A funny thing happened to the open forum

SG and the administration want to make open forums more relevant. But can they revolutionize the way students get involved with their school?

By Asher Klein

/ The Chicago Maroon

GREY CITY

  /  

March 8, 2011

SafeRide, amirite? Damn buses can never get it together.

I mean, it takes half an hour to show up after you call, so you get smart and call 30 minutes before you want to go. Naturally it comes in 15 and there’s no call, and you end up in the street waiting like a sucker for that squat little bus. Yes, you think, you could walk the two-and-a-half blocks to the East Route and pick that up but who knows if you’ll catch it and it’s cooold and anyway you’ve been waiting so long and you’re paying for this thing.

It’s just a broken system, you think to yourself, when the bus arrives, the door opens, and the driver gives you a look that says, “this guy....” Mussolini would never have allowed service this shoddy, you think, the foul analogy matching your mood.

But what are you gonna do about it? Sign a Facebook petition? Yeah, probably. Last November about 500 people joined a Facebook event critical of the service, calling it unreliable at a time when students were being assaulted close to campus. “The more of us who participate, the more likely we are to see a favorable change,” the Facebook page said, and many sent e-mails to administrators further expressing their dissatisfaction. (Over 2,200 people were invited to join.)

This wasn’t unwelcome feedback. Transportation chief Rodney Morris, like many other administrators, wants to hear from students so he knows how to improve service. In fact, he had appeared at an open forum on security and transportation about a week before the Facebook petition was started and answered a couple of students’ questions on SafeRide, according to second-year Frank Alarcon, the undergraduate liaison to the Board of Trustees who helped organize that forum. (continue reading below)

But would you actually show up to a meeting on SafeRide and air your grievances? Student Government (SG) thought so. Those 500 people really seemed to indicate a groundswell of support; it was one of the largest online gatherings in school history up to that point, if not the largest. SG and Transportation organized another open forum, this one specifically about SafeRide, then found a large room in anticipation of a big, outspoken audience, like the group on Facebook had been.

Ten people showed up to the second forum: three administrators, three SG members, three people who’d formed the facebook group, and a Maroon reporter. “There are deeper issues, and we can’t just do it with seven people in the room,” Morris said at the time. (He didn’t respond to requests for comment.) “Getting things changed takes a little time, but we are working on the process. I need your help, I need your input, I need your honesty.”

Getting University of Chicago students more involved in the day-to-day aspects of student life is a growing problem, as fewer students show up to open forums, where any student can confront a high level administrator with whatever is on his mind, and fewer substantial questions are getting asked. “You want to have constant communication. You don’t just want to have communication when there’s a problem,” Vice President for Campus Life Kim Goff-Crews said.

Getting students to do more than just complain about a few things that bother them is a harder nut to crack. With the SafeRide petition, students demonstrated a clear preference for engaging the administration online. “Our sense that attendance [at the open forums] is equal to interest and engagement in the institution may not be the best measurement for this particular student body,” said Goff-Crews. But how should the University gauge student interests, and what is the best format for U of C students to share their concerns?

Those are questions the University has looked into for some time. Goff-Crews organized a working group on student engagement a couple of years ago. The meeting inspired one of its members, sociology graduate student and former graduate liaison to the Board of Trustees Brian Cody, to undertake a study, on what students want out of campus communication “because everyone seems to think it’s not going well,” he said in a phone interview.

No open forum has been close to full since one held last March, after the arrest of a student in the A-level of Regenstein Library; four years ago the first forum with President Robert Zimmer overflowed. The University’s investment in Sudan and Zimmer’s commitment to transparency were in question then. Today, it is students’ commitment to anything that’s in question. In May of last year, just three students showed up to an open forum with Goff-Crews, Alarcon, and outgoing SG President Jarrod Wolf (A.B. ‘10).

This quarter’s three open forums averaged fewer than 40 attendees, including administrators—far fewer than the 100 or 200 who show up when people are passionate about an issue. Over 1,000 people will be invited to an open forum on Facebook, but often 25 will show up. Many have axes to grind at the University of Chicago, but few seem interested in talking to the president or other administrators about what bothers them. Many of those who do are SG members or administrators themselves, people who are already working on the University’s problems. This turns the forums into awkward exercises in administrative obligation.

