Petitions: Not so helpful after all?

Hamline students launched five petitions in just one year, but campus leaders say hearing from students individually is a more fruitful way to respond to campus issues.

Lydia Hansen, Editor-in-chief

Online petitions responding to racial incidents, changes to commencement and the COVID-19 pandemic were started and shared during the 2019-2020 academic year as students organized to voice feelings about campus events.

Collectively, five online petitions gained over 3,700 signatures and were shared widely on Hamline-related social media.

However, campus leaders on the receiving end of these petitions expressed that hearing from individual students was more useful than a signature count. 

“I think face-to-face conversations and understanding individual stories versus a petition overall is more meaningful,” said Dean of Students Patti Klein. “It allows us to come together and be able to ask questions and problem-solve in a way that can have a better outcome than just writing a statement and having people sign in.”

This spring, Klein was involved in conversations with students concerned about the 2020 commencement location. 

Senior Jada Steward started a petition calling on the commencement planning team to change the location back to Old Main lawn or choose a more accessible indoor venue. Steward cited poor accessibility and guest limits as issues with Hutton.

“I attended graduation last year [in Hutton] and I just remember how small and cramped and uncomfortable it was,” Steward said.

Before a global pandemic put a hold on commencement, the location was changed to Old Main lawn.

However, Kelly Rudney, a staff member of the commencement committee, said emails, calls and in-person meetings held with students were most helpful to their decision to change the location.

“We found hearing students’ stories most impactful in understanding the many and complicated issues surrounding commencement,” Rudney said in an email interview. “A petition, while helpful, doesn’t carry that kind of individual and nuanced perspective.”

Student organizers found the petitions useful as tools for raising awareness. 

Cristina Cuevas (Dec. ’19 graduate) started a petition last October in response to a racist incident on campus.

In an email interview, Cuevas said she started the petition “to bring awareness and voice frustration that I and many other students had about how terribly Hamline deals with racist incidents.”

Cuevas’s petition was the first of the year and may have influenced other students to start petitions voicing other frustrations.

Fairlie started a petition in March demanding Hamline partially refund spring tuition following the COVID-19 pandemic and stay-at-home orders. The petition has over 800 signatures, though Fairlie never took the next step of sending the signed petition to anyone in campus administration.

“I think the fact that all these petitions are going around right now really says something about how people don’t know how to make change,” senior Gwen Fairlie said.

Senior Oubeida Ouro-Akonda, another petition organizer, said the number of petitions diluted their individual impact. 

“If we had better communication as a campus in general, I think it would limit the amount of times people would have to make a petition,” Ouro-Akondo said. Her petition, started last fall, called on Hamline students to take individual accountability for responding to acts of racism. 

Improving communication throughout the Hamline community may come, at least in part, through new programming planned for the upcoming fall semester.

According to Dr. David Everett, Associate Vice President of Inclusive Excellence, bimonthly open house style community gatherings will be starting in the fall.

The goal of these meetings would be to have regular times when students, faculty and staff could come together as a campus community to share perspectives.

“We would be better served and well served if we carved out a consistent and continual place where people are allowed to share how they are experiencing Hamline on a variety of levels,” Everett said.