Administrators and students engaged in a Town Hall debate on the University of Arkansas' campus in Fayetteville, Arkansas, United States on March 12, 2018 in response to a racially insensitive social media post. The event discussed better ways to promote diversity and inclusion.
Problems and Purpose
Administrators and students engaged in a Town Hall debate on the University of Arkansas' campus in Fayetteville, Arkansas, United States on March 12, 2018. The Town Hall meeting and debate was held to address the diversity and inclusion climate on the University campus after a racially insensitive social media post created tension on-campus. A Snapchat of a student in blackface with an insensitive and offensive caption was posted to an official campus-wide forum and caused outcry and tension among students on campus. Organizers hoped to ease these campus tensions through opening up lines of communications between students and administration and strengthen the relationships that impact policy-making at the University.
Background History and Context
This Town Hall was held on March 12, 2018 in response to a University of Arkansas student posting pictures and videos of themselves in black face on social media on February 24, 2018. The post was then added to a group feed that is associated with the University and allows all users on campus to view it . Student leaders called for the Town Hall over frustrations that the University community viewed and thought about these types of events and discrimination as isolated incidents that were perpetrated by single individuals that acted in inappropriate ways, rather than a cultural issue that was more pervasive .
Blackface can be traced back to 19th century, where it was used in theater productions to promote untrue and offensive racial stereotypes . Blackface is commonly cited as one of the earliest methods of discrimination against black people in the post-slavery era . The historical context that is tied to the symbol is very negative and is not taken lightly in modern day US culture, because stereotyping is very much still a prevalent issue. According to the University’s Office of Institutional Research and Assessment, in the Spring semester of 2018 the campus population was composed of 75% white students . Higher education was desegregated in Arkansas in 1948 when Silas Hunt enrolled at the Law School on the University of Arkansas campus . However, that desegregation process has not been the smoothest and racial tensions still exist today.
Student organizers hoped the Town Hall event would be a space for candid conversation about campus culture and what students viewed as still lacking in diversity and inclusion efforts. Event organizers felt that a campus discussion was needed about this topic to ensure that students all had a space to share their campus experience and let their campus experiences inform campus policy . This was the first time this event has been held and the first time this kind of process had been used to address these types of issues on campus .
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The groups that organized the Town Hall and spearheaded the general campus response to the incident were the Black Students Association, the University of Arkansas Associated Student Government, and the National Pan-Hellenic Council . The initiative on campus was led by campus groups that consist of students. The event was free to attend . None of the organizing groups had to pay to put on the event, as all groups were student groups and the University waives fees for things like room rental for student efforts .
Participant Recruitment and Selection
The Town Hall was open to anyone that had a vested interest in the campus climate; students, University faculty and staff, and even community stakeholders were invited to attend . There were no specific efforts to target recruitment efforts and the organizing student groups utilized social media, campus media resources (like the student newspaper and at-large University notification system), and physical signage on-campus . Social media and local networks of community outreach were heavily relied on . Participants were not offered any enticements to attend . There were roughly 100 people in attendance at the event . Since the recruitment efforts were purely based around just creating awareness about the event, people could choose to attend or not on their own merit. This is referred to as voluntary self-selection.
Methods and Tools Used
The organizers of the Town Hall [see ‘Town Hall’] asked for the public to input and submit questions for discussion before the Town Hall took place . They gathered these questions through social media applications like Twitter and Instagram [see ‘Social Media’]. Then on the day-of, the Town Hall consisted of a panel discussion [see ‘Panel Discussion’] based on the previously submitted questions . The panel discussion was followed by a questions and answer session where participants could ask the representatives on the panel about concerns they had . This question and answer session led into a group-discussion-style public deliberation about the issues that had been posed in the panel, as well as issues raised in the question and answer portion . The campus student newspaper, official University media channels, physical signs and flyers, table tents were tools that were used for publicity and recruitment .
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The pre-Town Hall question submission occurred through social media. The organizing groups, in their advertising for the event, requested that participants submit questions, topics, or specific concerns . Social media tools like hashtags, comment sections, Instagram “story” response features, and direct messaging were all utilized to collect participant questions and interests before the event.
At the Town Hall, the event began with a panel that discussed the topics submitted before the event . The panel consisted of the Chancellor, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion, Director of the University’s Center for Multicultural and Diversity Education, the Student Body President, and the President of the National Pan-Hellenic Council . The panel was moderated by the President of the University’s Black Students Association, a current student . The panel consisted of all participants addressing each question or topic that the moderator posed . There was discussion among the panelists throughout as well .
