The following interview was conducted with Macalester President Brian Rosenberg on Oct. 12. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.
TMW: When you write something that attacks Donald Trump, or pokes fun at Betsy DeVos, do you feel any pull to be more neutral in your role – because you’ve gotten students here who do not adhere to these values?
BR: I think about it a lot, and there are a lot of things that I want to write and say that I don’t. So one of the things that I try to explain to people all the time is that for every piece that I actually publish, there are another ten that I either write in my head, or sometimes start to write and then just leave sitting on my computer. Like everybody else, I am a citizen. And like most people right now, I have very very strong feelings about what’s going on in our country. So on the one hand, you’d like to think, well I’m a citizen, I have the right to express my views – not only that, I have more of a platform than many people do, so I have the opportunity to express my views, and so it’s my civic duty to do that. On the other hand, as you rightly point out, every time I say something, it’s easy to take what I say as an expression of the college. That can have unfortunate consequences if it shuts down free and open discourse on the campus, or makes students who have different views feel silenced.
I try to limit my moments of speaking to moments when I feel that something is happening – some policy is being developed, or some policy is being implemented that really interferes or has the potential to interfere with our ability to carry out our work. So things like the immigration ban has an ability to directly impede our recruitment and admission of international students, and it harms a lot of our students. Same with the repeal of DACA. So I understand that some people on campus might not agree with that, but I also think it’s my responsibility to think about the mission of the college and the students of the college and to say something when I feel like they’re being threatened.
I also think that the fact that a college president speaks out as an impediment to discourse can be overstated. That is, I’ve never noticed – for the most part – hesitancy on the part of students or faculty to disagree with me. And maybe most important, I’m in my fifteenth year. I don’t think anyone can point to an instance where someone who has disagreed with me has paid any kind of price. I think it might be more difficult if you have someone who hasn’t been there as long, and maybe is she or is he going to do something to me if I disagree, but I don’t think anyone who has disagreed with me over the years can say that I in any way retaliated. I try not even to respond. I think it’s important for me when students, say, disagree with me to just let them do that. I’ve lost count of the number of Mac Weekly op-eds and opinion pieces that criticized me in one way or another, [and] I’ve never in fourteen-plus years responded, because I think it’s important that students have the ability to say and write those things and not feel like I’m looking over their shoulder.
I try to deal with faculty the same way. They disagree with me at faculty meetings, and I try to model civility in my responses and treat all of them, regardless of their views, with respect. I am certainly sympathetic to a student who feels that her or his views are not respected in what I write, and it’s why I don’t write more. But sometimes I just feel like it’s important for me to do it.
TMW: If you have people here who voted for Donald Trump, or who support Republican policies, then by the very virtue of those people being here, there’s some part of the community that is being threatened. That seems to be an impediment, for better or worse, to having more discourse.
BR: I get that. I get the argument that we need to figure out why 40 percent of the country voted for Donald Trump. And why a third of the country continues passionately to support Donald Trump. And if we don’t figure that out, then we’re never going to heal some of the divides that exist now.
But I am a big fan of Ta-Nehisi Coates. And my honest view is that I think his diagnosis of what’s going on, that he published first in The Atlantic and then in his new book, that this is first, foremost, and fundamentally about race, is true. What Coates said is that it may be the case that not everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. But it is the case that anybody who voted for Donald Trump was willing to elect a racist President of the United States. I feel that powerfully right now.
As you go through life – you’re young, but even in your young life – you change. Things that maybe at one point were down here on your priority list come up, and right now I will confess to you that if there’s anything about my own personal priority list, as a person and as a leader in the last two or three years that’s really changed in importance and priority, it’s acknowledging and doing all I can to work against racism in this country. And it’s tied to xenophobia and other forms of racism. But at the end of the day, the original sin of this country – and I think the defining sin of this country – continues to be racism. And I think it’s played an enormous role and continues to play an enormous role in what’s happening with Trump.
TMW: I think he [Coates] would say [racism] is Trump. Did you read ‘The First White President’?
