The Progressive Student Alliance and Student Climate Union organized a sit-in on Election Day in McClain Hall from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Junior Will Henrickson, founder of SCU and one of the organizers of the sit-in, said prior to the event the SCU started a petition that had 865 signatures as of Nov. 4. Henrikson met with Janet Gooch, vice president for academic affairs and provost, to request that classes be cancelled Nov. 3 because of the election. When his request was denied, the next step he took was planning the sit-in. AJ Barnum, secretary of PSA and member of SCU, said the sit-in was a way for students to channel their frustration about how the petition was ignored by the Truman administration.
“The point of the sit-in and what we hope to accomplish is one: tell the administration that voting rights are not something that can just be toyed with; two: create a culture of student solidarity and power consolidation that students know that there are groups and people on this campus that care about what they think, who care about how they feel, and care about like making their voice heard,” Henrickson said.
Gooch said the University calendar is made up to two years in advance and has to be approved by the Board of Governors, making it very difficult to cancel a day of classes. Gooch said cancelling classes would have been especially difficult because the adjusted fall semester calendar already had to be brought before and approved by the Board of Governors.
Instead, an email was sent to students, encouraging them to vote and providing information about polling locations and hours. The email linked to a resolution passed by the Student Senate that encouraged professors to cancel classes or at least minimize assignments for that day. A polling station was provided for students registered in Adair county, and staff was given three hours of excused time off to vote. Polling hours extended to before and after typical workday hours, so Gooch said students and staff should have had enough time to vote.
“Now I know if you didn’t change your voter registration and you didn’t arrange for a mail-in vote, that would make it more difficult, but that is the responsibility of the voter, and so I don’t feel like it’s the University’s responsibility to allow you to vote if you didn’t do everything in your capacity to make your vote happen,” Gooch said.
Prior to the sit-in, Henrickson spoke with the Truman Department of Public Safety in order to carry out the event safely. He did not speak with the administration, because he thought they would have advised against the sit-in. In order to raise awareness for the event, members of the SCU and PSA created signs and handed out flyers. These measures were taken in addition to social media posts made by the SCU and PSA.
During the sit-in, the College Republicans approached members of the PSA and SCU to start a conversation and clear up some confusion about the sit-in.
Barnum said they felt the conversation was not constructive and the College Republicans’ questions seemed argumentative. Barnum ended up walking away from the conversation out of frustration.
Sophomore Nick Dolson, member of the College Republicans and part of the conversation at the sit-in, said the point was not to create disagreement.
“We just bounced ideas back and forth about what can we do to maybe improve the mail-in voting system, like we could declare a national holiday on Election Day, that kind of thing,” Dolson said. “I felt it was pretty respectful as well, there weren’t any arguments.”
Barnum said that overall, the sit-in had more support from students — it seemed — than opposition.
Henrickson said one of the reasons behind the sit-in was to hold the administration accountable. He said he recognizes that the Truman administration is in a difficult position, and believes that Truman is a good institution, but thinks it could be better. He said the sit-in was not an attack on Truman faculty, but was a way to start a conversation.
Gooch said Truman has never cancelled classes on an Election Day before, and it was not up for consideration when creating the calendar for the fall 2020 school year. Gooch said she wasn’t sure if classes would get canceled for future Election Days. She pointed out that government offices and most workplaces continue to require employees to work.
Another reason that classes were not canceled was because of the accreditation hours Truman is required to provide by the Higher Learning Commission. If classes were canceled on Election Day, they would have had to add another day of school to the semester.
Barnum and Henrickson both mentioned that by the time of the sit-in it was too late for the administration to cancel classes, but that they hoped to encourage the administration to cancel classes in future election years.
Henrickson said he recognized that this was a difficult semester for the administration to give students an extra day off. The severity of the pandemic, which caused the lack of breaks in the semester, means it is especially important for students to be able to vote in the election, Henrickson said.
“If I believe at any level from local to federal that my officials are not competent enough to handle this pandemic, I need to be allowed to vote for them or to vote them out, because the way I see it, if things remain the same after this election because not enough people can vote to change the system, we’re going to be right back here doing the same thing in the fall of ‘21,” Henrickson said.
Gooch said she saw the student petition and sit-in, and that she appreciated the message they were sending.
“Again, I was excited about the level of enthusiasm about this, and I could really tell that students wanted to vote and wanted to be engaged in this election, and I’m really glad about that, that ultimately the message that our students are engaged and care about the world,” Gooch said, “That to me was the most important aspect of all this.”