Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Town Halls and Great Debates at Shenandoah and Tarleton State

There is a moment that Eric Leonard, Henkel Family Chair in International Affairs at Shenandoah University, looks forward to each year.

On town hall night, he watches students leave the auditorium and break into groups to discuss topics that they researched all semester. “I was standing behind, and it was just this buzz, this energy, that you could feel on campus in that moment as these students processed down the middle of campus to engage in this big interdisciplinary academic exercise,” Leonard said. “The feel that you get from it is something I look forward to every single year.”

This town hall model, which emphasizes high-impact practices such as civic engagement, undergraduate research, writing, and common intellectual experiences, originated at California State University–Chico (CSU Chico) in 2006 as part of their first-year experience. The events were partially funded by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and Bringing Theory to Practice (BTtoP) for several years.

According to CSU Chico, students who participated in a town hall were retained at 5 to 7 percent higher rates than other students, with a 6–9 percent increase among students of color. To build on this success, CSU Chico introduced “The Great Debate” in 2010, bringing community experts, faculty, and students together to discuss important contemporary issues.

Adapting CSU Chico’s Town Hall at Shenandoah University

Amy Sarch, associate vice president for academic affairs and director of general education at Shenandoah University, a private university in Winchester, Virginia, first heard about CSU Chico’s town hall from a text message her colleague sent while watching Thia Wolf, CSU Chico’s first-year experience director and professor of English, speak at AAC&U’s 2015 Annual Meeting.

Sarch researched the program online and immediately emailed Thia Wolfe. “She laughed about how when she got out of the talk she already had an email from me, and I wasn’t even there,” Sarch said.

A month later, Sarch and Leonard flew to CSU Chico to see the town hall in action and get recommendations for replicating it at Shenandoah.

“We loved the energy, we loved the depth that it brought to the students,” Sarch said. “This was a great way to bring cohesiveness and creativity into the general education program.”

With funding from the Teagle Foundation, Shenandoah introduced an interdisciplinary town hall program that brings students, faculty, and community consultants from general education courses together to create action plans related to polarizing contemporary issues like immigration, racial inequality, or homelessness.

After an eight-course pilot in spring 2016, Shenandoah’s town hall doubled to sixteen courses in spring 2017.

While faculty development is needed to help instructors integrate a “layer of research and writing in classes that wouldn’t normally have that,” Sarch said, faculty don’t overhaul their curriculum to participate in town halls.

“That’s not the goal here,” Leonard said. “The content of the course I had three years ago really isn’t different from the content of the course that I have now.”

Each course includes a scaffolded, written research project. The purpose of this project is to walk students, who are mostly in their first or second years, “through the process, step-by-step, of writing a good research paper,” Leonard said.

Students choose from a list of broad topics—including immigration, racial inequality, and homelessness—and narrow it down. Classes discuss what makes sources reputable, and students research and write an action plan in preparation for attending the town hall event. After the event, students use feedback they received from their peers, community members, and faculty to revise their action plan, which faculty assess with a common rubric that analyzes student writing, perspective taking, and critical thinking.

Rodrigo Casteriana, who graduated in 2017, chose immigration as his topic, narrowing it down to the Syrian refugee crisis. He appreciated the “checkpoints” provided by scaffolded assignments, and thinks they set first- and second-year students up for future success. “It would have been very helpful for me if I could have taken that much sooner,” he said.

The program’s flexibility allows faculty to be creative in implementing the research assignments. In dance class, students identify an object from their research and choreograph around that object. One student choreographed a dance around a pill bottle because her research showed that a large percentage of the homeless population is addicted to drugs.

“It was just beautiful because this was the way a dancer is approaching the same topic as someone else who is in the math class or [political science] class,” Sarch said.

In statistics, Jessica OShaughnessy, department chair and associate professor of mathematics, requires students to find reputable sources that include statistics. Later, students do their own field research by developing a questionnaire, gathering data, analyzing it using tables and graphs, calculating means and standard deviations, and writing a report.

“They’re hands-on using the stuff we’re learning in class to do real data collection,” OShaughnessy said.

At the town hall event in April, students from each class gather in the auditorium, where Shenandoah’s president and faculty tell students, “You are the experts now this evening. You are the ones who are going to explain to the group what you found in your research,” Leonard said.

Students break away to classrooms in smaller, ten-person groups with others who chose their broad topic. For the first hour, a faculty member with expertise on that topic moderates student discussions from an interdisciplinary perspective.

At first, Casteriana and his classmates were shy, nervous, and “didn’t know what to think.” But as they heard perspectives from different disciplines, including international relations, Spanish, and statistics, they began to “argue about how our topics could be better, or how we could combine [our solutions],” Casteriana said. “It opened our eyes and our minds that a lot of these situations could have similarities and we could somehow work together to combine them.”

In the second hour, students receive advice and feedback from community consultants that include immigration lawyers, addiction counselors, and the director of an organization that combats sex trafficking.

The consultants “add that extra piece that makes students think, ‘My research is being looked at by someone who actually works in this area,’” OShaughnessy said.

A local immigration attorney joined Casteriana’s group. She not only provided additional information and a professional perspective, but also challenged students by asking, “What if the solution you’re giving doesn’t work? What else can you do to fix that?”

Though the topics ranged from immigration to racial inequality, the discussions never got “heated,” Sarch said. “Students really appreciated the intellectual level . . . of the conversations.”

The feeling of academic empowerment that students get is one of the night’s biggest benefits, Leonard said. “It’s almost as if they realize to some degree, ‘Wow, I can do this! I can do academic research.’ And their engagement and interest just seem to skyrocket.”

