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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

1 of 7 Stories

After the Attacks
Traditionally liberal Macalester College wrestles with its conscience

By Kathy Witkowsky
St. Paul, Minnesota

Last fall, as a favor to a journalist looking for a September 11 follow-up story, Macalester College history professor Emily Rosenberg asked students in her U.S.Foreign Policy in the 20th Century class how they felt about being at the forefront of a new, post- September 11 generation. The students gave a collective groan, she recalled.

“That whole question,” one of them said,“ignores history.”

Rosenberg tells that story with pride. She loves teaching at Macalester, a liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota, that emphasizes internationalism, community service and critical thinking for its 1,800 students. Even though Rosenberg has not changed her course to deal directly with the terrorist attacks or the U.S. response to them (“You have a very limited amount of time. Are you going to skip the Cold War?”), she is hoping students begin to connect some of the history they are learning in class to the issues brought up by September 11, instead of swallowing an overly simplistic version of the attacks and their aftermath.

“Students understand that you don’t just start the narrative at September 11,” she said. “I think it makes sense to resist that framework.”

She would prefer that her students ask good questions rather than look for pat answers. So she—and Macalester—plan to stay their course.

While many colleges and universities across the country have felt compelled to develop new classes and new policies in response to September 11, the attacks and the resulting debates over U.S. foreign policy have simply highlighted Macalester’s strengths, said college president Michael McPherson. “A huge lesson we have to draw from this horrible stuff is that there simply is not a separation between the U.S. and the rest of the world,” Mc- Pherson said.

That’s a concept that has always been emphasized at Macalester, which is known for its international studies and large foreign- student contingent. “We do think we’re on the right track,” said McPherson, who said he does not expect to implement any major changes in reaction to the attacks. “It will reaffirm our commitment to internationalism at a time when too many Americans think we can withdraw from the world.That’s just not an option.”

It also reaffirms Macalester’s commitment to its educational mission, said McPherson, who cancelled classes on September 11 but refused a student’s request to cancel them again on the national day of mourning the following Friday. Doing so would have interrupted and undermined the significance of the work going on at the college. “I don’t believe we should ever think of what we’re doing here as business as usual,” said McPherson. “The ‘same old, same old’ at Macalester is one of the most important things we can do.”

But if the attacks highlighted Macalester’s strengths, they also arguably shone a spotlight on one of its weaknesses: an intellectual and philosophical isolation and self-absorption, often referred to colloquially as the “Mac bubble.”
 
  Macalester College President Michael McPherson thinks the September 11 attacks and their aftermath “will reaffirm our commitment to internationalism,” a major emphasis at the college.

Underneath the American flag that flies on Macalester’s 53-acre campus waves the United Nations flag—a visible symbol of the school’s commitment to internationalism and diversity, as well as a reminder of one of the school’s most famous alumni, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Even the menu at the school’s bright and airy cafeteria reflects a global sensibility: Students fill their plates with Indonesian and Thai curries, Asian stir-fries, Italian pastas, pizza, Latin American cuisine like Cuban pork and fried bananas, or northern European fare like chicken and spaetzle soup or corned beef and cabbage.

A look at the students gathered in the cafeteria seems to further support the notion that Macalester is a bastion of diversity. Consider: Its students come from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia and 78 countries. Fourteen percent of the students are, in fact, international students. Thirteen percent of U.S. students are minorities. Seventy-three percent of the student body receives financial aid, a reflection of Macalester’s need-blind admissions policy and $500 million endowment.

But when it comes to politics, Macalester’s students generally run the gamut “from left to far left,” as one observer put it. The terrorist attacks and the U.S. response only served to underscore the school’s political homogeneity. “Macalester likes to take a collective stand on things,” said Nora Main, 21, a senior from Milwaukee. “In general, it’s hard not to be PC on this campus,” she said. “[September 11] has made it more so.” But, added Main, inadvertently underscoring her own point, “I don’t know that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

But it is a bad thing, according to Ahmed Samatar, dean of international studies and programming. “One of the great challenges at Macalester is how to counter ‘unthinking liberalism,’” said Samatar. He tries to do so by introducing his students to well-constructed liberal and conservative arguments. There’s not much of the latter on campus, he said.

