A call to Brian Rosenberg—put our money where our mouths are

We are writing on behalf of Macalester’s Kick Wells Fargo Off Campus (KWOC), a coalition of students, alumni, and community members who have come together to demand that Macalester end its relationship with Wells Fargo. We target Wells Fargo because its reckless and greedy foreclosure practices are devastating Minnesota.

As students, we are deeply disappointed with the recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education written by Macalester president Brian Rosenberg. It demonstrated a sharp disconnect between Rosenberg’s beliefs and our long-standing institutional values.

Rosenberg stated that the primary goal of a college or university is to educate. We agree. However, we do not believe, as Rosenberg said, that a college taking a stance on an important social issue detracts from that “core work.” Instead, it provides real, tangible experience to back the theoretical framework provided in the classroom. Building a campaign requires critical thinking, research, and inquisitiveness—all things that are crucial to a quality education. Furthermore, student activists take their learning experience outside the classroom, applying their education directly to their lives and the world at large.

Through our activism at Macalester, we in KWOC have learned valuable tools for organizing, facilitating events and meetings, and other important communication skills. We have gained a wealth of knowledge about the housing crisis, various banking practices, and community organizations in the Twin Cities. It has been an enriching and life-changing experience for us to stand by and act with members of our community in their fight for housing justice. In his article, Rosenberg highlights the importance of these experiences, explaining that the work of education “extends beyond the classroom into the lives they lead in all settings; that the boundaries between the campus and other local and global communities are permeable and should be crossed.”

Rosenberg claims that college divestment campaigns are rarely an effective tool for change. Frankly, this is not true. South African Apartheid was ended in huge part thanks to divestment campaigns. Through United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), coordinated student divestment campaigns resulted in apparel giants Russell and Nike improving labor conditions by reopening unjustly closed factories, paying workers severance, and allowing them to unionize.

Moreover, the article is based on the idea that colleges act alone. Rosenberg points to students encouraging their schools to divest from fossil fuels. These students are not acting on the assumption that university divestment alone will end climate change. They are fighting as part of larger movement. Likewise, our campaign works in solidarity with national, statewide, and local movements against corporate greed and reckless behavior, specifically against big banks like Wells Fargo that brought about the Recession and the housing crisis that has devastated students, Macalester’s neighbors in the Twin Cities, and the country as a whole.

No successful campaign has been won without solidarity and symbolic action. We are nearing the 50th anniversary of the famous March on Washington. The Civil Rights Movement was successful because of solidarity from many different faith, community, and labor groups, and students, as well as powerful politicians and institutional administrators like Rosenberg.

In the article, Rosenberg asks if activism is worthy of jeopardizing maximum returns. We frequently hear alumni say they give to Macalester because of the great experience they had here and because they want future students to have that same opportunity. Part of that experience is our institutional commitment to civic engagement and social responsibility. We are fighting for divestment from Wells Fargo because we too love Macalester and we want to uphold these values for future generations of students.

Rosenberg fears that institutional activism makes personal action less meaningful and absolves students of personal responsibility. Our president is forgetting that students are the core of any educational institution. We decided to come to Macalester and now we are taking responsibility for our choices. We contribute to the school in many ways, including with our tuition, and therefore we deserve decision-making power.

Institutional activism is not a substitute for individual activism—rather institutional activism is the product of personal activism. These causes are personal, and students put incredible effort into these campaigns. Additionally, college divestment makes a much larger impact than individual consumer choices. When USAS won their campaign against Russell, divestments cost the company $60 million—the equivalent of 1.5 million people abstaining from purchasing a $40 Russell sweatshirt. In the end, both individual and institutional activism are needed to make change happen.

We agree with Rosenberg’s argument that institutional action is not always appropriate. But we believe institutional action is necessary when inaction directly conflicts with the values of the college and has a direct and devastating impact on the student body. Foreclosure is a serious problem that personally affects Macalester students, faculty, and staff. At Macalester, students are encouraged to be a part of the Twin Cities community, and we should not be complicit in the devastation of that community.