In the late morning of Nov. 16, 2017, a massive crowd of Macalester students, faculty, staff and administrators filled the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center for a walk-in against hate.
What started as a student-organized response to anti-Semitic and anti-Arab graffiti on campus became a rupturing event – sparking broad conversations about equity, diversity, cultural competency and the fundamental character of the college.
Now, three months after the walk-in, both students and the administration are beginning to take concrete steps to respond to the issues it helped bring to the surface.
“I’m noticing that a lot of people are using the walk-in as a moment,” Vice President for Student Affairs Donna Lee said. “Which is great. But at the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that these issues have been here. I don’t want students who have been sharing their stories to feel like those stories aren’t valuable.
“That wasn’t the first time we realized that there were issues,” she continued. “But there was something different for the community that made people hear.”
Malik Earle ’18, one of the organizers of the walk-in, echoed that sentiment.
“I think that reflecting on [the walk-in], the wake-up call seems to have been heard most by staff and faculty,” Earle said. “If it was a wake-up call for some students, I would argue they weren’t paying attention before.”
Mara Steinitz ’18, another of the walk-in’s primary organizers, also pointed to faculty engagement as one of the event’s most significant impacts.
“I’m excited about the fact that people are still talking about these things, and I definitely hear from faculty and staff offhand, ‘Oh, I was in a meeting and this got brought up,’” she said. “Or, ‘There’s a meeting happening that’s talking about this.’”
One administrator notably absent from the walk-in was Provost and Dean of the Faculty Karine Moe, who said she “absolutely” would have been in attendance had she found out about the event sooner.
“I think there are a lot of students who are feeling a lot of pain, I think there are a lot of faculty who are also feeling a lot of pain about what’s been happening in our national context,” Moe said. “I think that students have experiences on campus that faculty perhaps don’t fully appreciate.”
In response, the administration is targeting several areas for growth. One, influenced in part by a Dec. 13 meeting between a group of 11 students and Moe, is in how faculty create classroom environments and steer discussion as it relates to multiculturalism and issues on campus.
“The faculty I spoke to after the walk-in were deeply moved by what the students had to say at that event, and I think the faculty want to do better about managing classroom climate,” Moe said. “I think that walk-in really drove home to them that there is a lot of work to be done.
“Over the course of the last couple of years, we’ve started to offer more training opportunities, but we intend to do a bit more of a concerted effort,” she continued. “We hope to reach more faculty.”
The Board of Trustees went through diversity training during their last visit to campus two weeks ago, and Moe said that she wants the same speaker to come back to work with faculty.
Diversity training will not be mandatory – faculty training never is at Macalester unless it relates to Title IX – but Moe said that “doesn’t mean we can’t provide incentives that would strongly encourage participation.”
Along those same lines, the dean positions in the Department for Multicultural Life (DML) and the Institute for Global Citizenship (IGC) have been reworked to focus on the provision of resources to students from underrepresented populations and faculty development respectively.
The college’s most recent Mellon grant – totaling $800,000 – is being run through the IGC, with an emphasis on integrating issues of multiculturalism into the institute’s work. In practice, that will involve diversity training opportunities for both small and larger groups of faculty members.
“[Dean of the IGC] Donna Maeda’s work, in large part, is about helping faculty develop curriculum and skills to engage in more inclusive classrooms,” Moe said.
Maeda’s background makes her a good fit for that work. She arrived at Macalester in July from Occidental College in Los Angeles, where she helped create and then served as chair of the Critical Theory and Social Justice Department.
On Tuesday night, Feb. 13, Maeda spoke to a group of more than 40 students outside of the Weyerhaeuser Boardroom in the first of what will be a series of “Cornerstone Forums” – events run by Steinitz and Earle designed to give students the opportunity to engage high-level administrators in dialogue.
Steinitz and Earle plan to hold forums once every two weeks, and are targeting senior staff and other decision-makers in the DML, Center for Religious and Spiritual Life (CRSL) and Student Affairs. The next forum is set for Feb. 27.
Thus far, those figures appear willing to appear at upcoming forums.
“Administrators want students to do whatever students want to do,” Earle said. “So they’ve been pretty receptive to us, and open to coming and trying it out.”
“Hopefully it’s a space for students to meet important and key administrators who can hear their concerns, express their own concerns and goals and realities and try to build networks from there so that students can do more of their own organizing,” he continued.
That space might be as important for some administrators as it is for students. For instance, unlike Lee, Vice President for Administration and Finance David Wheaton and President Brian Rosenberg, Moe does not currently meet with a dedicated student advisory group.
“I don’t think it’s intentional, I really don’t,” Lee said. “You get so entrenched in your day to day, you forget to poke your head up, look around, and see what’s going on.”
The IGC isn’t the only thing that is changing. The college is in the process of hiring a new Dean of the DML in the wake of Chris MacDonald-Dennis’ departure in September, and conducted a number of listening sessions in the fall to gather student input on what the job should entail.
“One of the main things that came out for students is that they wanted more focused attention on providing support and resources from under-represented populations,” Lee said. “So that’s named in the job description.”
The college has not yet named a new Dean of the DML, but has brought several candidates to campus for interviews and will make a selection before the end of the year.
“I do think having the [DML] position more clearly focused on students is a big deal, and then having the new Dean of the IGC in place now, with a focus on faculty development, is a big deal,” Lee said.
“These pieces weren’t here before. I don’t mean it’s going to then be on those people to do it all on their own, but we do need key people in key roles waking up in the morning and thinking about who needs to be at the table.”
To a certain extent, Moe placed the blame for Macalester’s problems on the broader political climate. She called the swastikas carved into and drawn on walls and desks across campus in the fall “clearly a part of what’s going on nationally.”
Lee agreed with that assessment.