Unlike most of their peers at other colleges and universities, students at Macalester generally were not in favor of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan.While 60 percent of undergraduate students polled nationwide in mid-October by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics said they trusted the federal government to do the right thing, Macalester students expressed skepticism about the rhetoric coming from the White House and the media, and the patriotism embraced by much of the country in the weeks following the terrorist attacks. “There’s a sense here that Americans are failing to examine what we did to make everyone around the world hate us so much,” said student government president Nick Berning, 21, a senior from Vienna,Virginia.

Within hours of the terrorist attacks, two Macalester students stood on a nearby street with a sign urging “No Violent Retaliation” and “No Hypocritical Retaliation.” An op-ed piece that ran in the September 21 issue of the Mac Weekly, the school newspaper, suggested that Macalester fly an Afghan flag along with the American flag, to “re-assert that our commitment is to the people of the world, and not to the military interests of their governments.”

A Mac Weekly editorial in the same issue warned that calls for national unity could wind up silencing dissent.

“‘Unity,’ in the sense it is being used by the media, politicians and a lot of Americans waving the stars and stripes, sounds like one dumb politician with a lot of innocent lives—or deaths?—on his hands,” the editorial opined.

When the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan last October, about 200 Macalester students staged a class walk-out in protest; many of them went to the federal building in downtown St. Paul, where they joined other anti-war protesters.

Amelia Goodyear, 20, a sophomore from Auburn, California, carried a protest banner with American flags and the words, “Evil Empire,” duct-taped over them.

In a separate response to what she perceived as unthinking nationalistic fervor, senior Kristin Lawson, 21, an art major from Albany, New York, organized a “9-11 fashion show” in front of the campus center. Models wore patches advertising various political causes often advocated by Macalester students: Stop the WTO; Anti- Sweatshop Labor; Free Mumia. The models walked along a red carpet that had a timeline on it; when they reached September 11, they stopped, apparently confused. Then they glanced over at a photograph of President Bush that was taped to a television, grabbed an American flag to cover up their patch, and walked on with a decidedly blank look.

Lawson, a self-described “anarchist,” also wanted to print up peace signs and ask her St. Paul neighbors to display them instead of their American flags, which she said were a symbol not only of the United States but of the government as well.

None of this was considered at all uncommon. Macalester staff and faculty have become accustomed to student sit-ins and protests for all manner of liberal causes. If anything, the reaction to the attacks and the U.S. military response was more understated than usual. But at least some students were frustrated and even angered by what they saw as the typical Macalester knee-jerk liberal response.

“I can’t take it anymore.What the fuck is wrong with you people?” one student wrote in an op-ed piece. “I simply can’t comprehend why Macalester insists on vilifying the United States.”

“I felt (and still feel) an overwhelming urge for justice, for vengeance and for retribution for all the innocent lives taken by these deluded psychopaths,” the student, senior Brad Salmen, wrote, as he urged a military response to the attacks. “I vehemently disagree with most of the socialist, leftist propaganda so rampant on this campus, but I will die fighting to defend your right to say it.”
 
History professor Emily Rosenberg hopes students in her foreign policy course will connect what they have learned in class with the events of September 11.  

Other students took a less strident approach. A group of them folded more than 3,000 origami cranes, which they hung in the atrium of the student center in honor of the victims of the attacks. And in response to both the attacks and the subsequent crimes committed against people of Arab descent, a group of student athletes organized a “Walk for a Unified Macalester,” around the campus perimeter; the idea was for faculty, staff and students to indicate their commitment to promoting a safe and respectful community.

Just two days earlier, the Mac bubble temporarily burst when two Jordanian students received hate letters that had been sent through intercampus mail. An investigation to determine the identity of the letter writer was unsuccessful, but the administration remains convinced it was one of Macalester’s own—and that was extremely unsettling.

“It was like Julius Caesar getting stabbed in the back by his closest friend,” one of the Jordanian students told the Mac Weekly after he received the first letter.He said he came forward publicly “because I want people to know that Mac is not the lovey-dovey utopia that people think it is.”

