Building Trust: Why Town Hall Meetings Must Go

J-Chap or the Red Room? J-Chap or the Red Room?

There’s been much discourse lately between the AAS, student body, and administrators. These conversations include Biddy and Provost Uvin’s meeting with RCs, Senators, and RSO leaders; new Chief Student Affairs Officer Suzanne Coffey’s meet-and-greet hosted by Women of Senate in the Women’s and Gender Center; and former Dean of Students Jim Larimore and Provost Peter Uvin’s many conversations with AAS about the restructuring of Orientation 2014 and the redesigned party policy. These conversations seem at first to be wildly different in context, content and tone—after all, the formers focused on personnel changes in the wake of Larimore’s departure, while the latter focused on social policy and the College’s priorities in acclimating new students to Amherst. But the one thing that linked the conversations together was a focus on trust and what we can do to build it.

As the student body and the administration know, the trust between our two oft-adversarial groups is rather tenuous at the moment. This tenuousness has been gnawing at us since Crossett Christmas, which was followed by a large, all-school meeting in Johnson Chapel with Biddy, Provost Uvin, and Dean Larimore. The content of this meeting also focused heavily on trust: trusting the administration, trusting police, and trusting other students from the Five Colleges. But these types of meetings are far less effective in building trust and perhaps may be more damaging to the already tenuous relationship between students and administration at Amherst.

Last week, Biddy and Provost Uvin held a meeting in the Red Room with a group of RSO leaders, Senators, RCs, and other interested students (though only members of those three specific groups were originally notified about the meeting). The conversation focused on explicating the new position of Chief Student Affairs Officer that Suzanne Coffey now occupies and getting to the heart of Biddy’s reasoning for choosing Coffey as Larimore’s replacement. But throughout the meeting, certain issues kept popping up: students felt they couldn’t trust Coffey largely due to her op-ed in the Student last year (which she has since entirely retracted), or Biddy for her installation of Coffey in a position focused on student interaction without soliciting student input.

The meeting was calm and cordial, if not friendly. Biddy responded to students who expressed doubt about her trustworthiness by promising staff changes, giving more transparent answers about some of the vague indications in her recent emails, and reassuring students that a timeline for a search for a permanent Dean of Students would be forthcoming. I left the meeting, and I think others did as well, with a better understanding of why Biddy felt such urgency to find a replacement for Larimore, and more faith in the administration as a whole.

Similarly, at Provost Uvin’s meetings with Senate, many questions and concerns have come up about the potential restructuring of Orientation. These centered on Uvin’s planned omission of Queer Queries, a renowned and traditionally well-received discussion on sexuality, in favor of a general “diversity-education event” meant to delve into the rich intersectional tapestry that is Amherst College. After some discussion, the Provost’s office added more interactive programming on diversity education to the Orientation schedule. A similarly constructive meeting occurred shortly before Dean Larimore’s resignation—after a meeting with the AAS to discuss the redesigned party policy, the Dean of Students office announced it to the school, which largely met the announcement with excitement and satisfaction from the student body. This sort of heartening change arose out of small, intimate meetings of administrators and students. These meetings are frank, with little fear of judgment or brash hostility displayed by either side.

A final recent example of a small, honest meeting of students and administrators is Suzanne Coffey’s meet-and-greet in the WGC last Friday. There were approximately fifteen to twenty students and a staff member in the space along with Coffey, and all were physically on the same plane: chairs and couches. No stage, no spotlight, no pews. Though the tone of the present students was at first somewhat distrusting, Coffey demonstrated her willingness to engage the students, listen to suggestions, take back distasteful arguments she had made in the past, and promise to build trust and rapport with both athletes and non-athletes in the future. I honestly don’t know if I’ve been to a more positive meeting in my time at Amherst.

I’d like to contrast all this with the town hall meeting held after the Crossett Christmas debacle. This meeting, held in Johnson Chapel, was intended to settle the uneasy campus atmosphere and to gather suggestions on ways to ensure party safety. However, this meeting was hostile and pitted students against administrators, rather than allowing the two groups to behave as two sides working towards a common goal. The sheer number of participants and the design of Johnson Chapel contributed to the disjointedness of the conversation—rather than engage in a fruitful, cooperative discussion, we attacked the administration and offered little in the way of helpful suggestions on how to move forward. The “town hall” style of meeting isn’t conducive to constructive conversation at all; though it incorporates all who wish to join, only a few actually get to share their opinions, while the vast majority sit silently anyway.

This can be immensely frustrating as a student. There are few things more disheartening than attending an all students meeting and wanting to share your thoughts, but being unable to speak. Moreover, administrators are forced to give more “political” answers to students’ questions at town hall meetings, which can also be frustrating and disingenuous. In smaller meetings, all parties can be frank and open, and everyone gets the opportunity to speak if they so wish.

This is how we build trust: facilitate open dialogue, engage in smaller, more intimate conversations, and listen to each and every voice. I’ll happily take this opportunity to plug Biddy’s weekly office hours, which she has continued to provide as an avenue for concerned students to have more honest, personal dialogue with her, and to express my hope that Mrs. Coffey launches a similar program for her office in the coming months. As an institution, we need to be able to trust one another; if we acknowledge that we are all working for the betterment of Amherst and help to keep each other on that road, we can build some trust.