It was a cool, foggy evening at Michigan State University. The date was Feb. 19, 2019, and across campus, the flurry of midterms-season was descending upon the student body. It was a difficult time for Spartans, but some were busier than ever. In Case Hall, the James Madison College Conservatives (JMCC) and MSU College Democrats (CD) were hosting a “Tacos & Talk” event to discuss the Green New Deal.
The political atmosphere on that day was a peculiar one. Hours before, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont had officially announced his run for the presidency. Throughout that week, 16 U.S. states joined in a lawsuit against the Trump administration. Yet for the leaders of these two political groups at MSU, a bipartisan achievement was underway.
“As far as substance and policy goes, I think we were differentiated quite a bit,” said Adam Green, a sophomore, political theory & constitutional democracy major and then-president of JMCC. “But I think having that discussion, at least, took out some of the preemptive assumptions you had about the other side. It really based everybody in fact.”
“It was a great conversation,” said Carter Oselett, a sophomore, social relations & policy major and president of the College Democrats. “We hardly agreed on anything, but they learned from us, we learned from them, and that kind of civil discourse… is pretty healthy.”
The U.S. has had a long history of student activism and campus political organizing. According to a 2016 UCLA survey, around 10% of the undergraduates surveyed planned to engage in protests while at college, the highest rate since 1967. From the Greensboro sit-ins to Tiananmen Square, from the #BlackLivesMatter movement to the #MeToo era, students have often been important in helping to raise awareness and enact change. Michigan State, of course, is no exception.
In the fallout of the Larry Nassar sexual abuse scandal, many student organizations on campus challenged the administration and its handling of the situation. After it was revealed that certain officials had prior knowledge of the abuse, many students successfully mobilized to have MSU’s then-President Lou Anna K. Simon removed.
“They [these student groups] were the ones who exposed all of this, brought this to light and started what became a national conversation,” Oselett said.
For the James Madison conservatives, one of their most memorable moments thus far was a gubernatorial town hall that they hosted and moderated at the MSU Union on April 3, 2018. They had the initial bipartisan goal of inviting all the candidates, but only three of the four Republican candidates showed up (none of the three Democrats did, either).
However, for sophomore Garrett Zylinski, an international relations and finance double-major and the group’s then-vice president, it was nonetheless a perfect opportunity for them to “legitimize themselves as one of the most politically involved conservative groups.”
For political groups to stand out on campus, they often need clear policy positions. Oselett mentioned immigration, gerrymandering, institutional transparency, climate change and increased voter turnout as focal issues for the College Democrats. The JMC Conservatives, however, made their policy views less clear. Green and Zylinski, who both founded the group, frequently mentioned bipartisanship, free speech and open dialogue as their notable qualities.
It’s the bipartisanship that has come to represent them as a group. In addition to the town hall, JMCC brought Democratic State Rep. Jewell Jones to speak at the college last year, and they attended the swearing-in ceremony for this district’s Democratic U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin in November. Despite partisan differences, Zylinski noticed “a lot of similarities” and “a lot of things we [JMCC] liked hearing from” Slotkin.
Student activism is not limited to groups that are explicitly political. Spartan Sierra Club, MSU’s largest environmental advocacy group, has often forayed into the world of politics to accomplish its goals.
Max Offerman, the group’s internal vice president, said one of the first things he did as a member was petition for the shutdown of the Line 5 pipeline. Members eventually got over 1,600 signatures and passed a resolution through Associated Students of MSU, the university’s student government. (Adam Green was just recently elected to this body, so he will be leaving JMCC and leaving Zylinski as president.)
Student leaders said political groups on campus benefit from the voices and involvement of all students, even those who would normally avoid politics altogether.
“It’s just as important to get them involved as well,” Oselett said. “We are a place for everyone to talk and to learn.”
As a message to the Spartan community, Zylinski said, “Come as you are, we’ll come as we are. I’ll learn something, you might learn something. It’s really that kind of environment that we try to uphold: casting allegiances aside and just learning from each other.”