The student government responded by organizing a giveaway of orange ribbons as a symbol of support for Arab and Muslim students; a total of 900 ribbons were distributed within a matter of hours.

“It was shocking to a lot of people because Macalester is perceived as such a liberal place,” said student government president Berning. Nonetheless, he was heartened by the collective response.

“It’s brought out some insecurities in our own,” said Rania Suidan, 20, a sophomore from New Canaan, Connecticut. “We pride ourselves on multiculturalism and diversity.” But when Suidan told her father, a Palestinian Arab from Israel, about the hate letters, he told her she should be thankful that was the only incident that had occurred.

About 60 international students attended a meeting following the hate-mail incident. They were nervous about venturing off campus, but indicated they still felt safe at Macalester, said Dean of Students Laurie Hamre.

In fact, if anyone felt marginalized at Macalester, it was students who supported the eventual U.S. military actions: Fliers appeared around campus expressing solidarity with those who supported the war, assuring them that they were not alone. Some of the fliers were apparently torn down, an action that was unanimously condemned by Macalester’s student government representatives.

Nonetheless, there’s a reluctance to go against the political grain.

“Most everyone I know is pretty much in agreement with the (Bush) Administration, but I wouldn’t advertise it publicly,” said Erik Hoffman, 21, a senior from Potomac, Maryland. “I feel I could, but I wouldn’t want the trouble that could bring on,” he said, adding that Macalester had changed the way he perceived his politics. When he first arrived, he thought of himself as a liberal Democrat. But not now.

“I’m definitely not a Republican,” said Hoffman. “But I wouldn’t call myself a liberal anymore.”

Of the 26 students in Emily Rosenberg’s foreign policy class, only two said they supported the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. However, only two said they opposed it. The rest apparently weren’t sure what to think. “There’s a fair amount of fence-sitting,” observed Rosenberg.

“It has forced students to step back and question some of their beliefs,” said William Sentell, a 21-year-old senior from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who serves as associate managing editor of the Mac Weekly. It was one thing to oppose U.S. bombing of Kosovo or sanctions against Iraq. It’s another thing to oppose a response to the terrorist attacks, he said.

“There is a sense that the radical leftwing students on campus are reduced to advocating peace. It’s harder to use the old rhetoric—‘Look what the U.S. is doing’— because we’re bleeding,” said Sentell.

No students, faculty or staff lost any family members, and only one alumnus was apparently killed in the attacks. But like the rest of the country, Macalester students were initially shaken by the events, which many of them watched on televisions that the administration set up in the campus center and in the dormitories.

In the weeks following, many of them attended prayer services, memorials and peace vigils. They also showed up at numerous “teach-ins,” forums and other public and campus events. In part, they wanted information, but mostly, said Laurie Hamre, they wanted reassurance. “Students dropped in for hugs,” Hamre said. “They just wanted an adult.They felt vulnerable.”

They weren’t the only ones.

“Some of the faculty were struck speechless by this,” said Hamre. “In the classroom I think they didn’t know how to handle it.” Faculty weren’t given any specific instruction from the administration after September 11, so professors handled the situation in different ways. Some have used the events to feed into their discussions. But others have ignored it altogether. That frustrated students like William Sentell, who expected his professors to provide guidance and wisdom.

“I do feel very young and naive, and if anyone is going to be able to offer me some perspective, it’s going to be these professors,” said Sentell.

But that may be expecting too much, Hamre said. “Faculty are drawn to their positions because they’re experts—but generally not experts on the Middle East or terrorism, or emotions,” she pointed out.

Parents, too, turned to Macalester for reassurance that the school could only partly provide. Some wanted to know whether Macalester would be able to protect their children in case of attack. Did the school have a crisis plan, gas masks and vaccines? (Answers: yes, no and no.) Half a dozen families of foreign students wanted them to come home, until Hamre managed to persuade them that Macalester was as safe or safer than anywhere else in the world.

