MSA takes students’ pulse

Gabe Madson leads a team of pollsters who gauge students’ take on campus issues.

Freshmen MSA members Katerina Paone and Johanna Christner help clarify a question on a survey for freshman Qingkang Cao at Walter Library on Thursday afternoon. MSA members poll students weekly about different topics regarding the University.

Chelsea Gortmaker

Freshmen MSA members Katerina Paone and Johanna Christner help clarify a question on a survey for freshman Qingkang Cao at Walter Library on Thursday afternoon. MSA members poll students weekly about different topics regarding the University.

Kyle Stowe

For political science sophomore Gabe Madson, polling is more than just a job.

“My dream is to work for Gallup, and it’s been that way for years,” he said. “I just love doing what I do.”

As the Minnesota Student Association’s first civic engagement coordinator, Madson leads a new polling task force that gauges student opinion on a variety of campus issues. MSA members hope to use poll results as tangible data to influence and inform University of Minnesota administrators.

“It carries much more weight to see data that reflects what a large number of students think about an issue than just one person telling you how they think,” Madson said.

Since the beginning of fall semester, MSA has conducted polls on the University Recreation and Wellness Center dress code, campus safety, adviser experiences and liberal education requirements. It will also poll students on college affordability before the end of the semester.

Madson said MSA will use poll reports on advising, campus safety and affordability in its presentation to the Board of Regents next month.

Matt Forstie, MSA’s Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition chairman, said the association’s new focus on polling will help measure a broad set of opinions that could influence policy change.

“We want to leverage the amount of students we have on campus to enact change,” he said. “Polling is a very effective way to do that.”

In past years, Forstie said, MSA has held town-hall meetings to solicit student opinion. But polling is more effective because it allows MSA to collect more data in less time, he said.

“With polling, you can get 3,500 respondents in a day, while at town hall, you spend three weeks organizing an event where you get feedback from 75 people,” he said.

Regents Chair Richard Beeson said polling data can be convincing, but it’s important to remember that it’s a science and many factors must be properly calculated for poll data to be valid.

He said part of being an effective community leader is having a grasp on constituent opinion in order to avoid relying too heavily on polling data when raising awareness of an issue.

“They’re trying to ascertain the opinions of their constituents, and polling might be a good way to do that,” he said. “But sometimes a good case goes beyond polling data.”

But Beeson said the regents encourage University students to research and find new ways of measuring student opinion.

“We look forward to seeing what [they] come up with,” he said. “It will be interesting to see the data that supports their opinion.”

As head pollster, Madson is in charge of creating weekly polls that measure various student issues and building reports from past poll results. Making each survey takes about six hours, he said.

The process of creating and properly administering polls is more difficult than people might think, Madson said, because wording, question order and collection strategies have to be factored in to prevent potential biases.

“Polling is an intricate science,” he said. “Every poll has to be structured perfectly so that it can be presented in the most objective way possible.”

Computer science senior Quinn Kelly took an MSA poll on liberal education requirements last Thursday, which he said was easy to take and understand. He said polling is a “great” way to evaluate student opinion.

“The survey was short and to the point,” he said. “I think students would like the fact that it doesn’t take up a lot of their time.”

Supply chain operations sophomore Samantha Alleven said she likes to see that MSA is polling students because the strategy is effective in reaching a broad range of voices.

For those who aren’t normally engaged in student government, Alleven said, polling is an easy way to express opinions on campus issues.

“You have to know what the student body wants in order to better serve them,” she said.

Madson said MSA polls, which are conducted via email and in person, average 3,200 respondents each. He’s hopeful polling data can help identify the issues that matter most to students on campus.

“We want to show how all students at the University feel rather than just students in MSA,” he said. “We think this will be successful in accomplishing that.”