Town Hall Shows That Town Halls Don’t Work

Tyler Crews

Last Thursday, President Andrew Hamilton and other administrators hosted a public town hall to discuss global studies at NYU. The first half of the town hall was formatted like a panel, which allowed the administrators and NYU Student Government President Juan Manuel Calero to discuss various initiatives within NYU’s global programs to promote diversity and inclusivity; the second half opened the conversation up to students in a Q&A format. However, the question and answer session quickly diverted from conversation into accusation and avoidance, proving once again that Hamilton is right — town halls are not productive settings for dialogue. 

When Stern senior Essma Bengabsia requested comment on the Islamophobia and racism in the Stern School of Business, the administration recognized the need for safety and assured Bengabsia that the right team would be put on it. While this reception cannot yet be deemed as productive because it has not turned into action, the administration appeared genuinely concerned and ready to address the problem. 

Although this interaction can be viewed in a positive light, the truth is that town halls simply do not work when the members of the meeting are walking in with the intent to elicit specific replies. Q&A’s don’t allow for collaboration or problem solving — only problem identification. As President Hamilton said, “Town halls are a different kind of format. They are not the most effective exchange of ideas.” One student, for example, asked President Hamilton about his environmentalist stance.

“I wonder how you … can talk about these things with a straight face when NYU still has incredible amounts of money — undisclosed amounts of money — invested in the fossil fuel industry?” the student asked. 

While the issue of fossil fuel divestment was important to discuss on Thursday night, the manner in which it was raised was accusatory and insulting, which are not tools for open discourse. Yet, these words were still communicated better than the hissing Hamilton was met with when he announced his disagreement with the Boycott, Sanction and Divest movement. While I understand that hissing is the opposite form of snapping in this arena — similar to liking and disliking something online — I would be far less receptive to the grievances of a room full of people who were hissing at me. 

Of course, on the other side, Hamilton and the rest of the administration danced around responses, reiterating past answers and rewording old statements. Hamilton repeated messages of togetherness and inclusivity and called a variety of situations “unacceptable.”

While Hamilton’s first two town halls in March 2016 were received well by students, his town hall last year had similar instances of discontent and lack of respect — some students chanted “shame” at Hamilton, while others walked out. 

Overall, neither party felt satisfied after leaving recent town halls, so why should we think a town hall with the Board of Trustees — people who are far less willing to listen to students — will result in a beneficial outcome? Instead, we should focus our efforts behind facilitating dialogue through the student government, which leads to concern over elected student government members and not allowing candidates to run uncontested. There are many other avenues for conversation — so we shouldn’t pursue the ones that have already proven ineffective. 

 

Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.

A version of this appeared in the Monday, April 23 print edition. Email Tyler Crews at [email protected].

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