What I have learned at Macalester College

What I have learned at Macalester College

Jennings Mergenthal, Contributing Writer

Macalester (and really most institutions) has a vested interest in keeping you from learning things about them. Any history that gets shown to the public must be able to pass muster, this is how we get our cleaned-up Founders Day narratives and the “About” tab on the website. 

I am burdened by many things I have learned about Macalester. Now that I am graduating, this burden must be passed on to you, dear reader, lest it slip from our memories like dust in the wind. This is not a complete history; this is not even an especially nuanced history. These are just some of the things that are important enough to not be forgotten.

Oh, and lest some alum from the ’60s come out of the woodwork and accuse me of “revisionist history” or trying to “cancel” Macalester, please let me be the first to say: shut the hell up.

It wasn’t always going to be Macalester. Our illustrious founder (Indian-despiser and noted opponent of co-education) the Rev. Edward Neill used a number of names including the Baldwin School and “Jesus College.” The name was decided thanks to a generous donation from one Charles Macalester and for its first decades Macalester was a sleepy but aggressively Presbyterian college.

Where did the Scottish stuff come from? James Wallace, one of Macalester’s early presidents, rediscovered his Scottish heritage. Macalester lacked any sort of coherent identity, so they co-opted Wallace’s. His son, DeWitt, would fail out of Mac during his presidency and their relationship would never recover. Remember him, he’ll be important later.

Through the ’20s and ’30s, Mac tried to expand their international focus but still didn’t have much by way of resources or prestige.

By his father’s death in 1939, the young DeWitt had made a name for himself as the founder of the Reader’s Digest and also as a Nazi sympathizer. For the next 30 years, Wallace would lavish financial gifts on Macalester. Working with a succession of Mac presidents, the college would be remade into a world-class liberal arts institution. Wallace also created pools of money like the High Winds Fund, which enabled Macalester to acquire large amounts of housing in the surrounding neighborhood, as well as most of the businesses at the intersection of Grand and Snelling and most of the businesses on the block of Grand west of campus.

By 1969, some of this money was also going to Expanded Education Opportunities, a scholarship program that offered full-ride scholarships for Black, American Indian, Puerto Rican and Mexican students. This radical program, introduced by President Arthur Flemming, gave Mac more Black and Indigenous students in 1970 than it has today. It also pissed off DeWitt Wallace, who withdrew all his donations. The college nearly went bankrupt several times in the next decade. They were saved by harshly cutting diversity scholarship programs and raising tuition (a solution they’ve obviously never repeated).

Mac was an incredibly different place in the ’70s, and I strongly urge you to learn more about it. To this day, Mac uses the subversive cred it got in the ’70s to sell its image. One of the products of this era was Springfest, a student run, alcohol-fueled event that embodied Macalester’s counterculture. Like most of Mac counterculture, Springfest was later made into an official campus event where its uniqueness and revelry could be controlled by responsible adults.

When DeWitt Wallace died, he left Mac a load of shares for the Digest. When the Digest went public in 1990, Macalester made a killing. This is what helped finance the college through the ’90s. Like most of higher education, the college continued to corporatize throughout this time, especially after 2003 with the arrival of our beloved ex-President Brian Rosenberg. And that takes us right up until now. 

You start to notice cycles. When the budget gets tight, diversity programs get cut. Every few years the college has a hate speech problem, brings a speaker to campus to talk about it and waits for it to go away. Mac attracts but struggles to keep young professors of color. Every alum thinks that Macalester was the best when they went here. Time is a flat circle. We go through the same motions and learn nothing.

At the end of the day, Macalester is a business. You (the average student) have the unique position of being both a customer and a commodity. Their business model relies on keeping a critical mass of students happy enough to be complacent and burned out enough to not cause trouble. Someday soon you too will likely be a cynical, embittered senior (when I got to Mac I didn’t use crutches, just saying). 

Or maybe you can break the cycle. I hope so. Learn from the past mistakes. Tear down things that don’t support you. But please. Don’t try to make Mac a better place if that comes at the expense of yourself.


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