A campus town hall meeting where leadership announces a strategic plan does exactly just that. The point of the reactive campus town hall meeting is simply that it has taken place. As such, it is evidence in and of itself that the university has addressed whatever issue there is.
Beyond an institution’s performance of empathy, the campus town meeting’s response to an incident can also unfold as Sarah Ahmed describes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Considering the political work of shame, Ahmed observes, “By witnessing what is shameful about the past, the nation can ‘live up to’ the ideals that secure its identity or being in the present. The shameful thing interrupts the pride we have in the nation, and the same thing can work at a collegiate valence—this shameful thing that is ‘not who we are,’ because it is shameful, because we are proud of who we are, as Tigers or Wildcats or Bulldogs, and therefore the shameful thing is aberrant, even if it is routine.”