Speaking to absent ears
April 9, 2010
Everyone’s been getting the e-mails — the ones about “starting a conversation on what it means for W&M to be a liberal arts university in the 21st century.” As it turns out, however, few have been attending these conversations. College of William and Mary Provost Michael Halleran recently hosted the seventh in a series of conversations about the definition and goals of the College. While they have included some illuminating discussions, the events have remained poorly attended. In this, both the provost and the campus as a whole are missing an opportunity to engage in a lively and healthy debate. By framing these certainly essential debates in a more stimulating and specific way, the provost could make great strides in creating a more inclusive dialogue.
The idea to establish this sort of forum between administration and students was innovative, and was pursued with great resolve by the Office of the Provost. We’re glad to see a forum has been provided to foster communication across the various spheres of the campus community and to provoke critical discussion about issues that are at the basis of our institution. Furthermore, these events have helped provide a vital point of contact with the provost’s office. Many students, who may not have even been aware of the provost prior to these talks, are now more encouraged to engage with Halleran on matters of school policy.
It’s an example that the others in the College’s administration should take to heart. We find it amazing that other campus discussions of this sort — on issues such as sustainability and service integration — aren’t also hosted on a regular basis. It allows those in the campus community to discuss their goals for the College in these areas, which should be an essential part of drafting College policy. Instead of vaguely stating the goal of “taking campus opinion into consideration,” more administrators should follow the example of the provost in actually establishing a forum for that discussion.
There is, however, one key flaw. Attendance at these events, especially among students, has remained low. Students are definitely partly to blame in this by not taking a role in helping to articulate the goals of the College. But part of the problem is that the talks weren’t framed in a way as to properly spur discussion.
The topics of each conversation, while including aspects that are relevant and essential to our College today, were often either phrased in far too vague a way to actually capture general interest, or were simply not immediately relevant to students’ concerns. If these conversations and others like them are to continue into the future — and we believe they should — their topics must become more focused and involve issues on which students already have passionate opinions.
The list of potential, yet adequately specific, topics is nearly limitless. One could center on gender distribution at the College, both among majors and the university as a whole; another on the academic budget, including how students feel about cuts and how they’re distributed. The idea of a community forum could even be extended to include the selection of future topics to see what people actually want to talk about.
True, some of these areas have come up in past discussions, but none of the discussions has been framed around them. But by structuring the discussions in terms of immediately relevant issues, or even by letting students and faculty themselves to help frame the discussion, these “campus conversations” might prove to be a more lively and productive forum in the future.