Gathering a campus community for a town hall meeting, whether virtual or in person, can be an effective leadership move. Unfortunately, in my experience, campus town halls can be associated with strife instead of solutions. This is likely the result of skewed expectations of what a town hall meeting should accomplish and how to use it as a communications medium. College town hall organizers could take lessons from 17th-century America, when settlers in Massachusetts came together weekly as a community to discuss pressing issues and build consensus on solutions, with all parties playing an equal role in the process.
Some years ago, as a college administrator invited by student leaders to my first college town hall meeting, I was optimistic. Based on my engagement in local government on strategic planning and my graduate work in public administration and policy, I expected a healthy forum that would help get to the root of brewing issues and improve transparency and understanding. The invitation was the first thing to clue me in to the fact that this event might be different. It noted that we would be discussing the “issues that students find most pressing” and that I would be “informed” when the topics were finalized.
During the town hall, college administrators were invited to stand in front of frustrated students and answer question after question, followed by roundtable brainstorming sessions. A few days later, student leaders delivered the notes formatted as collected demands, not issues for further discussion. Consequently, both parties were put on the defensive rather than being positioned to embrace collaboration. I am confident that the students had good intentions. Unfortunately, when town hall meetings are not designed in partnership or do not follow best practices, they fail to serve as a viable mechanism for dialogue and engagement.
AmericaSpeaks founder Carolyn J. Lukensmeyer and president Steve Brigham acknowledge that special interest groups have taken control over our processes for democratic input and “skewed the agenda toward extreme positions,” therefore they “do not engage and sustain citizen interest or generate much useful information for decision-makers.” They propose that effective town halls should be composed of a mix of small- and large-scale dialogues, in a series of meetings occurring as many times as necessary to accomplish systemic change. They further offer a methodology for conducting town hall meetings, which they recognize as labor-intensive and costly to implement.
As many of us do in 2023, I wondered what ChatGPT might say about the subject. Prompted by the statement “Please give me a list of best practices for town hall meetings,” it produced a fairly solid list of advice but said nothing about ownership—or co-ownership, as I had hoped—of organizing the meetings.
So, I called on Maynard-Knox Professor of Law Frank Anechiarico, director of the Levitt Public Affairs Center and founder of a semester-long program at Hamilton College that pairs the theoretical and multidisciplinary study of complex societal challenges with practical application in a local context. Each cohort of students broadly focuses on a different topic, and their interaction with local community leaders often incorporates a series of town hall meetings.
Anechiarico and I agree that town hall meetings are more likely to be effective when they are designed and advertised in partnership. He recommends that organizers involve all interested parties early on for credibility on both sides and to avoid the “us-versus-them” scenario.
“One of the major benefits of town hall meetings is the ability to break through misconceptions,” he said. “Ideally all parties walk away with a mutual and better understanding of what we are trying to do here.”
My own best practices for town hall meetings, whether they be held in a municipality or a college community, include the following:
- Town hall meetings should be an assembly agreed upon by all parties.
- All parties should have active roles in designing the exchange of ideas.
- Each meeting should be limited to one topic.
- An independent facilitator is best to guide the flow and serve as a responsible timekeeper, ensuring that all perspectives are granted ample time and that participants are talking with one another and not at one another.
- Every meeting should end with action items, and representatives for all sides should reconvene in a smaller group to agree on priorities and next steps—including scheduling the next town hall meeting.
As a communications professional, I believe the goal of town hall meetings falls somewhere on the axis between awareness and engagement. They should not be an inflection point in issues management, but rather a pre-emptive communications device for multiway flow of information and progress toward mutual understanding.