Why We Step Forward

Office of the President

Macalester College
208 Weyerhaeuser Hall
62 Macalester Street
St. Paul, MN 55105-1899
651-696-6207
651-696-6500 fax

This "Household Words" column appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

The public launch of the Step Forward campaign this month is one of the defining moments in the history of Macalester College. As it enters its public phase, Step Forward has already inspired nearly twice as much financial support as the total in any previous Macalester campaign. But more important, the campaign embodies in both symbol and substance a new level of stewardship by friends and alumni of an institution about which we care deeply.

Macalester College was created by an act of the Minnesota state legislature in March 1874. For much of the next century and beyond, it is fair to say that the college continued to move ahead with a certain degree of precariousness. In 1895, President James Wallace wrote that “Macalester will probably pull through in time but I am unwilling to have the family go back there and starve and be humiliated as we have been…. I do not despair of Mac but it is hard to tell how long its profs must live on promises.” Nearly 80 years later, after many financial and reputational ups and downs, the college faced a financial crisis serious enough to result in faculty layoffs, salary freezes, and program cuts. As recently as February 1983, under a headline reading “Davis Gives Grim Forecast,” the Mac Weekly reported on President John B. Davis’s deep concern about declining enrollments, budget shortfalls, and low graduation rates.

Through those many decades, Macalester may have lost its financial stability and altered its curriculum more than once, but it survived and provided invaluable service because it did not lose sight of the central mission best articulated by President Charles Turck in August 1945: “Macalester College…recognizes that its function is…to train our young people to be citizens of the world,” by which, it is clear, he meant preparing them to be engaged participants, thoughtful and creative builders, and responsible leaders within local, national, and international communities. Organizations thrive not simply when they have resources, but when they remain true to their core purpose and when that purpose has clear social value. And so Macalester has survived and thrived through many years of educational and economic vicissitudes.

Macalester has benefited from the efforts of a long line of singular individuals whose work, commitment, and generosity have ensured the college’s survival. Presidents such as Wallace, Turck, and Davis; faculty members such as Huntley Dupre, G. Theodore Mitau, Mary Gwen Owen, O. T. Walter, Chuck Green, Karl Egge, and Jan Serie; and trustees and benefactors such as George Draper Dayton, George and Wilma Leonard, John Holl, and— of course—DeWitt Wallace. Through the devotion of their time, energy, and resources, these people have ensured that the work of Macalester would continue and strengthen.

The fact that Macalester is today, by almost any standard, one of the finest colleges in the country is a tribute to their efforts. An even more fitting tribute is the distinctive nature of our excellence. In addition to the academic rigor of the college, we take justifiable pride in Macalester’s strengths and values: in our commitment to internationalism, multiculturalism, and service; in the fact that we devote a larger portion of our resources to need-based financial aid than do virtually any of our peers; in the dedication to leadership and civic engagement exemplified in so many of our programs; and in our ongoing fidelity to Charles Turck’s exhortation to educate “citizens of the world.”

The most telling difference between the Macalester of the present and the Macalester of the past, and the defining meaning of the Step Forward campaign, may be the shifting of responsibility for institutional stewardship from a small if extraordinary group of individuals to a much, much larger group of alumni and friends whose power to move Macalester ahead is exponentially stronger. Relying on the appearance of another DeWitt Wallace is an infinitely risky proposition; far safer, and far better, to rely on the support and guidance of the thousands of individuals whose lives have been shaped and enriched by their time on this campus.

There is abundant evidence that this shift toward collective ownership of Macalester is taking place. Only five years ago, the college ranked 71st among national liberal arts colleges in the percentage of alumni providing annual support; our most recent ranking is 30th. Overall annual giving to the college during that period has increased from $6 million to $18.7 million. The Class of 2008 set a new participation record with its senior class gift at a remarkable 50 percent. We are seeing more alumni volunteers, more Reunion attendees, and generally more engagement with the college than ever before. All of this will ensure that James Wallace was correct when he predicted, with much faith but no little concern, that Macalester would “pull through in time.” And so on behalf of the faculty, staff, students, and Board of Trustees; on behalf of David Lanegran ’63, Laurie Hamre, Truman Schwartz, Jayne Niemi ’79, and so many others who have given so much of themselves to this college; on behalf of Nagi Otgonshar ’08 from Mongolia and Melissa French ’08 from Cambridge, Minnesota; and especially on behalf of the many students who will attend Macalester in the future and graduate into lives of commitment, accomplishment, and service: thank you for your support to date— and your support to come—of Step Forward: A Campaign for Macalester.