Equality and Accountability: Why Rabbi Berman Should Bring Back Town Hall Meetings

By: Mindy Schwartz  |  December 14, 2017

In November of his first year as president, Richard Joel began a tradition that would last throughout the many tumultuous ups and downs of his tenure: the Town Hall Meeting. Held once a semester, these meetings were a forum for students to voice their questions and concerns about the university to the man who ran it. In explaining the impetus for the program Joel said, “I believe it is important to be accessible to the student body and faculty. I want to create a partnership with [them] to set goals.”

Despite Joel’s laudable vision, it is unclear if the new president, Rabbi Ari Berman, will continue his predecessor’s tradition. According to administrators, Rabbi Berman will not be holding a Town Hall Meeting this semester and there “no plans at the current time” for one in the Spring Semester either.

Dean of Students Dr. Chaim Nissel noted that while Rabbi Berman will not be holding “formal town hall meetings,” the president “has been, and continues to look forward to, connecting with students over Shabbat on each campus and at upcoming programs and events throughout the semester.”

It is certainly true that Rabbi Berman has showed a sincere enthusiasm for connecting to students through Shabbatonim, events, and visits to various school buildings. But these sort of personal interactions should not be the only form of interaction with the president available to students. While it is important that the student body get to know the president as a person, it is more important that the student body get to know the president for his policies–particularly his stances on the issues that concern them.

Students need to have a place where they can voice their issues, be heard, and responded to by their school’s leadership. Of course even without Town Hall Meetings there are still a number of ways for students to vocalize their concerns. The student newspapers are an amazing outlet for students who want to publicize issues that concern them. Students can also reach out to the Dean of Students, Dr. Chaim Nissel, who is, at least from my personal experience, very open to listening to students’ issues and trying to solve them whenever possible. For student leaders a number of events are actually already planned for this express purpose, giving these students face time with senior administrators with whom they can share their concerns and suggestions for improvement.

But while these are all significant opportunities for addressing student issues, they cannot fill the hole left by the absence of the Town Hall: a public forum where any student could voice his or her concern, and where the President would have to respond to each concern.

The Town Hall was a great equalizer, both of students and of student issues. Not everyone can take pen to paper and cogently advocate for their issue in an article, but that doesn’t mean their issues are not as important as those who can. In addition, only a minority of the student body serve as the “student leaders” who are invited to events that give them the opportunity to address their issues with the president and senior administrators. At the Town Hall, you didn’t have to be a student journalist, a writer, or a student leader to have your voice heard–all you had to do was show up.

Moreover, the forum ensured that that no grievance, no matter how seemingly technical or mundane, could escape the president’s eye, as long as a student cared enough to ask about it. Joel highlighted this point at his final Town Hall at Beren this past March when he joked,  “I am going to miss the town hall meetings because [without them] I don’t know what the water pressure is in the showers.” These mundane issues–lack of hot water, broken heating, comfortable desk chairs–are the kinds of issues that can really affect a student’s day to day experience over time, and students should have a place to bring them up even if they don’t make for a catchy op-ed.

Perhaps even more critically, the Town Hall was a public forum in which the president had to face the issues presented to him, and take a public stance for which he could be held accountable. Of course Joel did not followed through on every promise that he made, but in those cases, students could at least point to the president’s own words and say: his actions do not match  his words, thus holding him responsible for that contradiction.

This sort of public accounting is currently not an option with the forums that students now have to voice their issues. Rabbi Berman may read the student newspapers, but he does not need to look every writer in the eye and publically respond to his or her article. While Dr. Nissel can help students when he is able, if the issue makes its way to senior administrators, it would be through emails or private meetings, none of which would be on public record. The same is true with events for student leaders, which are often explicitly “off the record.”

At Joel’s last Town Hall on the Wilf campus last March he was asked if Rabbi Berman would continue the Town Hall Meetings when he took office. Joel responded that while he does not know whether Rabbi Berman will want to continue the tradition, he is sure that Rabbi Berman will be committed to YU’s student body.

Rabbi Berman has said time and time again over the course of his first few months on the job that he is deeply fond of and deeply committed to YU’s student body. Here is a chance for him to prove just how much he cares. With the absence of Town Hall Meetings the student body has lost a critical space to voice their concerns, and be responded to, in the way they deserve–and Rabbi Berman can fix that. So I ask our new president to take this opportunity to show his deep commitment to us, the student body, and bring back the Town Hall back next semester.