Each spring students, faculty and staff come together to air out opinions and engage in open dialogue about campus issues. It’s an ancient concept made modern by the Weinstein-Jecklin Speech Center.
“‘Forum at the Forum’ is a great way for students to have their voices heard immediately,” says co-organizer Cathryn Winchester, ’12. “The openness of it really represents Richmond well.” Winchester worked with Shane McNamara, ’12, to plan the sixth annual event. Both are student consultants at the Speech Center.
Students vote to select an issue for discussion. This year’s topic explored whether the University’s coordinate college system is “outdated or underrated.” The coordinate college system refers to Richmond’s student development approach that focuses on gender-based learning and programming. Each college — Richmond College for men, and Westhampton College for women — has its own dean, student government and social traditions.
Winchester and McNamara invited the deans of both colleges, an admissions representative and student leaders to serve as panelists for the forum. The panel responded to questions and candidly spoke with the crowd that came and went between classes. Afterward, those attending could also talk individually with panelists.
From the sometimes tense exchanges over gender identity and expression came the continuation of a genuine discussion.
“Some of the dialogue that took place within the forum actually set the stage for later conversations,” says Joe Boehman, a panelist and dean of Richmond College. “That, honestly, is the best takeaway. It opens those doors and allows our students to see they can talk to an administrator and they’ll listen.”
Juliette Landphair, dean of Westhampton College, agrees. “I think it’s great when the students get passionate and they’re able to challenge at least two of us representing part of the power structure at the University. That’s how change happens.
“We have to listen and try to understand where are the students coming from,” Landphair says. “And the very best way you can do that is to just interact with them.”
The “Forum at the Forum” traces its heritage to a University tradition during the 1960s and 70s, when regular public debates filled the Greek Theatre during the spring semester. Faculty frequently sparred and attempted to persuade students and colleagues on national or public policy issues.
The modern event provides a space for dialogue on campus issues.
“We try to encourage students to speak out in a manner of respect and from a state of considered thought,” says Linda Hobgood, director of the Speech Center. “Part of our mission is to pursue speaking and listening to good effect across the University community.”
Hobgood believes the forum plays a role in “empowering and goading undergraduates to consider how important it is to think through ideas and words carefully.” The forum, she adds, provides an outlet for students to test their opinions and arguments outside the classroom and in an environment free from the worry of a letter grade.
“An opportunity like this doesn’t happen everyday,” Hobgood says. “And we’ve been told that it’s had a constructive effect.”