Students camp out on the Mall

Tent State University is a student organization where students sleep in tents.

Despite the hundreds of student groups on campus, David Rittenhouse doesn’t think University student involvement thrives like it should – especially considering the school’s tens of thousands of students.

That’s why the first-year biology, society and environment student and five student co-organizers are putting on Tent State University, a weeklong event on Northrop Mall to promote student engagement.

“We just want to build a bigger community that takes on more than what most student groups do,” Rittenhouse said.

To make their presence known, the group and others they’ve already recruited to the event plan to camp out in tents on the mall from today until Friday afternoon.

“We’re here to provide a visual, communal statement just by inviting anyone and everyone to just join in and become active within their community,” Rittenhouse said.

During the day, they’re hoping to attract student passers-by by offering activities like free sustainable craft and cooking workshops and yoga lessons.

The group will also offer “know your rights” workshops. Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, is scheduled to speak Friday about a clean cars bill.

Despite progressive themes, the event is not about politics, organizers said.

What’s with the tents?

Tent State University originated in 2003 at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, and since then, groups at several colleges across the nation have followed suit.

Most Tent State events have focused on higher education reform and democracy – the tents aiming to provide a gathering place for students to discuss and engage in a variety of activities.

While some past Tent State events have emphasized the Iraq War, Rittenhouse said broadening the focus of issues was key. There’s already a lot of attention on Iraq with protests and other demonstrations, he said.

“We thought we just would’ve been lost in it,” Rittenhouse said.

Brendan Rogers, a Latin American studies sophomore at Macalester College, was involved in a weeklong joint Tent State event last April between Macalester, the College of St. Catherine’s and the University of St. Thomas.

While that event was more focused on higher education reform, he said the Tent State model lends itself to many causes.

“Everyone shares a dedication and mission toward participatory democracy and working together,” Rogers said

The University’s Tent State group said they’re supporting Actifest – a similar event hosted by the Justice League that’s also going on all week. The two are not official partners but share similar missions, organizers said.

Foreseeing a potential snag

The Tent State planners said they did little publicizing prior to this week – just a Facebook group and word-of-mouth advertisement.

They’ll “rely on the fact that there’s 11 tents out in Northrop Mall,” Rittenhouse said.

But there may be a snag in plans.

Rittenhouse said the group tried to obtain an outdoor permit through the University but had trouble, since Tent State isn’t a registered student group.

“We just didn’t get everything together,” he said. “By the time we would’ve been ready, it was too late.”

Not having a permit could hurt the group’s chances of remaining outside for a week, said Denny Olsen, senior associate director of Student Unions & Activities.

“If they’re out there without a permit,” he said, “they probably will be asked to shut down.”

While Rittenhouse maintained the group should have the right to operate on public space, he said they aren’t aiming to raise fisticuffs.

“If the time comes where they do ask us to move, we’re probably going to move,” he said.

The General College Truth Movement in 2005 was the last group to camp out on the mall, Olsen said, but it went through proper procedure.

“It kind of ensures that everyone has a fair chance with the space and allows the University to make sure we’ve got enough security,” Olsen said.

‘This is going to kind of be my social life for the week’

Seth Thompson, a first-year biology student and co-organizer, said he plans to attend all his classes this week, but he will put off other activities, like his fraternity.

“This is going to kind of be my social life for the week,” he said.

Rittenhouse estimated at least 25 people would camp out Monday night, with around 75 students participating in daytime activities.

With finals week approaching, the group said it realized it may have a hard time convincing students to ditch the library to hang outside for a day.

However, Rittenhouse said it will be hard to disappoint the group.

“We’d still feel like we’re successful just lasting an entire week,” he said. “We’d feel successful in showing that hey, we can do this.”