Opening a new forum

The changed format of “Coffee and Donuts” is a welcome attempt to foster student engagement.

By Maroon Editorial Board

This past Tuesday, the open forum event previously known as “Coffee and Donuts with President Zimmer” was introduced in its new, improved form. The event, entitled “A Leadership Conversation with President Zimmer,” was focused on the single topic of University globalization, and consisted of a short presentation by the President followed by a lengthy Q&A. This template, which will be used in future talks on different topics, is a commendable first step in resolving the open forum woes that plague campus, and in establishing a format conducive to both administrator preparation and student engagement.

Tuesday’s forum drew over 70 students. One reason could be the event’s focus on a single topic—a contrast to the usual, more general “Coffee and Donuts” format. This specificity allowed students to ask incisive questions about the University’s plans for international programs, centers, and expansion. Administrators, likewise, came prepared with detailed knowledge about the topic at hand and cognizance of what they would, and should, be held accountable for.

Another reason for the event’s success was the inclusion of relevant administrators other than President Zimmer. He has the final word in all large-scale University matters, but it’s simply not the case that the President will have the most relevant or nuanced responses to student queries. Though we by no means excuse the President from his obligation to remain aware of and accountable for campus issues, his job is one of management, rather than expertise. The specific people making the relevant decisions should be present at open forums. It was sensible, then, that Dali Yang, faculty director of the University of Chicago Center in Beijing, was at Tuesday’s forum to provide thorough answers to concerns about the University’s implementation of its global strategy.

SG’s approach to fixing the open forum has been threefold: inviting administrators to whom students don’t normally have access, inviting administrators who are the most knowledgeable about the forum topic, and holding more forums (preferably 2–3 a quarter). Despite this plan, complaints have been levied at the new format. Focusing discussion on a single topic has raised the ire of those who claim it’s merely another administrative maneuver to avoid discussing the more contentious issues on campus. While reasonable concerns, such complaints don’t take into account both the history of failure such wide-ranging open forums have had and the necessarily slow process of improving an event series. Furthermore, SG representatives have noted that possible future events will tackle controversial issues like University financial decisions, graduate student unionization, and the Kalven Report. These are topics rarely discussed by administrators that draw a great deal of interest among students; to not address them would be to render useless even the new, improved version of the open forum.

In 2010, when about 500 people signed a petition criticizing the then-available SafeRide, SG organized an open forum in response. Four students attended. We commend SG, the Office of Campus and Student Life, and administrators for collaborating in order to ensure that such pitiful attendance isn’t repeated. There must be a fine balance between student and administrative obligation in these open forums, and the rebranded, rethought format is a good step toward finding that middle ground.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.