Fifteen minutes before this quarter’s first open forum, I ran into a friend buying a sandwich at Hallowed Grounds. I asked if he ever considered going to an open forum, like the one about to start downstairs in the McCormick Tribune Lounge. He laughed like it was a stupid question. Why would he go to an open forum?

Well. Cheaper meal plans, better working conditions for housing and dining workers, healthier food, making sure the University recycles, bringing a Chipotle to campus. Those are just a few issues he might have brought up at that day’s open forum on housing and dining, where administrators were eager to take questions and suggestions from the 12 or so students who did show up.

Before the January 20 dining forum began, a young female student with red hair popped her head in the door to ask if she could have a sandwich. When second-year and liaison to the Board of Trustees Frank Alarcon said sure, but would she stay for the forum? “Um, I have a thing,” she said, grabbing a sandwich and strolling toward Hutch Courtyard. Another typically empty forum—two students gawked at computer screens, and an elderly couple left halfway through. Despite the red-letter items discussed, like bids for a new dining contract and the possibility of using Flex Dollars off campus, Associate Vice President for Campus Life Karen Warren Coleman was faced with extended pauses, filling them by asking, “Other thoughts?”

A few more students attended the February 24 “A-Level Study Break” forum on student health and off-campus housing, though attendance was still around 25. Representatives from MAC Property Management used the opportunity to pitch their services to students. The last forum of the quarter, with Zimmer, brought out around 75 students, but the longest exchange between students and the president was around how great the renovation to Harper Library was, and when Zimmer used to study late at night. Zimmer answered each question in his usual terse but well-reasoned way, and was never seriously asked to defend his thinking.

Goff-Crews said she expects members of the University community to be good “institutional citizens”—up to speed on campus policies, and motivated enough to come to administrators with their concerns. The many e-mails she gets, and the University students who fill focus groups and other small groups to solicit feedback, all fill that role, she said. But she knows most students won’t seek her out themselves—she also relies on SG and the Maroon to spread the word about what was discussed at open forums. Whether students read the Maroon or talk to SG members is another matter entirely.

Besides being uninformed, students often don’t know whom to approach with complaints or concerns, or even what is at the heart of a problem. “If we disagree because we have different stances, great. But if we disagree because one group doesn’t have the facts…that’s bad communication,” Cody explained. And without high attendance at open forums, Cody says poor attendance is a self-fulfilling problem. “Why do you go to an event? It’s not like you personally have a dream about it,” Cody said. “You get an interest from a flyer, and you tell your friends. People go to events in clusters, and open forums are terrible at bringing in clusters.” He is recommending in his report, being sent to ORCSA and Goff-Crews’ office this quarter, that SG make open forums mandatory for SG members. (Technically, that is already SG policy, but attendance among members remains moderate at best.)

Fourth-year and SG president Greg Nance said in a phone interview that open forums can be great for administrators to trot out new ideas and get feedback, but it helps when there’s an audience. He said the sparsely-attended housing forum was frustrating, “a missed opportunity in some respects.” Alarcon and Phillips agreed, though none of the three blamed students, who are likely too busy to attend, they said. Instead, Alarcon and Nance blamed location, advertising, and branding for the low turnout at the first forum. Zimmer’s open forum, newly branded as “Coffee & Donuts with President Zimmer,” brought more students, though a handful snuck out with donuts before the event began, and no more attended than at the same events last quarter.

Poor attendance at open forums is pushing Goff-Crews and SG and to consider new ways for students to engage with administrators. “We may have to come up with a new paradigm that works for this particular body at this particular time. We have to be open to that,” Goff-Crews said. She, Nance, and Alarcon mentioned social media as the likely alternative.

Social networking is likely on the table because, according to SG and the administration, it’s the best way to allow busy students to participate in campus-wide debate whenever they find ten or fifteen minutes, whether at 7:30 a.m. or 10 p.m. If students don’t show up to open forums, bring the forum to them, or so the thinking seems to go. And so the next time students spoke out online, administrators showed up themselves, so to speak.

