The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Continuing multiculturalism at Macalester

By Anna Waugh

Dean of Multicultural Life Tommy Woon, now in his second year at Macalester, is expanding the role of the Department of Multicultural Life on campus by moving toward an institutional transformation that, he says, will give even greater support to an increasingly diverse student body at Macalester.The Department of Multicultural Life was created in 2002 under the leadership of then-Dean Joi Lewis; her role was fundamental in the creation of the department.

Lewis’ resignation in the spring of 2006 due to what she called a lack of institutional support for multiculturalism at Macalester, spoke to a perceived tension between administrators and the DML. However, according to Karla Benson Rutten, the director of the Lealtad-Suzuki Center who worked under Lewis since the DML’s creation, this perception may not fully encompass the complexity of the issue.

When Lewis announced her resignation in February 2006, she said she had been unable to gain the support from the college necessary to make the fuller institutional change that she felt Macalester needed to truly realize its multicultural mission, The Mac Weekly reported at the time.

As the DML became more established at the college, Benson Rutten said, Lewis became frustrated when she tried to increase the reach of the DML by engaging in talks of increasing diversity not only among students, but also among staff members.

As the first dean of the DML, Lewis focused particularly on defining the department’s mission and creating student programs-programs like Pluralism and Unity and the Emerging Scholars Program. Where she had trouble, Benson Rutten said, was when these programs were established and she wanted to foster a campus-wide acceptance of multiculturalism.

“[Lewis] felt like the college wasn’t ready to change or felt like she wasn’t the person to make the change,” Benson Rutten said.

Woon stepped into the role of dean the following fall to continue developing and carrying out the department’s mission.

Dean Woon has expanded the reach of the DML on campus. With his help, the Day of Change and Exchange took place last April, giving all students across campus a place to respond to January’s “politically incorrect party.” In addition, the DML created a new orientation program with the Campus Life and Student Affairs offices this year, “Mac Faces of Community,” to provide more support for historically underrepresented students.

Woon is also working with campus staff to develop plans to increase diversity across all college departments. This is a necessary step, Benson Rutten said, because there are many departments at Macalester that still have all-white staffs, and many with staff only from Minnesota. This, she said, can make it difficult for a diverse student body to relate unless the staff is made aware of issues of diversity.

“I look forward to announcing in the future that staff members working together as volunteers helped to renovate Macalester into a school with a higher cultural capacity to support expanding diversity,” Woon said. He called this the “emerging mosaic” at Macalester.

Woon said he also works closely with the Institute for Global Citizenship, and acts as a member of the IGC’s advisory board and as an advisor to the IGC student council.

“There are historical divides and tensions between internationalism and multiculturalism that permeate higher education, and we have an opportunity to build the IGC at Macalester with a ‘DNA’ that integrates all our core values,” Woon said.

All of these steps have led to an expanded DML, one that goes beyond programming to encompass an audience that includes all members of the college, and some see this as a reason for why the DML should receive more financial support.

Jane Rhodes, the Dean for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, said the department serves more people every year, but has not been able to expand because of a lack of resources.

“[Lewis] tried to get significant increases in budget and had little success, and the same has been true for Tommy,” Rhodes said.

Often, the DML must approach Rhodes’ American Studies department for funds to co-sponsor programs, she said. And on top of funds, the DML could use more staff members, Rhodes added.

One of the DML’s activities, Soup and Substance, a monthly lunch discussion that takes place in the Cultural House where students, staff, and faculty discuss topics related to the various cultural heritage months, has grown in the past few years from an average of 20 people to 50 people per month, yet the budget for the popular event has not changed.

Woon said he is in a different situation from his predecessor because Lewis’ focus was on creating the department. Now that the department is established, Woon is picking up where Lewis left off.

“I share [Lewis’] interest in moving multiculturalism away from any unhealthy reliance on the one center model and to move it from the margins to the mainstream,” he said.

His challenge, Woon said, is to update the collective understanding of Macalester so that it will match its stated commitment to multiculturalism. It is a challenge about which he is both excited and optimistic.

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