BR: Yeah, that’s the piece I read. Look what he’s doing with Puerto Rico now. No deadline has been set for Texas or Florida about government help, but all of the sudden, we can’t stay in Puerto Rico forever. So I feel a moral imperative. I’m more acutely aware of my own position than ever before. I am keenly aware of the fact that I have all kinds of benefits because I’m white, because I’m male, because I’m in a position of power – and the things that I take for granted lots of our students can’t take for granted and lots of people around me can’t take for granted.
So I wish I had more sympathy for the argument that we need to sort of understand and empathize with Trump voters, but every day I find it hard.
TMW: Is there a fundamental break that you see? A faultline?
BR: Every day that goes by, every outrageous thing that he says, every destructive policy that he implements makes it harder and harder for me to do anything but feel like I need to resist. I will confess that right now, most of my energy and sympathy lies not with the people who voted for Donald Trump, but with the people who are being victimized by Donald Trump. It’s just where I am right now. I try to be honest about that.
TMW: I think on college campuses especially, a lot of this has been framed as a free speech situation. That, especially on liberal campuses, if you have this other viewpoint – that Donald Trump has tapped into – you’re not allowed to say it.
BR: We could do a whole ‘nother article about free speech. In fact, I’ve been speaking with [MCSG President] Suveer [Daswani ’18] – I said I’d be willing to sponsor, pay for, bring in alumni for if we wanted to bring in people who’ve spent their lives on issues like free speech and social change, and have a really interesting discussion about free speech versus sort of safety on college campuses, because I think it’s a really powerful, important, and incendiary topic right now, and I’d love for us to take it on as an institution.
I think that when we talk about free speech at places like this, we do need to remember that we’re not a public institution. So unlike some of these institutions like Berkeley, we are not legally obligated to let anyone who wants to come and rent space. We’re private. For us, we’re also allowed to ask not just about free speech, but about the quality of speech. I have no problem with someone coming in – in fact I’d be supportive of a conservative scholar coming in who wants to make an argument about any kind of policy based on the kind of research and standards that we would expect from our students in a class. I don’t think we have an obligation to provide a platform for Richard Spencer or Ann Coulter.
TMW: Sure, and I don’t think anybody wants that. One of the people Mac GOP said they would like to see is Ben Shapiro – and he’s a very smart person, well-educated, etc., etc., but he’s a person who says that transgenderism is a mental illness. Would you be comfortable saying, okay, we’re going to open up this space, knowing that people are going to hear this and feel attacked?
BR: I don’t know. It’s a really good question. I’d have to look at it on a case-by-case basis. Who is it, what’s the subject, who’s sponsoring it – it’s hard for me to make a blanket statement.
I would be supportive of bringing in people who are thoughtful who articulate views that are not the majority views on this campus. Where I think I’d have to think carefully is when the views really do pose a direct attack against some of our students.
TMW: You said that you’re sympathetic to the people who didn’t vote for Donald Trump, and especially who aren’t already white, etc. Are you also sympathetic to people who prevent these speakers from speaking, or attempt to?
BR: No. I understand what provokes it, [but] I think it’s a mistake. I think if you’re trying to affect social change, you do have to ask yourself, what’s going to work? I don’t think that the students who are shutting down speakers – it may be a kind of cathartic experience, but I don’t think it’s being effective in achieving their goals. If anything, it’s drawing sympathy away from things that people should feel sympathetic toward. So I think it’s ineffective at heart. You always have to remember when you shout somebody down or shut somebody down that someone can turn around and do it to you. If you accept that the tactic is legitimate, it’s just as legitimate for someone to turn around and do it to you – and then where do we end up, with nobody being able to speak. So I am not unsympathetic to what they’re feeling, but I think their tactics are wrong.
There was an incident a few days ago – I’m trying to remember where it was, it might have been Northwestern – where students came in and interrupted the class of a woman who was teaching, not because of the class, but because she occupied some administrative position and they didn’t like the policies related to that, so they came in and they shut down the class. And you have students in the class that are trying to do one thing, and then you have a group of students saying ‘no, you can’t do that.’ That’s where it begins to get really problematic.