With the blizzard of February 1 lurching toward Chicago and snow clouds only hours away, Goff-Crews co-wrote an e-mail informing the community that the University was unlikely to close. But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s warned the night before of the “DANGEROUS MULTIFACETED AND POTENTIALLY LIFE THREATENING WINTER STORM TAKING AIM ON REGION” (the service publishes all its warnings in caps). The stalwart Chicago Public School system had already announced it would close for the day. So too had all the graduate and professional schools at the University.

Many College students were upset by the University response. “I got tons of text messages from people I know, like, ‘Hey, what’s the administration doing?’” Alarcon said. One made a Facebook group calling for students to take matters into their own hands and skip school the next day; in a matter of hours over 4,000 students were invited to the group, and more than 1,300 joined, more students than Mandel Hall can hold.

When the Facebook group came to the attention of Goff-Crews and the new Assistant Vice President for Student Life Eleanor Daughterty (A.B. ‘97), it seemed like the right time and place to get involved. “I told [Daugherty], ‘They’re there, you might as well be there,’” Goff-Crews said, and Daugherty began posting updates on the storm, whether there would be school, and what drove the administration’s decisions.

But the presence of an administrator seemed to close down discussion, which centered first on whether there would be a snow day, and then on how to spend it, rather than how it was being dealt with and how the University could learn from any mistakes it made. Lizzy Kate Gray, a third-year, wrote this note on the Snow Day page: “Would love it if you could explain why the U of C didn’t believe the weather reports, and did not cancel classes Tuesday afternoon…You thought the school administration’s wait-and-see approach was wiser? You thought the shuttles could run in a blizzard? Please, explain.”

Daugherty responded with an invitation to discuss the issue in person. When asked by grey city via Facebook message whether she and the Gray met up, Daugherty replied, “I’ve received positive feedback and have decided to keep the communication going.” Gray said recently that she wasn’t alerted by Facebook when Daugherty commented on her post, though she would be happy to meet with her.

Goff-Crews said part of a possible transition to social networking—which at present includes appointing someone to look after the administration’s presence on social media, including its Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts—is looking at how conversing online affects the quality of discourse. Goff-Crews also said she enjoys working with small groups of students in task forces and doesn’t mind addressing student concerns on her own, without a forum-sized conversation. “I do like the group dynamics…but I also like meeting with individuals who can break down for me, what does that actually mean that this group has said X, Y, and Z. I want the [forum] numbers to improve, but even with small groups, you can get something out of it.”

Alarcon isn’t convinced that moving discussions online is as productive as open forums. He’s learned from the poorly attended but fruitful-in-discussion SafeRide forum that “spending 10 minutes articulating your concerns on a Facebook event is a different investment of time than showing up to a discussion,” and said the tone of the meeting was more collaborative than the online petition. Cody had a similar reaction. “Online, people can be assholes in a way they’re not face-to-face,” he said. “Online tools are a great way to augment conversations. They’re a terrible way to have whole conversations.”

Neither the snow day group nor the SafeRide petition produced much in the way of answers to pressing questions—many students still don’t know why it takes SafeRide a long time to arrive or why the administration delayed the snow day announcement; Alarcon said SG still gets questions about the SafeRide buses when it tables in the Reynolds Club. Interested parties may yet find a way to use social media to stimulate conversation, rather than simply augment it. Alarcon would indeed like to see “a stronger online relationship between students and administrators.” But until then, you can’t deny there’s a lot of work to be done.

In the interview, which took place a few days after this quarter’s first open forum, Nance was asked if his friends had known it was happening. “‘Oh my god, Kim Goff-Crews sends me so many e-mails, who the hell is she?’” Nance recalled one friend asking, and Nance replied, “Hey, here’s your chance to meet this lady.”

The friend didn’t go, but did recommend that Nance tell Goff-Crews, the vice-president for Campus Life, “to stop sending me so many e-mails.” Seriously, who reads University-wide e-mails?

Well. Maybe you should.