Letter to the Editor: Board of Trustees Held Hearing, Not Listening Sessions

By Graham Bodie, Ph.D.
Professor of Integrated Marketing Communications
graham@listenfirstproject.org

Several news outlets across the state have reported on the “listening sessions” convened by The Board of Trustees. The Board should be applauded for holding these sessions, for seeking input from various stakeholders who would otherwise be largely voiceless in the process. In a decision as important as this, public participation and engagement are essential. But public participation and engagement are not the same thing as listening.

Listening is dialogical, not monological. Listening involves responsive attention and understanding. It is not merely a way to “get to the facts.” To be sure, letting someone articulate their position is imperative to the listening process. Allowing space for someone to speak demonstrates a willingness to listen, a necessary first step. The way the Board structured its listening session, however, has made the assurance of understanding different perspectives difficult if not impossible. As a result, these sessions are more aptly labeled “hearing sessions.”

Listening is not the same thing as hearing, although the terms are often used interchangeably. Whereas hearing starts and ends with information being received, to listen requires further action. Hearing is about comprehension, listening about understanding. Hearing opens a space for content to be distributed. Listening opens relationships between people and potentially divergent ideas. Listening is much more complex and nuanced than these sessions portrayed.

What we lack in the case of these sessions is not opportunities for people to express their views, but the means by which particular voices are valued within the process of hiring the new chancellor. People certainly spoke during these sessions. Indeed, many shared heartfelt opinions about the current state of the University and its direction. And the Board seemed to hear those who felt empowered enough to express what was on their hearts. There was note-taking, some head nodding, and facial expressions of concern, surprise, and recognition among Board members. These behaviors signal that input had been received. But they do not demonstrate the Board was listening.

When asked what it means for someone to listen, people are much more likely to use terms like attention, responsiveness, understanding, acknowledgment, openness, and responding than they are to use terms like input, consultation, participation, or giving voice. What this means is that our expectation for a listening session includes, at minimum, feedback that our concerns and aspirations are consistently understood and considered. In an ideal session, such feedback is immediate. There was ample time for Board members to give such feedback immediately as the long periods of silence between participant comments showed. In one instance, a member of the faculty who asked the Board for their definition of academic freedom was told “we are here to listen not to speak.” This understanding of what it means to listen is not only wrong, it is counterproductive to the purpose these sessions were meant to serve.

A true listening session is more than a series of monologues spoken into a microphone. The most productive listening sessions are more like guided conversations. They not only allow people the opportunity to be heard, they demonstrate that what is heard matters. Presently, we are left to speculate about the concerns the Board will take seriously and which they will ignore. We are left puzzled as to their process for identifying and considering the multiple, and often conflicting, desires and aspirations for the new chancellor. To what voices will they attend, and what voices will simply be speaking into the air?

The Board could learn a lot from studying listening and considering the models of public participation and stakeholder engagement most useful as they choose a new chancellor. Until then, let them hear to the best of their abilities.


Graham Bodie is a listening scholar, educator, and consultant. As a professor, he teaches students the value of listening to stakeholder voices in order to align corporate mission with what people value. As Chief Listening Officer for Listen First Project, he advocates for the role of listening to help depolarize American culture. He can be reached at graham@listenfirstproject.org.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Why would one expect that the IHL Board would TRULY listen to the campus community’s hopes, concerns, desires and fears, the fact that they appointed Blake Tart III to take part in the process of choosing the next chancellor puts to rest any illusions that they are honorable people who care about the health of this campus.

    FOr those who don’t know Blake Tartt was the person who put Ed Meek up to his infamous September 2018 post about women of color destroying property values in Oxford. Blake Tartt is a property developer who sent Ed Meek the photos that Ed posted on Facebook.

    If anyone doubts the accuracy of this, ask the editors of Hotty Toddy who informed the Meek School faculty of this fact last year. Tartt’s involvement was also known to others at the time including Chancellor Vitter, Noel Wilkin, Dean Norton, and other leaders.

    Even so, the administration was uninterested or ineffective in keeping Tartt off of the campus advisory committee. In any case the IHL was unwilling to remove Tartt from the process of choosing the next chancellor.

    Let that sink in for a moment. A man with a demonstrated history of enmity towards African Americans and who pushed the narrative that ultimately got Ed Meek’s name off of the journalism school, a person who by all appearances thinks that people of color hurt Oxford is helping to choose the next chancellor. Combine this with foot dragging on the Confederate monument, Jeff Vitter attacking the authors of the microaggression report, an ineffective response to the Till photograph and our long history of indifference and outright hostility to the feelings, concerns and issues facing students of color on this campus and the administration’s lack of push back on Tart’s participation in the chancellor search process makes sense even as it is unconscionable .

    Is this once again a case where the leaders of this institution are afraid of offending racist alums, racist donors, racist politicians and racist citizens with no tie to this university other than its football team?

  2. Is what RU said true? Is a racist helping to pick our new chancellor? Did leaders know about his role in the Meek Facebook post? Did Hotty Toddy know about any of this?

    Id any of this is true our leaders owe us an explanation for their inaction.

  3. RU is correct. At the J-School faculty meeting the day after Ed made his Facebook post the faculty learned of Blake Tartt’s pivotal role in pushing the narrative about African American’s at Ole Miss posing a threat to property values in Oxford. Dean Norton certainly knew about Tartt’s involvement. After that faculty meeting he went to a meeting at the Lyceum. Presumably he shared the fact of Tartt’s involvement with leaders there, if they did not already know.

    It would be beneficial for Student Media and Hotty Toddy to delve into this issue. We need to stop being afraid of the racist alums who pine for the good ol’ pre James Meredith days when unreconstructed Confederates could do as they pleased at Ole Miss.

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