After the panel discussion, there was a question and answer portion of the event . This section of the event was moderated and representatives from the organizations that planned the event walked around with microphones and would give the microphones to students as they raised their hands . There were about 10 student questions asked in total and most questions seemed to focus heavily on the administration’s response and intended action items . Panelists answered questions about campus culture directly for the most part; however, questions that dealt with commitments to specific action steps moving forward were given vague answers or evaded  . Participants that were not on the panel had the opportunity to ask questions about topics that might not have been addressed, or topics that were addressed but the participant did not feel were adequately addressed. This question and answer session moved into a group discussion about personal stories and experiences at the University, as well as ideas for improvement in campus actions and policies towards discrimination and diversity and inclusion . The whole town hall stayed in one group to discuss these topics and did not break out into smaller groups . The group was not facilitated and students were just invited to share their personal experiences with race, diversity, and inclusion. The same style of moderation with the microphone was followed .
The overall group interacted in a respectful manner, but the tension and frustration were evident. Campus leaders were quoted after the event saying that they were “not impressed” with how the Chancellor of the school had handled the situation and response . There were many of the same sentiments shared on social media after the event as well  . Students expressed that the administration was listening but they knew nothing would change, as evidenced by quotes and social media posts from multiple students . Overall the students were happy there was some sort of rejection of the behavior; however they did “not think that university officials (would) take action” . Participation was evident in the willingness to share their experiences and opinions, from all parties involved. There was no official outcome or results and no official documentation was created .
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The Town Hall hoped to create a campus dialogue on race and diversity and inclusion. At a base level, it did that. Students had the chance to directly voice their frustrations to administration . However, the discussion had little impact on change in policy. The process was not intended to yield concrete solutions in a time-bound manner, rather it was meant as a space for stakeholders to be able to share their experiences and how policy impacts them. Student attendees expressed frustration over current educational efforts not solving the root of the problem and asked University leaders present to take a more holistic approach in creating a cultural shift towards racism . University leadership expressed that they heard student concerns but were limited by institutional policies in actions they could take in the short term .
Administration left this event having learned how important the issue of diversity and inclusion was to students and students left with an understanding that administrators would prefer to be having these types of conversations in a proactive, rather than reactive, manner . Students left with around the same level of trust in the administrators in regard to belief that actionable change would be created . The students expressed that the Town Hall was productive for them because they felt they had a great opportunity to voice their personal experiences and struggles in person to administrators, and student participants expressed that was a positive aspect of the event .
There was no formal or official reporting done by any parties involved in the planning of the event; however, the student newspaper reported heavily on the event and student reactions to the event .
Analysis and Lessons Learned
An open dialogue format that ensured that all parties felt their stories and opinions were being heard was an extremely effective way to handle a subject matter as sensitive as race . In the future, participants and administrators could add in some sort of aspect of “action items” at the end of discussion. Opening up the conversation is a first step, but acting on those tough conversations is where change is created. Overall, participants were not unsatisfied . However, they did feel as if more could have been done . There was a historical context of how similar events had been handled in the past, so expectations were very realistic . The event did not yield all of the results that were desired because students felt like there was no commitment to action from the administration present . Student interviews with the University newspaper reveal this sentiment. One student was quoted saying “that the intentionally offensive nature of the post proves that the educational efforts in place are not effective, and students’ attitudes regarding racism needs to change” . Other students were highlighting the need for a stronger enforcement from administration in creating a cultural change on campus .
 Anderson, N. (2018, March 12). Direct personal observation.
 Clements, J. (2018, February 27). UA Student’s Racist Photo Rightly Draws Criticism. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from http://www.uatrav.com/opinion/article_a73def92-1c1f-11e8-b904-2be65913e6bd.html.
 Cook, B. (2019, March 12). Town Hall Meeting to Address Racial Incident and U of A Response. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from https://news.uark.edu/articles/41277/town-hall-meeting-to-address-racial-incident-and-u-of-a-response.
 Levenson, D., & Evans, S. (2018, February 27). Student Snapchat Post Ignites Racial Controversy, Backlash. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from http://www.uatrav.com/news/article_cde3185e-1c27-11e8-9ff0-8f9774125419.html.
 McFerrin, H. (2018, March 13). Freshman Leaves UofA After Blackface Post, Chancellor Says at Town Hall. Retrieved October 24, 2019, from http://www.uatrav.com/news/article_677fbf24-271a-11e8-a060-9fe99f072ae6.html.
 Encyclopedia of Arkansas. (n.d.). In Encyclopedia of Arkansas.
The first version of this case entry was written by Nikki Anderson, a Master of Public Service candidate at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, and then edited. The views expressed in the entry are those of the authors, editors, or cited sources, and are not necessarily those of the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.