Two years ago, at the 2015 International Round Table, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Chris Ward ’76. Mr. Ward is currently an executive at the consulting firm AECOM, based in New York City, but his background includes some far more important accolades and accomplishments. Namely — in his sophomore year at Macalester — Mr. Ward and a few of his friends started the annual tradition today known as Springfest.
It was the beginning of a warm week in early April, a point at which the campus was leaving the brutality of winter only to face the impending brutality of finals. Chris and his friends, committed students that they were, decided that they wanted to skip class that Friday. On top of that, being the positively entrepreneurial students they were, they decided to get the whole school to skip class as well.
That Friday, they ended up throwing an all-day get together right in Kirk courtyard. They organized food trucks and kegs, speakers and DJs, musicians and performers. Most of the students on campus skipped class, whether they came to the party in Kirk courtyard or not, and more or less took a collective mental health day. The administration, of course, did not join in on the fun. A full-on student rebellion, even if it was only for a day, didn’t fit with the buzzwords that administration threw around such as “learning” and “school”.
More importantly, it didn’t look good to alumni and donors, who expected that students would dedicate four years to college, four years which included that particular Friday. Chris and his friends received a talking-to, were placed on academic probation, and went back to work to finish up the semester.
Then next year rolled around. Once again, campus entered that brief transitory period between winter and finals. Undeterred by last year’s consequences, and facing significant student demand for a sequel, Springfest returned. It quickly became a yearly tradition at Macalester, moving from the Kirk courtyard to Shaw Field within the next few years.
Though the administration fought the celebration at first, they eventually realized they could do nothing to stymie the efforts of students with cabin fever in April. The move to Shaw Field was actually a suggestion from administration, which also began to fund live performers, secure permits, and moved the event from Friday to Saturday. There’s a clear story here, niche and symbolic as it may be, of administrative agendas coopting rebellious movements. Today, tour guides use Springfest as a selling point to convince potential freshmen that Macalester has an element of that care-free day-party life they saw in all the movies about college. Administration sets up a beer tent with Surly’s latest microbrews and invites notable alumni to come join the festivities. They even managed to monetize it by inviting non-Macalester students and people from the community to pay $5-10 for tickets.
Student planning has been reduced to the Program Board (PB), with little direct input from other students. This year in particular, there has been a significant lack of excitement about the event, stemming from disappointment with the headline act. Springfest has become an almost obligatory party at this point. Instead of being a tradition of rebellion, it’s just tradition. It’s fun, yes, but does it still have that founding ethos of liberatory self-organization from its early days in the 70s? I don’t think so.
What, then, do we do about it? How do we take it back? We can start by voting on performers. The school paid a full $50,000 this year to get a headliner that few actually want to see. It would be a relatively straightforward process for PB to come up with a medium-sized list of artists in the school’s price range, and then have students vote for who we want to perform. Ranked-choice voting, of course. If we do get to vote, we should vote for local artists. The Twin Cities has one of the most vibrant local music scenes anywhere in the world, yet we are paying to fly in artists from Nashville, New York and Los Angeles. Apparently we have $50,000 to spend; let’s put it back into our cities.
We can also stop charging non-Macalester people to come. This is supposed to be a community-building, celebratory event. Reinforcing the Macalester bubble doesn’t fit that agenda.
As a final point, we should focus Springfest more on student artists and artwork. The event has always incorporated the Battle of the Bands winner, which is great — student artists have consistently put on some of the better performances at Springfest over the years.
We could go further by featuring that performance more significantly and by involving the many Mac student artists who work in non-musical mediums. Art displays or alternative performances and student-led activities would be a welcome addition to the concerts. It would make Springfest a more holistic experience, and highlight all the truly awesome things that Mac students do.
Examining the historical roots of Springfest reveals an event which has transformed from a student-led rejection of routine into a fun, but sanitized, administration-sanctioned afternoon. Taking it back means restoring values of student-led organizing like voting on performers, finding local artists and highlighting the substance of the Macalester community: Macalester students.
I can appreciate the work that the administration has put into planning and executing the event over the years. But with all due respect, Springfest isn’t about the administration. It’s about students creating our own space to enjoy art and community in rejection of routinized learning. It’s about freewheeling, grass-roots cultural reproduction.
It’s about doing precisely what the administration doesn’t want you to do.