All was quiet on a frigid January morning on the streets surrounding the Minnesota State Capitol. But a livelier, warmer scene awaited Metro State alumni inside the Minnesota Senate Building. University supporters who braved the below-zero temps were welcomed by elected officials for a discussion of common goals and the common good.
Organized by the Metropolitan State University Alumni Association, the breakfast meeting on January 25 examined how higher education might fare in the legislative session, and how Metro State community members can best advocate for students and educational institutions.
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, has hosted the event at the Capitol for many years. She has a long association with Metro State, as an alumna and adjunct faculty member.
“I’m very privileged to work with Metro State and to be a graduate,” Pappas said in her opening remarks to the at-capacity room.
President Ginny Arthur thanked Pappas for being a “loyal supporter” of the university and focusing on the needs of college students and potential students.
She reminded Pappas of a class on lobbying that the senator used to teach at Metro State. “It’s coming back to haunt you because now you get lobbied by us,” Arthur said. “Clearly we produce engaged citizens.”
Arthur noted that Metro State alumni live in every legislative district in Minnesota and are in a position to lobby every state representative and senator. “It really helps to have alumni as advocates,” she said.
Joining Pappas at the table were seasoned legislators Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul, and Sen. Chuck Wiger, DFL-Maplewood. They also have strong connections to Metro State.
Wiger is the ranking minority member on the Senate E-12 Finance and Policy Committee, and his daughter is a Metro State graduate. The St. Paul campus is within Hawj’s senate district. He said he appreciates how the university positively impacts the East Side neighborhood.
First-year representatives were in attendance too. Both Rep. Hodan Hassan and Rep. Mohamud Noor are Metro State alumni and serve districts in Minneapolis.
“We’re building our presence in the Legislature and that’s a good thing,” said Arthur. She thanked the alumni legislators for modeling ethical leadership for Metro State students.
With the chancellor, trustees and presidents of the Minnesota State system, Arthur said it is her mission to come to the Capitol to “tell the story” of public colleges and universities. She wants legislators to understand Metro State as an educator of nurses, urban teachers, law enforcement officers, social workers, IT and cybersecurity professionals—what she called “the backbone of Minnesota.”
She said Metro State is ranked in the top 6 percent of colleges nationally—and first in Minnesota—in the upward social mobility of graduates.
“I can’t be prouder of that,” she said. “That has lasting impact for generations.”
Before turning the microphone over to legislators— remarking that “it’s hard to stop presidents from talking about their universities”—she relayed the news that Metro State’s policy for prior learning assessment will be soon be adopted throughout the Minnesota State system.
“We are using our strength and history to serve the entire state,” she said.
Legislators at the table
In her legislative work, Pappas said she focuses on education because it is a “huge engine for our state.” But beyond their economic impact, colleges and universities bring culture and stability to their communities, she said.
She thinks Metro State alumni are perfectly positioned to spread the message that college students aren’t all 18-22 years old. “Nontraditional students, low-income, immigrants, first-generation… we shouldn’t be looking at them as unusual. They are the norm.”
In his first legislative session, Noor said he will concentrate on health care, and the state’s investment in people of color and Indigenous people. His Minneapolis district includes the University of Minnesota campus, and the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, historically a home to immigrant populations. The seat was formerly held by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.
Noor cited the transformational power of education and the importance of funding schools, colleges and universities.
“I came here as an immigrant,” he said. “I didn’t speak English or know how to use a computer. But I became a computer science major at Metro State.”
Rep. Hodan Hassan was elected in 2018 to represent district 62A in south Minneapolis. She graduated from Metro State with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 2010 and went on to earn a master’s degree in social work from Augsburg University.
As a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, she sees reduced access to mental and chemical health treatment, particularly for the most vulnerable.
“The reason I’m here is because of disparities,” Hassan said. “It was a realization for me that I couldn’t sit in my comfortable place and let someone else do the work.”
Her district includes the tent encampment that arose at Franklin Avenue and Hiawatha in 2018. She said offering housing to homeless people is not enough, so she’ll be fighting for funds for housing with services.
Hassan thanked her mentors for encouraging her to run for public office, among them her mom and Matt Musel, director of the masters in Advocacy and Political Leadership program at Metro State.
“My mom taught me as a woman, a Muslim, a black woman that I needed to work three times as hard,” she said. “I am a product of public education. And even though my mom didn’t read or write English, she always knew whether I had done my homework.”
Alumni aiming to advocate
The Q&A portion of the event was moderated by Brig. Gen. Sandy Best, chief of staff of the Minnesota Air National Guard. She is the first woman in Minnesota National Guard history to be promoted to her rank. Best is a Metro State graduate, class of 1988, and a board member of the alumni association.
There were more hands raised in the room than Best had time to call on.
Audrey Pugh, a graduate student in Metro State’s MAPL program, pointed out Minnesota’s poor ranking on racial disparities and asked how legislators will address equity for people of color.
Pappas said that in recent years the Legislature allocated one-time money to address economic disparities but acknowledged that more can and should be done.
“Every committee needs to look at disparities,” she said. “We always should ask ourselves: Through this policy, how will be reduce disparities?”
But Pappas was cautious about prospects for such initiatives this legislative session, given Minnesota has the only divided legislature in the nation and DFLers and Republicans may not see eye to eye.
If you care about the future of higher education, you must know and develop relationships with your legislators, Pappas said.
“Be ambassadors for Metro State. Be advocates.” she said. “Squeaky wheels get the grease.”
Hassan heartily agreed.
“The House and Senate are your houses. Come. Bother us. Knock on our doors.”