Macalester, marketing and the Dalai Lama


His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet at an appearance. His Holiness will be speaking at Macalester on March 2. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Paddy Patterson.

Louise Ann Hough ’52 died this past August. She served as a public school teacher, enjoyed the musical arts and raised three children.

Joan Mondale ’52 died earlier this month. She was involved in public service throughout her life, promoted the arts and art education and raised three children.

There was no fanfare, no flag at half-mast, no week-long public mourning at Macalester in the wake of Ms. Hough’s death. What does it mean when your college clings only to the death of a celebrity alumna, like Mrs. Mondale? Is Macalester mourning solely her death? We don’t think so. The school is extenuating, if not flaunting, its connections to progressive stardom.

This is how Macalester does business. Such marketing is not foreign to Macalester. Admissions and alumni promotional material are littered with photographs detailing Kofi Annan’s 2006 visit to campus. His visit is well-documented: raising the U.N. flag, signing a ping-pong table and lecturing at the Institute for Global Citizenship. But does this publicity ever substantially highlight his message? He gave several talks that day. Does anyone still discuss what he said? Do we, now, ever reflect on the words he gave our community? Maybe in international studies. Maybe. We’re sure they were powerful. One thing is for certain: Macalester is so obsessed with the mere fact he visited—especially since it granted the school further cosmopolitan, social capital—that considerable branding of our “internationalism” is wallpapered with Annan.

But after eight years, let’s face it: Annan’s image has been overused. This worries us. Surely Macalester’s thirst for social capital did not cease with the former U.N. Secretary General. What other international figure could Macalester exploit to boast its mission of internationalism?

We are curious if and how Macalester will manipulate the Dalai Lama and his visit. What will they make him sign? Macalester goes gaga like The Hollywood Reporter at a Justin Bieber concert when an international public figure visits. Yet we think tokenizing isolated experiences related to internationalism with a frenzy of photo documentation, and worse, obsessed discourse about the mere event itself detracts from, and makes all of us lose sight of, the genuine aspects of our community’s internationalism. Macalester’s internationalism is more defined by daily interactions and conversations than it is by celebrity visits and associations.

When His Holiness visits, we hope the school will not allude to images of his speech as definitive of Macalester’s internationalism and religious diversity. With that, we also hope the administration does not subject him to a barrage of photographs. The same goes for students. Instead of trying to capture the moment with your camera or smartphone, concentrate on the moment.

You can get pictures from the visit with a simple Google search (we’re sure the school will have photos posted in less than a week). Rather, dedicate your attention to him as he talks live at a private (repeat: private) event your college will probably only hold once. Spare him the iPhones and Canons, and lend him your ears. Let’s focus less on what we see, and more on what we hear.

Macalester chooses to mourn the marketable. It also chooses to flaunt the marketable, especially in relation to figures who can boost its image of internationalism. Let’s shelve our photo albums and glossy viewbooks and recall our generative power in defining internationalism.