COMMUNITY VOICES | On vengeance against activists: Open letter to Macalester College president

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Dear Brian Rosenberg:

I am writing to let you know why I will not be attending my 45th reunion at Macalester this weekend. Briefly, I am upset with the decision to administer harsh retribution to current students seeking divestment from Wells Fargo Bank.

It may be important for you to understand a certain perspective, so I am going to take the liberty of telling my own story.

I never planned on attending Macalester when I graduated from a suburban Kansas City high school in 1964. I had already been accepted and been offered generous scholarships to Grinnell, Earlham and Antioch. However, part of my high school experience was chaffing under the residential segregation of that time; the closest African-American families lived perhaps eight miles from my house and not one student of color attended my school of 2,300 students. I tried to break this barrier a bit by attempting weeklong exchanges with local high schools including predominately African-American students. So when a Mac recruiter mentioned that Macalester had an exchange program with a traditional Black college in the South, my guidance counselor called me out of class. A talk, a visit to St. Paul, an interview with the Board of Trustees, and I became a Macalester student.

It was a good choice and left some amazing memories. I didn’t participate in the exchange program that first attracted me, but did spend my sophomore year at the University of Kinshasa in Central Africa. There were Wednesday lunchtime meeting of the Student Action for Human Rights group, which I chaired for a time. There were Thursday noon-hour vigils on Grand against the war against Vietnam. There were occasional road trips in rental or drive-away cars to antiwar marches in New York and Washington, an amazing trip to Selma for that historic march with Dr. King, an Interim teaching at a street academy in Harlem during the day and attending shows at the Apollo theater at night, an arrest in front of Applebaum’s grocery on Snelling (for passing out leaflets against napalm-maker Dow Chemical), sign-making in the office of assistant chaplain Al Currier, conversations with Sen. Walter Mondale about the war, campaigning for Eugene McCarthy in five states on weekends and school breaks, and even running for student body president (I lost to Tim O’Brien, who has written probably the very best fiction about the Vietnam experience).

Somehow, amid all this activism, I managed to graduate with distinction, going on to a 41-year teaching career in Central Africa, West Africa, Puerto Rico, Native American schools in Minneapolis, Spanish immersion programs in St. Paul, as well as Montessori teaching in Michigan and South Texas. My life has included the common threads of joy and sadness, marriage, children, and grandchildren, honors and death. But life after Macalester was characterized by activism as well, including further conversations about Walter Mondale (this time as a Kucinich delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Boston), more bus trips against more wars, vigils at the School of the Americas in Georgia, starting a Congressional campaign (for Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer) in my living room, giving surrogate speeches for a U.S. Senate candidate, even running for Minneapolis city council.

This may sound like ego as I tell my story, but it is the story of many of us who were attracted to Macalester and still resonate deeply with the school reputation for social justice concerns. Harvey Rice, your predecessor as president, used to famously cite Macalester as “the Harvard of the Midwest” (although I believe his goal was something closer to the elitism and privilege of Princeton). Other colleges actually do a better job of serving the academic and economic elite of the region. The special niche for Macalester for generations has been its reputation of rigorous challenge of the status quo, its encouragement of sincere and profound work to make the world a better place.

During this last year, you have been experiencing just such a challenge as a group of current Macalester students attempted to get the college to divest from Wells Fargo Bank. That bank has played a central part in the epidemic of foreclosures in the past few years, and those foreclosures have been central in a massive assault on the middle class. We are seeing a huge restructuring of the American class system, with a hollowing-out of the middle class that has historically been so instrumental in allowing class mobility and maintaining stability in our democratic political system. In spite of nearly a year in bringing you information regarding Wells Fargo, you have decided to continue collaborating with that bank. The students responded to that decision with a non-violent sit-in in which no property was damaged and no people harmed in any way.

And now comes the retribution: These students, acting out of conscience, have received a harsh and vengeful punishment of being put on probation. As I understand, they are not allowed to participate in any abroad programs or, in fact, any extracurricular activities at all. They are being treated as if they were a group of slackers with failing grades. (You may note that those restrictions include most of the activities that I remember most fondly from my own Macalester years.)

This puts me at a loss into trying to understand your motivation. Do you really intend to support Wells Fargo while punishing your own students? Do you somehow fail to see the honor and conscience behind the students’ actions? Do you wish to extinguish the long tradition that Macalester students have for political and social activism, wishing instead to morph Macalester into yet another high-priced finishing school? Do you feel somehow bullied by the students’ sit-in and seek to make your point by yourself bullying with more efficiency?

It is my sincere hope that you will reconsider this recent draconian action against these students, but I fear that I simply do not have the time to engage with you at length on this question. The conscience of these students and Macalester’s reputation for activism are the very best resources that the college has had. If you have decided to throw away those priceless assets, then I have no more time for you. I will not be attending the reunion this weekend. The theme, as I understand, is “My life’s next chapter.” Sadly, Macalester will not be in it.

Sincerely,

Charley Underwood, Class of 1968