By Roger S. Peterson
First Published on August 18 2009 by the James G. Martin Center
I graduated from Macalester in 1967. The liberal arts college located in St. Paul, Minnesota, has long been known for political activism, but has sadly sunk into a pit of political correctness and leftist silliness. Rather than address that issue, however, Macalester President Brian Rosenberg and his alumni director have circled the wagons.
After noticing many protesting letters to our alumni magazine in recent years, I founded the Macalester Alumni of Moderation, or Mac Mods, a group of liberals, conservatives, and moderates concerned with the school’s leftist drift. (I was a classic Minnesota liberal in the 60s, serving as vice chairman of the Minnesota Young Democrats. Now I’m an independent.) The alumni office had started a group they named the Macalester Alumni of Color. Stick with the naming convention, I thought.
Each year the alumni office hosts separate events for the Alumni of Color. Of course, in the 60s, it was different. Many of my fellow students returned from summers in the South with welts on their skulls having tried to integrate people of color with, well, people of non-color, I guess. Integration has apparently lost its appeal at Macalester as it returns to separate but equal festivities.
But I digress.
Our Mac Mod statement of purpose seems non-threatening, not the kind that you’d think would prompt any liberal arts college to push back:
Macalester Alumni of Moderation believe a liberal arts education is enhanced by differing points of view shared freely on campus. That includes moderate and conservative political views. What we see in Macalester’s various publications indicates Macalester has a bias toward leftist views on socio-political issues, and that moderate or conservative students feel the heat of that bias.
During Reunion Weekend, we want to meet with other alumni who share our concern.
We are few compared to the larger body of alumni. That’s due to Macalester’s refusal to give us access to campus media. If we had access to campus media, I have no doubt that we would grow swiftly.
Our campaign for political diversity and balance started in 2006. We requested a room during the annual June alumni weekend.
At the alumni director’s request, we submitted a profile that stated we were “liberal, conservative, and moderate alumni” concerned about Macalester’s lack of political diversity. She revised our profile: we were just conservatives. That upset our liberals, who are equally concerned with students acquiring an impartial education.
A senior at that first event told of professors castigating him for his conservative leanings. He was called the usual names leftists use whenever anyone questions them. Back in my days at Macalester, the school had a legendary professor, Ted Mitau, who insisted on balanced discussion. No professors berated students for their opinions, but students were expected to present a logical, well-reasoned defense of their positions, too. Professors now seem chosen not for their broad and balanced view of the world, but rather their narrow and far-left view devoid of common sense.
In 2007, we again asked for a room. This time we invited Katherine Kersten, a columnist from the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Her presence was unknown to the college. She described some of the social science courses and their obvious biases, and recounted the respect shown to Barry Goldwater when he spoke at the college in 1964. Her editorial sizzled the Internet for weeks, with alumni rushing to clog her blog.
We requested participation in the 2008 alumni weekend. No, came the reply, stating that the college did not host separate alumni groups apart from the main.
In 2009, they denied us again, still upset over the publicity from the 2007 event. More Mac Mods became disillusioned. Unhappy alums tend to donate money elsewhere. Can you see those dollars fluttering away?
So what’s a bunch of political activists who learned their skills at Macalester to do? This June we held an old-fashioned ‘60s sit-in on campus. Instead of “Power to the People,” our signs said, “Mac Mods are Mac Alumni.”
Not one campus official greeted Bob Spaulding and Jim Burho, the two alums who organized the sit-in. Many alumni stopped by. None criticized us. Several professors encouraged us.
Jim Burho, class of ’70, an author and one of the Mac Mods at the sit-in, later arranged a telephone call with President Rosenberg. He passed the call to his vice president for development, who complained that Mac Mods were “baiting” the college. The development officer did, however, raise a glimmer of hope by suggesting that Mac Mods might be invited to participate in some alumni conferences. The local sit-in publicity was obviously effective.
Bob Spaulding, class of ’64 and a former San Diego State economics instructor, sent a gracious letter to President Rosenberg outlining our concerns about the politicization of the school. Rosenberg’s reply noted that a left-wing magazine charged Macalester was drifting too far to the right, and “so it goes in the life of a college president,” Rosenberg lamented.
Macalester’s political environment is so severe that one professor told me in 2007 that it was suggested he or she should “get with the program” if he or she wanted tenure. I won’t say which department … but does it matter?
You get a sense of that environment when you consider Macalester’s history courses. You’ll find no survey course on American history. But students can take “Captivity and slavery in the making of early American society” for a more balanced view of our heritage. One professor offered a course on race theory solely for non-white students to provide them a “safe haven” on campus. One white student wanted in. The professor fought her until the administration, to its credit, overruled him.
Or consider the recent proposal that urged removing gender signs from group restrooms. The rationale: You shouldn’t have to declare your gender to use a toilet and such labels imply your consent to “heteronormative” standards. Many students, uncomfortable with being in a stall next to the other sex, were nonetheless fearful of protesting this nonsense.
One daring student wrote an essay calling Macalester’s intolerance a “reign of terror.” She slammed into a raft of criticism from other students. She isn’t alone. In 2006, two-thirds of political science students surveyed believed that Macalester students were intolerant of opposing views. A student editorial questioned Macalester’s commitment to intellectual diversity.
Nothing reveals more about the political climate at Macalester than the fact that it has a Dean of Race and Ethnicity. A few years ago she participated in an event praising the Black Panthers in Oakland. I received an invitation because I live in nearby Sacramento. But having seen Panther terrorism when I lived in Oakland, I decided to sort my sock drawer instead. Why does a liberal arts college of 1,900 students need such a dean? Do alumni write checks for such functions … or for core needs?
Mac Mods are politically diverse and opinionated. It is tough to keep them focused: returning Macalester to the balanced, liberal arts college of decades ago. Many have stopped contributing to Macalester. Some are giving to other colleges.
Broader questions arise. How solid is a history education that replaces inquiry with anger or a sociology education that replaces survey research with politics? Do employers want illogical and emotional students who master only ad hominem arguments? The direction Macalester and other liberal arts colleges are going implies that such naivete is deep-seated among cloistered professors who have a highly romantic notion of the world beyond the campus.
What is the future of a liberal education if “liberal arts” colleges no longer value a liberal and balanced preparation for the world into which we send graduates? Rosenberg once suggested the liberal in liberal arts refers to personal politics, not the type of school Macalester is. Or was.