UNI student President: Hamerlinck’s comments shouldn’t deter student involvement

BY GUEST OPINION | JUNE 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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On June 6, I appeared before the Iowa Senate education-appropriations fix subcommittee to briefly describe the effect that continued cuts to education would have on students at Iowa’s state universities. When I and other student leaders had finished speaking, Sen. Shawn Hamerlinck, R-Dixon, criticized our presence, calling us pawns of the Democrats. I am neither a pawn, nor a Democrat, and I most certainly did not appreciate his patronizing remarks. As a political-science minor, I had been under the impression that one of the primary jobs of elected officials was to listen to and represent the views of their constituents.

I scanned the headlines the next few days, anxiously awaiting the senator’s response to the media frenzy his comments had stirred up. After a week had passed, I started to feel a little depressed. Did the senator not think that his remarks warranted an apology? Then, on June 16, Hamerlinck wrote an ostensible apology published in the Quad-City Times.

However, after reading through the article, I could not find any real apology. “My attempt to keep impressionable students out of the fray has instead ingested them into it, and for that I apologize.”

That is not an apology.

He did not apologize for disregarding my opinion as a University of Northern Iowa student affected by the proposed cuts. He did not apologize for proposing that I, a fourth-generation Iowan, refrain from having my voice heard by the very people whose decisions influence whether I can afford to continue my education.

Finally, he did not apologize for speaking so condescendingly to me. In fact, he was actually more patronizing in his “apology” letter than he was in his initial statements. He insinuated that my peers and I are too young to form our own opinions and that we didn’t check our facts. Well, if I hadn’t formed an opinion before I met Hamerlinck, I certainly have a very strong opinion now.

Beyond the senator’s inappropriate remarks, I think that this whole situation comments upon two larger issues. The first issue is how partisan this debate has become. I have yet to meet an Iowan who is opposed to funding higher education.

But I continually hear politicians on both sides of the aisle inviting the other party to take part in talks to reach a budget compromise. However, as soon as they get in a room together, they begin their remarks by declaring the other party responsible for the problems Iowans are facing. If you offer an olive branch while taunting the other party, those members aren’t going to take it. I believe that our legislators need to stop the name-calling and legitimately pledge to work together. Funding for education is not a partisan issue, and we should stop treating it like one.

The second issue is that Iowans need to hold their elected officials responsible for their actions. We elect them to represent our views when making policy decisions. I believe that it is incredibly irresponsible and inappropriate for a senator to tell his constituents that he does not want to hear their opinion. It is their job to listen to us and act on behalf of our wishes.

I ask all Iowans, especially students and their families, to take action immediately. Call or write your senator, your representative, and your governor, and tell them that you want them to stop the cuts to our public universities. If you do not talk to them, they will not know what you want.

It is imperative that we remind them of the reason Iowa put a schoolhouse on the back of the state quarter. Iowans value a good education; it is time our government shared our values.

Spencer Walrath is the University of Northern Iowa student body president.

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