Macalester College students Leewana Thomas and Rebecca Hornstein thought they were inventing a new social activism tool when they and 20 of their friends blocked the entrance in late April to the Weyerhauser administration building, which includes school president Brian Rosenberg’s office.
Thomas, a rising senior, and Hornstein, who graduated in May, are part of the group Kick Wells Fargo Off Campus (KWOC), which tried unsuccessfully to convince the Saint Paul-based liberal arts school to divest its finances from the bank for its role in unfair lending practices and the housing foreclosure crisis.
In fact, KWOC’s sit-in was vintage Macalester College activism in a Millenial package, strongly reminiscent of decades of protests now covered in honored memories. It’s just in the present that the college seems unable to appreciate protests.
Macalester boasts a proud history of student activism on campus. Previous generations of students led demonstrations and sit-ins against the Vietnam War, against apartheid in South Africa, against nuclear energy and against sweatshop labor. Weyerhauser, itself, has been blocked before.
But the punishment the college levied against today’s students was new. Disciplinary action handed down in early May by the college review board stipulated that any student who took part in blocking the doors won’t be able to hold a leadership position at the school next semester; they can’t participate in student government, lead student organizations, participate in theater or athletics, and they can’t apply to study abroad or hold internships.
“We really feel like the purpose of this was to punish us not for breaking a rule, but to deter student activism and send a message to people that nonviolent protests are not welcome at Macalester anymore,” said Rebecca Hornstein.
“It’s really troubling that, instead of acknowledging this long history of activism at Macalester, we are instead trying to move in a different direction and trying to show that students can only raise their voice when it’s ‘appropriate,’ ” said Leewana Thomas.
When Macalester alumni heard about the school’s unprecedented disciplinary action, many were upset and threatened to withhold donations from the school. Some drafted an online petition calling on the school to revoke the punishment and re-engage in dialogue with KWOC. They’ll hold a meeting during alumni reunion, today through Sunday, to discuss their next steps.
Rosenberg’s office refused to comment and declined an interview request. Media relations manager Barbara Laskin instead referred The UpTake to the school’s online statement.
“I think it’s extreme,” said Frank Hornstein, a 1981 Macalester graduate, Rebecca’s father, and a DFL Minneapolis member of the Legislature’s House of Representatives. “These students were engaging in the best tradition of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience. By taking these very harsh punitive measures, (they are preventing) the very things that we want students to be involved with; they’re the building blocks of active citizenship.
“We’re seeing a very strong reaction from alumni to these punitive measures. As we say in our petition, ‘this is not the Macalester that we know and love.’ ”
Alumni who are angry with the college’s actions include Melissa Hysing, a class of 2000 graduate who took part in anti-sweatshop protests, and Charley Underwood, class of 1968, who came to Macalester because of its social activism history.
In an impassioned letter published online, Underwood wrote to college officials:
“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? … 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.”
“This is more than just saying ‘you blocked a door for an hour or two and we’re going to punish you’,” said Frank Hornstein. “I think this is a message that’s being sent to students now and in the future that this kind of activism is not welcome at Macalester.”
In the late 1960s, students wrapped former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey’s office with barbed wire to protest the Vietnam War and blocked off Grand Avenue when the Nixon administration bombed Cambodia. Frank Hornstein participated in demonstrations against nuclear energy and apartheid in South Africa in the early ’80s. And in March 2000, approximately 30 students occupied Weyerhauser as part of a nationwide uprising on college campuses to protest schools that get licensing fees from athletic apparel makers whose goods are made under sweatshop labor conditions. Former Macalester president Michael McPherson acquiesced and pulled the school out of the “Fair Labor Association.” None of the students involved in those actions were punished for their occupation of Weyerhauser.
Contrast that with harsh punishments against KWOC in 2013. Leewana Thomas and Rebecca Hornstein believe that, based on conversations with the college review board, president Rosenberg and the administration actually sought harsher penalties against them.
What remains to be seen is whether the punishment will discourage future Macalester students from carrying out the social activism for which their school is known.
“If the administration thinks this is going away because a couple of leaders have graduated, that would be the wrong assumption,” said Frank Hornstein. “They are ready, willing and able to carry on this fight, and will do so over the summer and into the fall.”