“We have really high expectations here for who we are and what we do and how we’re going to be,” she said. “But we’re a microcosm of society. [President] Brian [Rosenberg] hates that every time I say that to him, but it’s so true.”
More pertinent to Macalester, another landmark moment in the postwalk-in discussion – referenced both by Lee and by Maeda at the Cornerstone Forum – was Henry Aoki’s column in the Jan. 26 edition of The Mac Weekly titled “The Limits of the White Institution.”
The article – which ran at more than 2,600 words – argues that Macalester values the dominance of whiteness over the needs of students of color.
For Earle, as for many students, the argument rang true.
“Henry Aoki’s article really resonated with me,” Earle said. “That is a vision that I share, and I think a lot of my ambition for this work comes out of disrupting the hegemonic whiteness of Macalester, [and] rethinking what the organization can do in terms of racial equity – and that’s on all levels, faculty, staff and students. “I want to see more professors of color, more female professors and a more inclusive student social sphere.”
Steinitz agreed. “I would also add that something I feel really strongly about is creating a campus where we talk about what’s going on and where your professors acknowledge what’s happening at Macalester and in the world in a way where those [feelings] are allowed into the classroom, because they’re coming in no matter what,” she said. One of the tenets of Aoki’s piece was demographic – that Macalester cannot become a truly diverse institution so long as its student body and faculty are majority white – and envisions a version of Macalester in which far more students of color are enrolled.
“I think the demographic argument is a really compelling one,” Earle said. “I would love to see Macalester level out its racial disparities with a focus on bringing in more domestic students of color [and] bringing in domestic students of color who are not the richest domestic students of color and pushing for a more class representative vision of Macalester as well.”
Lee agreed – but only to a point.
“It’s more than just the demographics,” she said. “It’s rethinking how we deliver education. And that takes some serious work. But I would prefer to see us look at what we have in place – our programs, our resources, our services – and think through whether resources are allocated to support a diverse population. I worry about bringing more and more students here.”
Steinitz would like to see another important aspect of identity – class – folded into this discussion as well.
“We need to talk about race,” she said, “but we also need to talk about how we are increasing class diversity and the structures we have in place to support working class students.”
The demographic argument – in terms of both class and race – has Macalester caught in what appears to be an untenable position.
“Macalester has a stated goal of increasing diversity amongst its student body, faculty and staff,” Moe said. “And we work hard. We work hard to recruit students from different backgrounds, and we’ve been working hard to recruit faculty from different backgrounds.
“It’s clearly critical for the success of the college, for its ability to be sustainable in the long-run, to become a more diverse place,” she continued. “So yes, I think about it a lot when I think about hiring.”
But there’s an important catch.
The strategic plan includes extensive language about recruiting more students from underrepresented populations and increasing the diversity of the college. But the plan also calls for the college to raise its tuition yearly while holding its discount rate – the average amount of financial aid per student – steady at 51 percent.
Is it possible to do that while at the same time increasing diversity?
“The stellar increase in tuition is threatening to anyone reliant on financial aid,” Earle said. “I don’t know this for a fact, but I don’t imagine that the Macalester endowment is going to grow [enough] in the next 10 years to support [financial aid] for almost a doubling of tuition. So it will certainly be a challenge. I don’t have the answers for it.”
That’s the long view, and it’s unavoidable in discussions about equity and diversity – not just for Macalester, but for almost any American liberal arts college. In the meantime, Steinitz would like to see students buy into the conversations happening on campus and do the work of showing up.
“People want to go to the next big thing and plan some big change,” Steinitz said. “I think what’s really important is showing up to things that are already happening and supporting students and learning from and with other students and faculty.”
Where accountability gets difficult is with faculty who are tenured, and – as Aoki’s column noted – Macalester’s tenured faculty demographically skew older and white. The faculty is roughly 80 percent white overall, the student body 65 percent white.
“I still want to ask questions about what it means to be tenured and have certain failures in maintaining a safe and healthy classroom atmosphere,” Earle said.
Macalester has historically had difficulties in retaining faculty of color, and while Moe said that she couldn’t comment on the faculty of color retention rate “because the numbers are so small,” she acknowledged that the college has work to do in that area.
“Do I think that we have specific structures in place that make it unfair for faculty of color? I don’t personally think that,” she said. “But I think it’s something that we need to continue to work hard on. We’re not perfect, we’re not anywhere near perfect.”
While Earle might not agree with that assessment, he remains upbeat.
“I’m excited that much of the work that was going on before the walk-in is continuing,” Earle said, “with maybe a little more vigor and maybe a little more participation from other students and faculty.”
Earle and Steinitz are about to graduate. They both spoke about trying to get first-years and sophomores to Cornerstone Forums and involved in campus activism to continue work that will stretch well beyond the end of Earle and Steinitz’s Macalester careers.
“We forget sometimes that a student’s life is four years here,” Lee said. “And if you don’t see a whole lot change in four years, you feel like you’ve done nothing. But change does take a long time – especially when you’re talking about shifting a culture and engaging in issues as deep as diversity and inclusion.
“And it’s never ending,” she continued. “We’re never going to reach this point where we say, ‘okay, now we’re done.’ It’s going to be [a] continual process of doing this work.”
Building relationships – between students, faculty, staff and administrators – is Lee’s work every day.
“We still don’t really have dialogue,” Lee said. “We talk at each other. We say a lot of good things, but I don’t know if we’re really at a point where we’re sharing from a deep personal [place] where folks know each other’s stories.”
“And honestly I think that’s the only way we begin to connect across our humanity, when we give space for our stories to be shared,” she continued. “And it doesn’t have to be anything intellectual. I think sometimes we make the mistake of making it intellectual.
“This is about heart and soul.”