January 25, 2011

Open Forum 2.0

Taking SG open forums online will increase participation

In the past year, Student Government (SG) has hosted multiple open forums on a range of campus issues. These forums had everything you could ask for—publicity, free food, administrators to answer student questions—but sadly lacked one crucial detail: student attendance.

Because they are one of the few opportunities for students to interact with SG representatives and administrators, the near nonexistent turnout at these events is sobering. The most recent forum, dedicated to campus dining issues, involved only a handful of students, and the prior one, regarding Safe Ride and student transportation, brought out a grand total of four undergraduates.

SG can’t be blamed for the low turnout. The problem isn’t the timing or the location of the panels and, more importantly, the issues discussed are clearly relevant to student life. Students just seem to be too busy or too lazy to accommodate what are truly important dialogues with administrators.

But while few students bother to attend the open forums, it’s not because we’re disinterested, and there’s already a medium to harness our concerns. If administrators want to gauge student opinion and answer questions, as they aim to do at the open forums, there are no more effective tools than the internet and e-mail. Rather than worrying about fixing real-life forums, SG and the administration should be taking better advantage of the forums already thriving online.

The internet’s superiority at aggregating opinions and disseminating information was put on dramatic display last quarter, when dissatisfaction with Safe Ride reached a breaking point and a Facebook petition regarding changes to the late night buses garnered the support of over 500 students. Wall posts on the Facebook page included thorough, thought-out proposals and complaints.

But when Director of Transportation Rodney Morris appeared at an open forum in response to the petition, only four students came to speak with him. If Morris had fielded questions and concerns on the Facebook page or a similar online space, he would have had an audience of hundreds.

Open forums provide a rare opportunity for student concerns to be heard, and SG shouldn’t give up on them, but it should change the way they are conducted. One possibility could be an online broadcast with a live chat component, where students could type their questions from the comfort of their dorm room and listen to the panel’s response online.

Another possibility is a permanent message board for various issues, where SG representatives and administrators could post questions and respond to students’ ideas.

These online forums would provide a record of SG and administration statements and positions, and they could be reviewed by anyone at any time. Scheduling conflicts disappear and student response is virtually guaranteed.

Every student has access to the internet, and we all have opinions on campus issues. SG has done an admirable job organizing meetings with administrators, but their format needs to capitalize on the trends of the times. If those in charge on campus want student feedback, the McCormick Tribune Lounge is no longer the place to find it—it’s time to take the questions and answers online.

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