McCollum, Coleman address nearly empty Kagin

Macalester students have the opportunity to shape local politics more than ever with two constitutional amendments on the state ballot and the recent implementation of the Student Housing Ordinance. Last week at convocation Congresswoman Betty McCollum and Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman reaffirmed that message, but most students didn’t hear it.

While Walter Mondale and Garrison Keillor filled the Leonard Center last fall, this year’s opening convocation saw roughly 150 chairs filled in Kagin. President Brian Rosenberg wrote in an email that this year’s event was not the poorest turnout he has seen in his time at Macalester, but for MCSG President Patrick Snyder ’13 it was a letdown he found difficult to explain.

“I was disappointed with attendance,” Snyder said. “There were great questions that were asked, I’m very grateful for that. But if we had higher attendance and more focus with the questions, we could’ve had a more meaningful conversation.”

Jonas Buck ’13, senior class representative and one of three students who vocalized his frustration with the Student Housing Ordinance during the event’s Q&A session, saw this year’s low attendance as uncharacteristic.

“Convocation is usually well attended,” he said. “To go from turning people away in the Leonard Center to not filling Kagin, it seems like an anomaly to me. I’m not sure what the issue was this year. Especially since it’s an election year.”

Buck was dismayed to see students turn down the first opportunity of the year to openly discuss issues on and around campus.

“What students can really gain from convocation is an introduction to the type of speakers and events that happen at the school,” he said. “I speak from personal experience. We open discourse on some really important and not-as-touched-upon matters.”

Signs of a deeper disconnect

Noting that the rain likely kept some at home, Snyder guessed the low attendance stemmed from a lack of engagement between students and their immediate neighborhood. Ironically, he said, this disconnect was the very subject of discussion.

“With student attendance to any event it’s really hard to pinpoint [a reason]. Student organizations have been trying to figure that out since the beginning of time,” Snyder said. “For whatever reason…[involvement] in our immediate community – in Merriam Park or in Mac-Groveland or on campus – takes a back seat.”

Buck agreed, noting that the low turnout runs contradictory to the Macalester student body’s commitment to civic engagement, especially given the political prestige of the speakers present and the proximity of the issues discussed.

“Coleman talked about Macalester a lot… I think that puts a lot of hot air into our heads,” he said. “There was a lot of talk about how great we are, but we actually do have to measure up our actions and our participation in the community with the values that we profess. Students are very engaged. Could they do a much better job? Yes. Are we living up to the values of civic engagement? Not quite.”

The Student Housing Ordinance

Both McCollum and Coleman touched on the housing ordinance, which the City Council passed this summer after receiving complaints from non-student neighbors. The ordinance places restrictions on student housing in Merriam Park and will likely cause spikes in rent over the next few years. Though many students have voiced frustration that the ordinance was passed over the summer, a time when most students aren’t in the Twin Cities, Coleman and McCollum urged that discourse between students and local politicians should have played a bigger role in the process.

“It’s about striking a balance,” Coleman said. “It’s important to reach out to representatives, but also to invite us in…if I get invited I come, that’s how I’ve learned about issues important to Macalester students.”

Similarly, in his introduction of the speakers Rosenberg asserted that student involvement is more relevant now, in the face of a national election, than ever before.

“There are people who are actively trying to stop you [students] from voting,” he said. “That tells me that something is probably pretty important.”

While direct lines between student awareness of the ordinance and low attendance to the event cannot be drawn steadily, Snyder sees the potential for improvement on the former by developing the latter.

“I think, in general, students are fairly well informed,” he said. “That being said, the overall theme of the day was that we can do more. We can do a lot more.”