TMW: At Reed there was an intro-level, required class–
BR: Yeah, their classic civ-humanities class, sort of their defining class.
TMW: Right, their defining class – and people came in I think every day of the semester and ended up holding their own lecture on one side of the stage while the actual lecture was going on the other side.
BR: Well it’s an interesting thing. It’s a very traditional, kind of core humanities class. And the objection to it is that it’s not inclusive in its syllabus–
TMW: There were similar objections here last year.
BR: Right, and you also knew what you were getting when you came to Reed. They’ve had that same class in place for decades. But it seems me that there are more effective ways of trying to change the curriculum and the syllabus then just not letting people teach. If I were a student and I were trying to change that, I’d find other, more effective ways of pressuring the faculty who make those decisions to broaden out the syllabus.
TMW: Do you know what they would be?
BR: I think students underestimate the extent to which faculty want their approval. My experience has been that when students push thoughtfully for something, and they don’t give up, and they’re emphatic about it, they really can change things. So I would draw up an alternative syllabus, I would draw up a list of people who should be included, I would bring it to whatever the equivalent of their curriculum committee is, I would get students to sign a petition saying we want to see more of these people on the syllabus, and I would go right at the faculty with those things. I would at least give that a try before I just shut it down.
TMW: Just a couple of other loose ends while I’ve got you here. Test optional?
BR: We had a lot of switches around, as you know, in admissions, so what I’ve told [new Director of Admissions] Jeff Allen is I want them to give me a recommendation one way or another.
Here’s what the debate is right now – and a lot of this is coming from people in admissions who do a lot of the recruiting and evaluation of students of color and first generation students. Right now, they use those test scores as one data point to answer the question, ‘does this student have a reasonable chance of succeeding at Macalester.’
So even though the score may be well below our median. I think our median ACT is 31. And you might have a student who goes to a school that is underfunded, and they’re just not getting the opportunities for tutoring and taking test prep, so they do pretty well and they get a 24. Often the admissions people will say, that student is going to succeed here. If the student gets an 18, they’ll say, Macalester is not going to work for this student. So even though the student might think that that’s low and not submit it, it gives them a data point that allows them to admit that student. Absent that data point, they’re just going to be guessing.
So they need to wrestle with that versus the potential that not requiring tests might encourage some students who are scared away. And the evidence on that, from schools across the country that have done that, is mixed. Some schools say yes, they’ve seen more diversity – economic and racial – in their applicant pool, others say that they’ve seen no effect. So there’s not a definitive body of evidence, it seems very much school to school. So I’ve said to them basically, ‘tell me what you want. Tell me what your recommendation is, and then I’ll make a decision.’ So I expect that sometime this semester. You know we have a new director of our multicultural admissions – I have no idea what he thinks about test optional. But he’d be a good person to ask. But I kind of want to put the onus on them to tell me what they want. So I’m hoping we have that before the end of the semester. And [former MCSG President] Merrit [Stüven ’17] still emails me.
TMW: Last thing: There’s been some talk from St. Paul Public Schools –
BR: Oh about a PILOT [Payment in Lieu of Taxes] program?
TMW: They said that they had sent you a letter, and had not heard from you.
BR: Yeah. That is accurate. I did get a letter that was sent to me that was signed by three Mac alumni who are teachers in the St. Paul School District. But the letter they sent me gave me no contact information. They said, ‘please contact,’ but the contact information was for the head of the teachers union. Not them. So none of them gave me any return contact information. And I met with a member of our education studies department about this, Ruthanne Kurth-Schai, and her recommendation on this was that I not respond to the head of the union, that that wouldn’t be helpful. But I did tell her that I’m happy to meet with the alumni who are teachers. So she is now trying to act as the go-between to set up some sort of a meeting to talk about this.
I spent a few minutes at the faculty meeting on Tuesday explaining this. The short version of the PILOT thing is that St. Paul used to have this Right of Way fee that was declared illegal that applied to for-profits and nonprofits, a church in St. Paul challenged it as a way of claiming that it was a way around nonprofit status – and the courts agreed, so they ruled it illegal.
