by Cecilia Parrish
A town hall meeting held Tuesday, Oct. 25, was filled with frustrated students and bewildered faculty members. What began as a presentation and panel for Unity Week was quickly shut down by students who were under the assumption that a regular town hall meeting would be taking place, where they could raise questions about recent events concerning the university.
Frank E. Dobson, associate dean of students and director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University, presented a lecture entitled, “Unity, History and Reconciliation.” Dobson’s presentation aimed to enlighten the audience on current and past events revolving around social justice issues, such as violence against black Americans and white civil rights supporters who also experienced violence against them for their actions and beliefs.
A panel of six were presented to answer questions from the audience: Onaje Cunningham, student at the university, Michael Briningham, Frankfort Police Department Officer, Daryl Lowe, associate Dean of student conduct, Dr. Charles Nichols, visiting assistant professor of the College of Business and Consumer Science, and Dr. John Sedlacek, associate professor and Kenneth Andries, assistant professor, both of the College of Agriculture, Food Science, and Sustainable Systems.
Dobson opened the panel discussion with the question, “How should we deal with bad history and the need for reconciliation?”
Sedlacek’s response was to begin building a connected community through simple greetings.
“I make sure to greet everyone I meet on campus,” he said. “Most of the time people look down at their feet when they pass me by. But 99 percent of the people I greet respond positively.”
Cunningham said he deals with bad history by not worrying “about why someone doesn’t like me.”
Crystal Conway Cunningham, a student at the university, proposed the next question to the panel.
“I think this question of unity is also about the LGBTQ community. How can we bridge the gap, being black and LGBTQ?”
That question, however, was never answered by the panel, as it was at this point that the town hall meeting took a turn. Many students had already left the meeting, having thought that they would be able to bring up their concerns with recent events both on and off campus.
“I think the school wants to talk about police brutality and homecoming instead of unity,” Onaje Cunningham said.
This sentiment was reflected in student Alexis Thrasher’s statement: “I want to talk about homecoming, that’s what we’re all here for. The student body had requested for another artist [besides Wale] and nothing happened.” She went on to question the support from the university’s staff towards the students.
Francene Gilmer, interim vice president for student affairs, assured the audience that their questions would be addressed after the Unity Week town hall meeting and redirected the audience to Dobson’s presentation.
“There are no females on the panel, you don’t represent me as a black lesbian in America.” Tisa Cunningham, a second year environmental studies graduate student, said.
Many panel members assured Tisa Cunningham that they did represent her.
The audience proceeded to ask questions about the homecoming concert, specifically about why Wale, the musical guest, had not performed.
George Maurice White, coordinator of student activities, said that because there was limited time to offer a contract to an artist and that Wale was the only one who was available, Student Life had to offer the contract to Wale, who accepted.
Gilmer added to the explanation, saying that a meet and greet was planned to begin at 8:30 p.m., and the concert to last from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Oct. 15. Wale declined to perform “because there weren’t enough people,” Gilmer said. According to Gilmer, as she approached Wale’s tour bus, it “pulled off and they didn’t stop to talk.”
“At the end of the day, no one can make an artist come up on stage and perform,” said Christina Leath, assistant general counsel and director of Title III, a program, according to the U.S. Department of Education, that aids in financial assistance to historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.
Ralph Williams, president of the Student Government Association executive board, apologized to the audience for students being misled about the timing of the town hall events. Williams claims that students contacted him about a town hall meeting being set up, and when he spoke with the appropriate staff about doing so, it was suggested that the town hall meeting be appended to the end of Dobson’s presentation for Unity Week.
Flyers for the event said, “A Day of Dialogue: A Call to Action, Town Hall Meeting,” but did not specify times for each part of the event, except for the 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. timeslot originally planned.
Crystal Cunningham brought up the fall graduation ceremony being changed from a full ceremony to a diploma ceremony.
“The person who announced that [there would be a full graduation ceremony in the fall] is not here anymore,” said Gilmer. She went on to say that “students will be invited to walk in May.”
In answer to the question of why this fall graduation couldn’t be the last full graduation ceremony, Gilmer said she did not know the answer, and suggested students come to the student center to ask questions about graduation.
Many minutes were spent with various students asking the staff who were present about issues ranging from homecoming to the inconsistencies with the Thorobred band traveling with the football team.
“We used the phrase ‘town hall’ differently tonight,” Gilmer said in reference to the Unity Week discussion with Dobson. “We tried to combine [town hall meetings tonight] and that was not a smart idea.”
Staff announced they would schedule a town hall meeting for Tuesday, Oct. 31, to answer any questions students had.