Their parents may be worried, but most Macalester students said their day-to-day lives remarkably are now much the same as they were before the attacks. “At times, I even forget that it happened,” admitted Sarah McKearnan, 20, a sophomore from Portland, Oregon. “I’m involved in my education.We don’t watch TV or listen to the radio much. I tend to forget that the outside world is going on.”

“You get so inundated in college,” said Gaurav Ahluwalia, 20, a sophomore from New Delhi.“It’s hard to sustain an interest in anything other than your studies.”

Indeed, the irony of Macalester is that although students engage in rigorous discussions during their classes, few have time—and sometimes desire—to pay much attention to current affairs. Students in Adrienne Christiansen’s argumentation course didn’t have a choice last fall semester: She focused the class solely on questions of domestic terrorism and public policy that have come up as a result of the attacks. But by the middle of the semester, Christiansen was beginning to have doubts about her choice of curriculum. “I don’t know whether the students in this class are getting sick of this question,” she acknowledged. On the other hand, she said, it would be an injustice not to use the wealth of material that has resulted from the events of September 11.

When students do happen to discuss current affairs outside the classroom, there is very little dissension. “It’s like, ‘I think that.’ ‘Oh, so do I!’” said McKearnan.

“Because the college community is so contained, it’s hard to be engaged in world events,” said Amelia Goodyear, who was getting most of her news from her mother after she became frustrated with the mainstream media’s coverage of events, including the persistent use of the word “attack” to describe the events. She apparently thought it was a loaded term designed to provoke a response.

“Their impulses are good, but they don’t always have the intellectual rigor to follow through,” said Political Science professor Andrew Latham.They also may be too young and good-hearted to recognize the enormity of the threats facing the world. “I’m not sure how real it is for them,” Latham said.

The 16 students in Latham’s International Conflict class, for instance, are wellversed in world treaties and the various weapons they address. In class, they offered up a variety of reasons that states or individuals might want to acquire weapons of mass destruction: • The U.S. wanted them in order to counter the conventional weapons of the Soviets; • They level the playing field between large and small nations; • They reduce reliance on conventional armies.

But it took professor Latham to point out that some people might want to use those weapons of mass destruction—“as events have shown,” he said.

“I don’t mean to scare anybody,” Latham said, “but this time it was 767’s; next time it will be something else.”

He needn’t have been concerned. Call it naivete, call it chutzpah or call it common sense, Macalester students do not see any reason to readjust their lives as a result of the attacks. About half of the 26 students in Rosenberg’s class, for instance, plan to study abroad next year.Most, if not all, of the rest of the students already have done so. None of the students have changed their plans.

Campuswide, more than half of Macalester students study abroad. “I’m not going to let this scare me,” said Michelle Hartung, a 20-year-old sophomore from Tucson who plans to study in Egypt next year.“I have my life to live.”

 
  Janna Cuneo holds some of the 3,000 paper origami cranes that students hung in the Macalester student center to honor those killed on September 11.
That seems to sum up the attitude at Macalester, where students appear to have a great deal of confidence in their futures.

Even the prospect of an economic slowdown didn’t seem to faze them. “It doesn’t really affect you because you’re not in the job market,” said Gaurav Ahluwalia. “And some people think it’s good that [the economy] tanks now, because by the time we get out it’ll come back up again.”

“I’m not graduating this year,” said Dessi Vassilev, 20, a junior from Bulgaria. “So I’m hoping the economy will turn around by next year!”

As for Macalester’s administration, it still is waiting to see what effect this has on admissions and on foreign student visas. “Right now I think a lot of parents want their kids to be within an easy drive,” said president McPherson. Nonetheless, he said,“We are confident that students from around the world will still want to come to Macalester.”

For better or worse, the school that they arrive at in fall 2002 is likely to be much the same place that it was in fall 2001. That’s frustrating to International Studies Dean Ahmed Samatar, who would like the school’s curriculum to address Islamic culture. “There could and ought to be changes,” said Samatar. But for both the college and the students, September 11 likely will wind up just being “an event,” he said.

“That’s the tragedy, “ he added, “because it will dry up tomorrow as an event.”

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