Students rescind open letter to Mac after ICE announcement

Margaret Moran

On Tuesday, June 30, President Rivera sent an email to the campus community announcing that the college would be offering in-person instruction for the fall 2020 modules, along with the option to complete the semester remotely. Approximately 90 minutes later, Jennings Mergenthal ’21 and Daria Chamness ’21 published an open letter addressed to Rivera and senior staff demanding that the college move to remote-only instruction. 

The letter, signed by approximately 400 members of the campus community cited the dangers of returning to campus amid the pandemic.

“A patchwork system is not a system,” Mergenthal said. “I also think that by making this a thing of individual choice, Macalester has sort of… abdicated their responsibility by framing it as a student choice.”

However, Mergenthal and Chamness rescinded the letter on Monday, June 6, after an announcement from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that international students attending colleges that switch to online delivery could have their visas revoked and be deported by the U.S. Government. 

“The decision [to rescind the letter] was made entirely because of the ICE statement and the threat of deportation for international students,” Mergenthal wrote Monday night in a message to The Mac Weekly.

Mergenthal and Chamness intended to demand that the college meet the immediate housing, health and safety needs of the community and also protect students from the spread of disease. They acknowledge that with the announcement from ICE, those goals cannot be accomplished in tandem. 

Both authors saw several flaws with Macalester’s original plan to return to campus — in their letter, they wrote that coming back to campus goes against what health experts and epidemiologists recommend to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and that the decision is largely motivated by the financial challenges the college would face if it went entirely remote.

In the original letter, Mergenthal and Chamness specified that while all classes should be online, the college should continue to offer on-campus housing to students who need it or the on-campus resources necessary to complete remote learning. 

While they acknowledged Macalester has given all students the choice to take their classes remotely if they choose to do so, offering any in-person instruction would increase COVID-19 transmission and pose a danger to public health.

“I think it’s reductivist to just say that allowing students to make this decision is good because more choice is good,” Mergenthal said. “I personally don’t believe that public health is something that can be trusted to a series of individual choices, and I think we’ve seen that in how various states have handled the response to COVID.”

Mergenthal said that if they could go back and revise the letter, they would have liked to have emphasized more how much of the burden the hybrid model creates for staff, particularly those who are in charge of custodial work.

“Staff… don’t have the job protection to vocally dissent about these issues [unlike tenured faculty], and unlike students, don’t have the bargaining chip of, ‘it’s student money that pays for Macalester,’” Mergenthal said. “That sort of gets to how the labor of staff, and the labor of faculty, is largely made invisible.”

Since publishing the letter on Tuesday, many students have criticized it on social media. Some students criticized the demands for a tuition reduction, pointing out that students who pay higher tuition allow the college to offer lower-income students a lower tuition rate. 

“There are definitely things that now I would phrase differently, like instead of calling for tuition reduction, calling for reducing estimated family contribution,” Mergenthal said. “Also some of the language about calling for Mac to house students who needed it was a little unclear and not phrased as a demand.”

Students were also critical of the authors’ choice to allow alumni to sign the petition. Mergenthal said that ideally, they and their co-author would not have had to reach out to alumni for support, but they knew that alumni had a unique sway over the college.

“Some people have also said that they don’t feel like alumni should be signing, this is also a completely fair criticism, and I think it gets at a larger issue of the power alumni should have over an institution, over the institution they attended,” Mergenthal said. “But the reason we chose to solicit alumni signatures is because in general, Macalester listens to them because they have… money.” 

“[The letter] would still have been flawed but potentially less flawed if we had taken longer to write it, but I think it was important to springboard off of the momentum started by the college’s decision,” Mergenthal continued.

The authors learned of many of the criticisms not directly from the source, but from other people, which they found disappointing.

“The fact that people haven’t reached out directly sort of indicates that we didn’t create an environment in which people felt comfortable reaching out and critiquing,” they said. “That saddens me a little bit and I intend to do better the next time that Macalester does something to piss me off to make me contribute to another open letter.”

Monday afternoon, the original petition was replaced with a statement that read:

“From the inception of this letter, we have always affirmed Macalester’s responsibility to provide housing for those students who need it. Furthermore, we argued that part of Mac’s responsibility to provide safe housing entailed limiting the movement of people on and across campus – in essence, not holding in-person classes in our small, indoor classrooms – in order to protect those students accessing Mac housing from elevated risk of COVID infection. 

“Now, ICE has put that responsibility in direct conflict with Mac’s responsibility to international students. We recognize that Macalester cannot both protect its international students from deportation and protect all students from COVID by moving classes fully online. We do not hold Macalester responsible for this particular dilemma: it was directly and solely caused by ICE, and stems from the American government’s mistreatment of and violence against immigrants.

Mergenthal and Chamness said Tuesday morning that they do not have plans to send any sort of letter to the administration at this time given the ICE development.

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