TMW: When was that?
BR: A year or so ago. So a budget hole was created for St. Paul, because they lost these Right of Way fees. So now they are looking for ways to fill that budget hole. So they created a task force through the Citizens League to look at this PILOT. Their report is actually quite thoughtful – I think they did a good job – and what it recommends, essentially, is ongoing discussions. That these nonprofits, hospitals – the biggest nonprofit property owner in St. Paul is the state of Minnesota because of all the government buildings. But Catholic Church, a lot, they’ve picked St. Thomas and Macalester because they see us as the wealthiest colleges, but there are obviously the St. Kate’s, there’s Hamline, there’s William-Mitchell –
TMW: I think they’re going by endowment.
BR: Yeah, they’re going by endowment. So the Citizens League essentially recommended continued conversations. It’s not going to happen until the mayoral election is over. Our current mayor is running for governor, and a bunch of people are running for mayor. My expectation is that after the new mayor is elected, we’ll have more discussions – and we’ll probably end up agreeing to pay something.
TMW: To the city or to the schools in particular?
BR: To the city. The weird thing about this is that what the teachers union is doing is completely independent of our actual discussions with the city. Any payment we would make – and this is true of every place in the country where there are PILOT programs, like Boston – they go to the city, they don’t go to the schools. So anything that any of these nonprofits did would go to the city of St. Paul, which would then in its budgeting process have to decide where it went. So then it becomes a negotiation between the teachers and the city about what goes to the schools and where. The notion that we would make any kind of a payment – first of all, the scale is crazy. The size of the budgetary needs in the St. Paul school district versus these payments, this is like this [makes gesture indicating a very small amount]. So the impression that if we did this it would fix all the problems in the St. Paul schools…
TMW: Right, and they’re also talking about [seeking payments from] US Bank, and the major corporations.
BR: And that’s a whole different issue. They are taxed, but the issue is are they talking about payments to the city, payments directly to the school district?
TMW: If you read the editorial that the alum wrote, there’s a lot about the relationship in particular that Macalester and St. Paul schools have, with Mac students being in St. Paul schools, St. Paul students coming to Macalester… I don’t know if the legal framework has any credibility, but his takeaway was that there is something that both schools – and it goes for St. Thomas schools – that St. Paul students need support, and that will benefit, in the long-run, Macalester and other local colleges.
BR: Yeah, there’s mutual benefit right now between the schools and Macalester. Our students do a lot of volunteer work in the St. Paul school district, and the St. Paul school district gives our students opportunities to do things, so there is a strong relationship there. I try to keep in mind, though – and everybody likes to focus on endowment, which is not trivial, but two thirds of every dollar we have comes from you guys. And so one of the questions I always ask myself whenever we spend money on anything is, ‘can we justify a student or a student’s family giving us money, and then we turn around and give it to someone else.’ So they want to make it seem like the money would just come from our endowment, but the reality is that two thirds of it would come from students. I would assume students think they are paying for their education.
TMW: It’s an interesting one – what’s the responsibility of the college to the city?
BR: And we do pay. We’ve paid hundred of thousands of dollars for improvements around the college. We paid a big bulk for the medians that were put in for traffic calming, we give grants through the High Winds fund to the community councils in the area around us and to some of the individual schools like the junior high right on Summit, and so we do some of that. And my guess, again, is that we will be willing voluntarily to make some sort of a payment to the city, because we do value our relationship with them. It’s just that we’re not going to make a payment directly to the schools. Who do we even pay it to then? We’re not going to pay the teachers.
I am very sympathetic to the situation of unions right now, just sometimes I wish their tactics were a little different. As someone who has been the target multiple times in multiple contexts.
TMW: My first story here was the Allina Health –
BR: Allina Health, and you weren’t even here when one of the unions tried to unionize our adjunct faculty. So this is like the third time that different unions have decided that I’m bad, so… what can you do?
TMW: Nice note to end on.
BR: [Laughing] It comes with the territory.