Macalester is and should be a republic, not a democracy

In Spring 2013, an embattled administration dealt with a discrimination lawsuit, a controversial student campaign and the resulting probations. We have now, of course, come back into fresh controversy, and new accusations toward our institution. The conversation about Macalester marks a resurgence of radicalism on campus: the affected groups see administrators as unfeeling elitists that muffle “undesirable” voices—a serious and unfounded charge.

The media around this reeks of conspiracy. Last week, one writer made a call for “true democracy” as the solution to a supposed purge of activists from leadership, going so far as to include words like “subversives” and “undesirables” in discussions on probations. Problematic language aside, the assumption is that if the administration is kept out of student affairs, the campus will run as a direct democracy, where students will be fired into activists, and rally to chastise the big, bad admins.

Unfortunately, these radicals have missed the point. Macalester’s administration and MCSG are not meant to be purely democratic. Even as a laboratory of change and passion, Mac still needs a superstructure to keep it on a smooth track to the future. What we need is not a democracy, not a consensus or progressive stack. What we need is a system that provides a fair code of norms and regulations, and that moderates change without remaining stagnant. What we need is a republic, and luckily, we have one.

But how is Mac a republic in miniature? If we think of the early U.S. Congress, we can see. If MCSG is the directly-elected body, it is analogous to the House of Representatives: meant to pass legislation and have debates that reflect what those who voted are feeling—and if all people are engaged in the elections, it’s precisely what that body does. The administration, then, is the pre-direct election U.S. Senate—a buffer between students and the executive power of the Trustees. Unlike the directly elected bodies, administrators serve as the fine-toothed comb that reviews change, and ensures that all consequences are considered when institutional change is recommended.

This system would obviously frustrate those calling for decisive change as has been proposed by many groups now frustrated with Mac. But is this out of character for a republic, or an institution? Certainly not. The exercise of running an institution is one of incremental change while still preserving an identity that grounds it. Mac, as any social body, must go gently along the curves of student opinion, lest it crash into a wall of problems, leaving a mess for the next generation. Because of this responsibility, change goes through layers of review—there is a reason we can’t go zero waste in one month.

The second function of the republic is obviously to uniformly enforce a rule of law. Discard the accusatory words of late—we on this campus know administrators by name, at least those who would deal with issues of probation. Our superstructure is not faceless, and rather than malevolently administering elbow drops to activists and “undesirables,” the Conduct Board and Academic Standing Committee administer rulings out of adherence to College regulations, and rule after considering the effects on everyone. In a republican system, the rule of law is applied evenly to all citizens. No exception is made for rank or affiliation, and unlike in the outside world, here the words are from people that care.

We must stop conspiracy rants and understand the legacy of republicanism that Macalester is a steward of—and appreciate that this system is here instead of mob rule by the vocal, or a faceless bureaucracy of a degree mill. A social institution, whether a church, corporation or college, must be oriented towards temperate change and a code of law or conduct if it hopes to preserve any identity. True to the mission of the liberal arts, our campus committees and government are training grounds for peaceable cooperation and little-r republicanism. And they should remain so.