Mallazzo: Schapiro should keep refusing petitions


Michael Mallazzo, Columnist

The abstract idea of a petition is so American that it comes delivered by a bald eagle and served with a side of freedom fries and a can of Bud Light.

In theory, petitions are the epitome of participant democracy at work, showing government that hundreds of citizens are united in solidarity behind a common cause. However, in practice, petitions demonstrate nothing more than the fact that an individual or organization is popular, charismatic, well-connected or downright annoying enough to get scores of people to mindlessly scribble their names.

There are occasions when petitions give voice to the little guy and shed light on often ignored issues and inspire necessary and impactful reform. However, petitions are too often an ugly manifestation of power politics in which wealthier and better-connected individuals and organizations can use their clout to push their causes and ideas forward at the expense of the democratic process.

There is no better example of the shallowness of petitions than the process of getting on the ballot for Associated Student Government, which simply requires amassing signatures. This can be accomplished simply by walking into an Intro to Psychology lecture with nothing more than a pen, paper and a Sam’s Club-size bag of Dum-Dums and passing it around until you hit your number.

As University President Morton Schapiro states in a recent op-ed, “there is little correlation between the merits of the argument in a petition drive and the number of signatures or media attention it receives.” We are busy and easily distracted creatures. No matter how eloquently an argument is presented, we’ve generally made our decision as to whether we’re going to sign a petition before we read a word. Heuristic characteristics ranging from the creativity of an email subject line to the attractiveness of the person chasing us down Sherman Avenue are often the deciding factor in whether we decide we can spare five seconds. In this process, petitions undermine the opinions of people who are genuinely devoted to the causes presented as their thoughtful signatures become lost in a sea of Richard Hertzs and Seymour Butts.

For Schapiro’s signature to have anything more than symbolic value, he would have to carefully read each petition and take the time to develop an insightful opinion before crossing the T in “Morton.” Unfortunately, to borrow a line from Sweet Brown, “ain’t nobody got time for that,” especially not a university president. If he were to sign whimsically to “humor” his students, it would be an exercise in hypocrisy and would marginalize the considerable credibility that his signature as a university president holds. Though we might not like it, the role of a university president is not to unilaterally throw his support behind any cause about which a small subset of his students are passionate.

Schapiro has walked the walk in advocating causes that students are passionate about en masse, lobbying state and federal officials on gun control, testifying before Congress about Pell Grants, and channeling his inner “Bill Clinton goes to North Korea” on Evanston city officials when they threatened to actively enforce brothel law. He doesn’t need to sign our pieces of paper to prove his commitment to the student body — his actions have done that.

Given Schapiro’s track record, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that he has considered Divest NU’s proposal and decided that moving NU’s investment out of oil, gas and coal companies is not in the economic interest of the student body. Like the folks at the Divest NU campaign, I do not agree with his decision, but I respect it far more than his false support.

As for petitions, their success as a means of meaningful impact is best personified by the fact that those generating the most media buzz have been devoted to the all-important social justice causes of building a Death Star and changing our national anthem to R. Kelly’s “Ignition.”

As much as I’d love to hear the United States Army Marching Band have to give me that “toot-toot” and that “beep-beep” before major sporting events, I will have to echo Morty and say that I will also refuse to sign any more petitions. This policy is subject to change if you hand me a Dum-Dum or other tasty treat.

Mike Mallazzo is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this letter, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].