Tarleton State Town Hall

Teams from Tarleton State University, a rural public university in Stephenville, Texas, visited USC Chico’s town hall in fall 2015 and Great Debate in spring 2016.

“[The town hall] was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had the chance to observe at another institution,” said Jennifer Edwards, assistant vice president for student success and LEAP Texas faculty fellow. “Numerous high-impact practices were interacting at the same time.”

Tarleton started two events, a town hall centered around their core curriculum government courses and a “Great Debate” about one of Texas’s most controversial topics: the new “campus carry” legislation that permits concealed firearms in the classroom.

Tarleton’s town hall program, which was introduced in spring 2017, focused on federal government courses. Students attended a town hall event after spending the semester researching the government’s role related to a topic they chose.  

Like Shenandoah’s town hall, students met in small groups with community experts who moderated discussions, offered feedback, and clarified the role of government related to that topic. The town hall was open to the wider campus community, allowing student experts on each topic to discuss issues with students who were learning about the topic for the first time.

Later, students reconvened around tables to “develop their views on the role of government and how they can influence that role,” said Eric Morrow, head of the Department of Social Sciences. After the town hall, students compiled research, ideas about the role of government, and an action plan into a final project.

“We had very positive participation; the students were very engaged,” Morrow said.

The town hall will be nearly doubled in 2018 by incorporating Texas government courses, with 550–600 students expected to participate. This iteration will incorporate four research assignments exploring: (1) media perceptions; (2) background, history, and data; (3) government documents such as legislation, court cases, or agency reports; and (4) qualified opinions.

While Morrow hopes the town hall will increase retention like it did at USC Chico, he also wants students “to learn skills and knowledge that will serve them as citizens, as residents of this state and this country, for the rest of their lives.”

The Great Debate at Tarleton State

For the Great Debate, which Tarleton also introduced in spring 2017, their main goal was to replicate CSU Chico’s “level of engagement from our younger students and our first-year students,” said Lora Helvie-Mason, associate professor and head of the Department of Communication Studies.

To put together a town hall event in a short amount of time, “your faculty need to be on board and you need to have a point person (or two or three) to really get it off the ground,” Helvie-Mason said. She recommends starting small, focusing on topics that have widespread interest, and then inviting as many courses as possible to participate.

“While it is intimidating, it’s definitely doable and it’s certainly worth it,” she said.

To drum up student excitement and engagement, the debate focused on new Texas legislation allowing the “campus carry” of firearms. Student interns planned a full day of programming, beginning with an expo that featured a food truck, live music, and tables set up by multiple student organizations. In all, more than 500 people participated in the day’s events.

Quanecia Fraser, a communication studies major, attended the expo in her role as editor-in-chief of the Texan News Service, a news site run by communication studies students. Her table provided insights about the media, including how news sources carefully report gun violence stories to prevent copycat shootings or further traumatizing victims. Another table offered a pin the tail on the duck (an important animal in Tarleton lore) game featuring questions about the legality of selling firearms on social media.

Following the expo, students from lower-level public speaking courses engaged in three rounds of debates in which students participated as debaters or as spectators to give their peers feedback.

All of Helvie-Mason’s public speaking students attended a debate. Her students read an article about campus carry, but the course focused more on persuasion, crafting an argument, and logical fallacies. One of her favorite moments came after the debates when her class examined debaters’ persuasive techniques and poked “holes in one of the team’s arguments.”

A student asked her, “Isn’t that the fallacy we talked about, Dr. Lora?”

“Absolutely, that is,” Helvie-Mason replied.

The evening culminated in a Great Debate attended by approximately 120 students. Two two-person teams, each with an upper-level communication studies student alongside a community member with debate experience, debated whether the legislation should require all campuses to allow students to carry firearms or be changed to allow campuses to choose to allow firearms.

As an upper-level communication studies major, Fraser argued in favor of changing the law to allow for campus choice, while another student joined Stephenville’s district attorney in favor of keeping the current campus carry laws mandatory for all institutions. Fraser drew on her work with the Texan News Service, including an article about Tarleton being the first campus in Texas to experience the accidental discharge of a student’s weapon.

“I don’t think the debate was intended to change the campus atmosphere [about campus carry],” Fraser said. Instead, it opened up dialogue and taught “us how to communicate with each other in the real world when we have issues that are very controversial.”

The evening ended with a panel of community experts, including the police chiefs for Tarleton’s campus and the city of Stephenville, providing context to the arguments of the two sides.

Students “were learning right as they were watching,” Helvie-Mason said, “and it was really powerful for our audience to see . . . a student who had only spent one semester preparing for that moment step in and argue their point of view quite passionately.”

Students in the audience participated in the debates on social media using #theTexanDebate, which brought responses from gun policy organizations across Texas.

“We’re a rural school in Texas, and we didn’t anticipate that advocacy organizations from Austin and large metropolitan areas would want to jump into the debate,” Edwards said. “This event truly involved the community, truly involved other aspects of Texas and Texan opinion, and [students] were able to see things beyond themselves.”

In the weeks after the debate, Helvie-Mason heard anecdotal evidence of students targeting their new persuasive skills toward on-campus issues like parking regulations. “There’s nothing better in communication studies than to see the way that students connect to your material and apply it to what’s going on directly in their environment,” she said.

Looking back on the implementation of the program, Edwards said that CSU Chico was instrumental in helping Tarleton “plan two truly stellar events during their first year at Tarleton.”

She hopes to move the town hall and debate momentum forward through her role as a faculty fellow for LEAP Texas, an AAC&U LEAP States consortium of sixty higher education institutions.

“We are living proof that two events of this scale can be replicated with ease with another university’s help. And I think that’s what higher education institutions should embrace: to replicate best practices and good work at other institutions.”