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The Sentinel

An Eye on the Penn State Administration


Doing The Unexpected: College Student Elected Town Mayor

One of the things we often wonder at Safeguard Old State is whether the State College community would be better off if students didn’t have more say in the affairs of the town through either the Mayor’s office or the Borough Council. This past week, SOS Executive Director Gavin Keirans’ ruminations on the subject were covered in The Daily Collegian here at Penn State.

A friend of mine from the University of Pennsylvania forwarded me an article from The New York Times, originally printed in 2003, about a 26 year-old named Jason West who did what might be the impossible in a town like State College. Jason West beat out an incumbent 71 year-old Democrat to assume the office after campaigning heavily to get out the student vote. He won by only 64 votes.

When you read the article, you’ll notice how displeased and downright disgusted many of the “old guard” were at the prospect of having been run out of office by the twenty-something Mr. West. The mayor-elected rightly noted the absurdity of their reaction, asking “I’ve heard their fears of a student takeover, but I’m never quite sure what that means — if students need money for more shots at the bar, they’ll call the village clerk to cut them a check?”

When we talk about the prospect of a student mayor, student control of the Borough Council or just establishing a Student Subcommittee of the State College Borough Council, it seems the idea tends to be met with a discouragingly negative knee-jerk reaction from the same old guard types here in Happy Valley.

Take, for instance, the comments of one local resident on Gavin Keiran’s Safeguard Old State blog post on the subject:

I think you underestimate your power in the community. The students do monopolize and rule this town. Being an alum and a resident of State College, I find it disturbing that you would like to control more.

I encourage you to take some time and try to view this situation from the resident’s viewpoint. Make this your permanent address and register to vote here. Pay the taxes. We live here year round, we pay our taxes here, our children go to school in this town, and to suggest that our voice does not count because we are not a majority is severe hypocrisy. And as I read on, I think most of your ideas are based on snobbish intolerance for those who are not like you.

We underestimate our power in the community, do we? I wonder where we, the independent up-start student politicos have gone wrong with our silly misunderstanding.

Perhaps it’s based on the history of student-resident inequality in the State College borough, given horrendous decisions like the so-called “three unrelated” rule that hurts both student tenets and local landlords. Or, perhaps it’s the fact that Penn State undergrads were derided as “miscreants and lowlives” in 2003 by current Borough Council chairwoman Liz Goreham.

For the politically attuned Penn Stater — which admittedly is a small crowd — there is bias aplenty to be found, and for student or alumni leaders who label anti-student policies as such, there’s always the price to pay from residents who see our actions as nothing but “snobbish intolerance”. Such is life, I guess.

Safeguard Old State will be releasing a report later this year outlining the comparative lack of student authority in State College to other University towns in the Big Ten Conference.

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