Reactions to Brian Rosenberg's seven-year review: Some tough tradeoffs necessary in modern higher education

By Herschel Nachlis

Overall, as an ’07 graduate who entered Macalester along with President Rosenberg in 2003, it was fascinating to watch him and Macalester grow – sometimes painfully – both during my time at 1600 Grand and since I’ve left. After rereading last week’s comprehensive and compelling retrospective on Rosenberg’s tenure, then, there are really only two additional points that I’d emphasize, and they cut in opposite directions. First, Macalester always was, and still is, a unique place. Second, Rosenberg always was, and still is, just one person. On each point, though, it’s helpful to think outside of the Mac bubble, as both Macalester as a college and Rosenberg as its President operate within a broader set of institutional settings.

On Macalester’s uniqueness, about three years out, I’m both nostalgic and worried. That is, after moving away, working a bunch of jobs, and then ending up back in school – this time at a large East Coast university with lots of fake gothic buildings – I’ve become even more convinced that Macalester remains an unusual place on myriad axes and that these exceptional qualities are worth preserving. An alumnus from the 1960s who I recently met in New York said that for all of his great friends, when he met a bunch of other Macalester alumni for the first time he just “felt at home, like we all share something, that we all just understand.”

That said, I’ll admit to being terrified – maybe horrified – when I returned to campus a year ago to find fields that formerly hosted drunken, frozen, brazen games of midnight rugby literally overtaken by a hulking gymnasium. My senior year I was in favor of the new athletics center, but it seems that artists’ renderings do not map so cleanly into contractors’ finished buildings.

But to attribute such changes – whether you view them as positive and/or necessary additions or monstrosities – to Rosenberg alone seems misguided. As he said in his interview with my predecessor Elizabeth Tannen, in an interview with me, and in last week’s interview with Matt Day, he’s just one guy. This is, it appears, his consistent refrain. He believes that Macalester’s character would be hard for one guy, or one gym, or one whatever, to screw up. However cheery and humble, this too seems to miss – or to elide – a more important point.

Indeed, for all its uniqueness, Macalester College is also just one among dozens of highly ranked liberal arts colleges subject to the same set of changing social, demographic, political, and financial factors. These include the rising cost of tuition (which Elliot Brown masterfully wrote about in these pages 2006/7), the growing demands of each set of incoming students (and parents), and the demands placed on those students four years later as they face a confusing and precarious set of post-collegiate circumstances.

Yes, we’d prefer not to indulge in branding and marketing (I remember telling one of Macalester’s earliest marketing consultants, at a big public meeting, that the prototype materials he was distributing at the time might have deterred me and my most interesting friends from applying). But everybody’s demanding it, and everybody’s doing it. And when we see Reed succumbing to U.S. News & World Report rankings pressure and Antioch with its doors closed, perhaps less drastic tradeoffs as need aware financial aid and yes, even a frightening, field-squashing gymnasium, are in some sense necessary.

As last week’s pieces make clear, it seems that President Rosenberg has been and remains cognizant of such necessary tradeoffs. And his strategy and vision appears to entail capitulating to certain necessary so-called evils – fundraising, fundraising, fundraising, branding – while otherwise letting Macalester undertake its business – a unique and inspiring business – as usual. You know, blood drinking, crack smoking, Satan worshipping, and stuff.

Herschel Nachlis ’07 is a confused second year graduate student at Princeton University where he studies Politics. He can be reached at [email protected].