With additional reporting by Joe Klein
Due to budgetary limitations, Macalester decided to eliminate the position of Assistant Director for Religious and Spiritual Life last week. The position is currently held by K.P. Hong, a Protestant chaplain and spiritual liaison who is well known for his regular addresses to the student body, leadership roles in organizations such as Lives of Commitment and Sitting at Mac, and position as a personal mentor to many students. Coming in the midst of heightened discussion surrounding the college’s hiring process and hiring decisions, this latest decision has been met with sentiments of shock and frustration by many students.
Many students first encounter K.P. Hong during orientation week. He has spoken at past Convocations and at other introductory events such as “This is Your Life at Mac.” Students then have opportunities to follow up with K.P. at various events such as those hosted by the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL) or by seeking out individual meetings.
K.P. Hong was hired six years ago as part of a grant from the Lilly Endowment through a program called “The Theological Exploration of Vocation.” The grant was made in part to aid the Chaplain of the college, Lucy Forster-Smith, who was then co-directing the Lilly Project. That two-year grant expired but was supplemented with part of another grant from the Lilly Endowment in 2009. Forster-Smith had received funding to work on two books, and part of that funding allowed her to take a professional leave of absence. In her place, K.P. took over as Chaplain of the college.
“K.P. has been fully cognizant of how his position has been funded,” Forster-Smith wrote in an email. “He and I knew it was quite likely that the funds would be expended and the position would end, though we hoped we would find a way to sustain it.”
There had been some additional efforts to help fund K.P.’s position.
“President Rosenberg has provided a small amount of funding for the position for several years. His contribution added to the more substantial funds from Lilly have made it possible to have the position be full-time. [But] President Rosenberg is unable to continue funding,” Forster-Smith wrote.
There have also been efforts to ask the college to add the position permanently, but there are no new staff positions being considered at this time. “Throughout the past years my supervisor, Laurie Hamre, and I have explored many ways we might sustain the position. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find a way,” Forster-Smith wrote.
As news of the decision was made public to a few community members over the weekend, students who had worked with K.P. rushed to organize a response. A group of students asked Macalester College Student Government (MCSG) to add them to their agenda at their Legislative Body meeting held on Feb. 26 to bring a discussion about possible student responses.
During the MCSG meeting, a variety of proposals were brought forward. One proposal was to have MCSG pass a resolution in support of keeping K.P. and his position at the CRSL. A resolution, which will be introduced at the next meeting, will remain open for two weeks before a formal voting process takes place.
“MCSG doesn’t want to step in and take control of the whole thing because there is already a well-organized group,” said Jonas Buck ’13, a Senior class representative. But because “a lot of people reacted viscerally,” a common sentiment throughout the meeting, MCSG will consider stepping in and using its position to speak with administrators as well as bring up the issue at the upcoming Board of Trustees meeting.
On Wednesday, Feb. 28, a meeting was organized by students to facilitate an open discussion about the decision as well as to plan for steps that the organized group can take to overturn the decision. The meeting was made public through word of mouth as well as through Facebook, and around 35 students participated in the initial 90-minute meeting that took place in the GDD lounge. The students shared personal anecdotes about why K.P. mattered to them and then made plans for moving forward. The group will reconvene on Saturday, Mar. 2 in the GDD lounge to begin a formal and organized process.
“There was an initial shock amongst students, and now students are thinking seriously about what is important about our school,” said Sophie Glickman ’13, an organizer for the event.
Students echoed their beliefs that K.P. reaches across all faiths and denominations, as well as to those not in organized religion. One student, Mackenzie Woolf ’14, put K.P.’s universal value in very strong terms.
“I identify as an atheist, but if you were to ask me who is Macalester, I’d say K.P.,” she said.