Negotiating the 'creative tensions' at Macalester

Office of the President

Macalester College
208 Weyerhaeuser Hall
62 Macalester Street
St. Paul, MN 55105-1899
651-696-6207
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This "Household Words" column appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

By the time you read this column, I will have been president at Macalester for nearly a year and will have starred in "Meet the President" events in Scottsdale, Tucson, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Naples, Fort Lauderdale, Seattle, London, New York, Boston, Washington, Chicago and (five times) the Twin Cities.

Between these events and Reunion, I will have spoken with, to and in front of more than 2,000 alumni and parents and will have discovered a number of things: the likelihood of an upgrade as a Frequent Flier on Northwest Airlines (moderate); the most expensive city in which to catch a cab (Boston, hands down); the chance that a package of cookies scrounged in a Northwest World Club will remain intact in a crowded briefcase (small, unfortunately).

More usefully, I will have developed a much deeper sense of those issues that are of most importance to the extended Macalester community and a clearer understanding of my mission and challenges as president.

Despite variations in geography and demographics among these numerous events, what has been most striking has been the consistency with which a small set of themes has been articulated by those in attendance--which suggests not only that Mac alumni from different generations have much in common, but also that our collective response to those themes will define the future and shape the nature of the college. Each of these might be described, fittingly enough, as a sort of creative tension, or as a desire to bring into appropriate balance a pair of entwined but competing priorities. I would identify the most consequential of these as follows:

(1) Commitment and criticism: Macalester alumni for the most part care deeply about the college and remain convinced that its central mission is admirable and necessary; at the same time, Macalester alumni<em dash>not a few of whom are passionate and idealistic<em dash>hold the college to high standards in virtually every sense and are not slow to point out where the college has failed to meet those standards. More than most colleges, I suspect, we are regularly asked, for better or worse, to prove to our alumni that we are living up to their goals and expectations. This perhaps begins to explain why an accomplished and attentive group of alumni has not historically been as supportive of Macalester as one might expect and why it is so critical that we build a sense of trust within our community.

(2) Excellence and distinctiveness: Most of our alumni are pleased with the college's rising national prominence and with our ability to compete for students, resources and recognition with the finest colleges and universities in the country. At the same time, our alumni are wary of any attempt to "chase rankings" or to become a carbon copy of other elite institutions. We want to be outstanding, but to be so in a way that resonates with the distinctive character, mission and history of Macalester. In particular, even as we receive more and more applications and become necessarily more "selective," we want to preserve our focus on educating engaged and informed global citizens.

(3) Quality and access: Virtually all our alumni want our programs, faculty and facilities to be comparable or superior to those at the very finest liberal arts colleges; at the same time, they take great pride in the fact that Macalester serves, and has long served, a population much more diverse economically and much more international than do nearly all of our peer institutions. This commitment represents an enormous investment of resources. Can we devote the necessary funds to the operations of the college while simultaneously providing much more financial aid than do the schools with which we compete for students? Can we foreground access while at the same time ensuring that the college to which we are providing access remains strong and financially stable? These last are perhaps the most pressing questions currently faced by Macalester and will, consequently, be the subject of intensive discussion and planning in the weeks and months ahead.

It should I hope be apparent that none of these "creative tensions" is subject to easy resolution; it might even be fair to say that none is resolvable in the strictest sense, but that the goal should be to maintain the paired objectives in some appropriate balance and not allow one to overwhelm or obliterate the other. On all, to be sure, we invite your reflections and ideas and on all we will be consultative and forthcoming. Exercising stewardship means not merely celebrating accomplishment or bemoaning weakness, but wrestling day to day, week to week, with issues of consequence and complexity. I hope you will join me in doing so.