Honor Mac’s values by taking a stand

By Michael Halpern

This weekend, the Macalester Board of Trustees will consider whether the college should formally take a position on the Minnesota marriage amendment. Their conversation should be grounded in a larger question: what is the role of the university in society? Macalester rightly embraces the principle that colleges and universities should show enormous restraint when wading into politics, lest the institution be politicized. In the vast majority of cases, the university should refrain from advocating policy positions. When urging caution, many point to a seminal 1967 University of Chicago commission led by eminent legal scholar Harry Kalven, which wrote that the “instrument of dissent and criticism is the individual faculty member or the individual student. The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” The commission goes on, however, to say the following: “From time to time instances will arise in which the society, or segments of it, threaten the very mission of the university and its values of free inquiry. In such a crisis, it becomes the obligation of the university as an institution to oppose such measures and actively to defend its interests and values.” Macalester itself has taken actions with social and political consequences. The college signed a Supreme Court brief in the 2003 University of Michigan affirmative action case and was an early endorser of the College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. In a November 2009 commentary in Inside Higher Ed, President Rosenberg wrote, “I would be prepared to contend that not to take stands on issues of this kind…would actually impair our ability to carry out our educational work.” Earlier this year, President Rosenberg warned about the perils of anti-intellectualism in his well-read (and well-received) commentary on the presidential candidacy of Rick Santorum. I believe the marriage amendment, by threatening Macalester’s mission, values, and sense of community, meets the threshold for action. So after Augsburg publicly opposed the referendum, I asked a few Mac friends if they thought we should encourage Macalester to do the same. Armed with their support, I put a petition online (see http://chn.ge/SyeuUL). As of this writing, more than 800 Macalester community members have signed, including current students and alumni from 1969 to 2012, with no signs of a slowdown. Professionally, in part, I defend scientists from political attacks. I believe that while in many cases scientific institutions should refrain from taking political positions, they must speak up to defend their scientists, and by extension the scientific enterprise. The same principle holds true here: an attack against some members of our community weakens all of us. Petition signers pointed to the real-world consequences for institutions of higher education should the amendment pass. The Mac grad professor in Illinois and her partner who don’t have the same rights as married couples. The Lutheran pastor who believes in Macalester’s commitment to diversity and human rights. The alumnus who wants to move back to Minnesota one day and continue supporting Macalester. The student who wants to feel safe and supported on her campus. Let’s not forget future prospective students and staff who seek an environment where they can be equal and thrive. Another petition signer was attracted to Macalester for its academics and size—as well as its welcoming of GLBT individuals. “It took most of that first year to shed the fears that I brought with me from Arkansas,” he wrote, “But shed them I did. The openness of Macalester to diversity and difference was a part of it.” The trustees’ vote gets to the heart of what it means to be a community. We cannot think about this amendment without considering its impact on our roommates, colleagues, professors, and friends. Macalester is defined by its values. We are multicultural. We believe in service. We support academic excellence. We thrive on internationalism. But our values must continue to extend beyond the campus. On its website, Macalester proudly touts its participation in The Big Gay Race, a fundraiser for the anti-amendment forces, and its recent hosting of a photo shoot for equality. Let’s expect the college to be as strong on fundamentals as it is on optics. For all of us, and for the future of the institution, I hope that the Board of Trustees chooses to lead. refresh –>