We asked Macalester’s campus experts for their take on some of today’s greatest challenges, from the frozen conflict in Ukraine, to saving water in the Southwest, to holding down the cost of higher ed.

BY LAURA BILLINGS COLEMAN > ILLUSTRATIONS BY BRIANNE FARLEY ’06

What’s most important to understand about the current situation in Ukraine?

Keeping track of the major players and competing claims in the current conflict over Ukraine can be as challenging as any Russian novel, says James von Geldern, professor of Russian and international studies, and chair of Macalester’s Russian Studies Department. “There are so many nationalities in the region, each one with its own history, culture and political desires, and you have to know each one of them to get any sense of what’s going on,” he says. “U.S. and western media coverage often makes it sound as though Russia is aggressively biting off a chunk of a neighboring country, inspired by their hyper-masculine president Vladimir Putin—which is not entirely wrong. But what people should understand is that this is a conflict that began long before Putin, and history is being used by both sides to legitimate their political power.”

In spite of a September 2014 ceasefire, and a February peace proposal put forth by Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande, eastern Ukraine has seen continued fighting—the worst in Europe in the last
20 years. “Still, it’s a frozen conflict for now, not a living one,” von Geldern says, adding that civilians in the region must cope with “being cut off from the international community. They’re going to have to find a way to rebuild their economy without any outside support, and export what they have through whatever illegal means they can.”

“This is worth paying attention to because we’ve had a map of Europe since 1945 that has been relatively stable. When things have fallen apart, with the exception of Yugoslavia, they’ve fallen apart amicably,” says von Geldern, who encourages his students to read news sources from Al-Jazeera to the Moscow Times for a more comprehensive sense of what’s at stake. “For the first time you have the forcible moving of a border by military might. People in Europe are understandably very concerned, and Americans should be too, because there’s no question that this will wash up on our shores.”

With impending water shortages, what can average people do to make a difference?

farmer

“What’s happening in California right now will affect the whole country,” says Roopali Phadke, associate professor of Environmental Studies. “We might not be connected hydrologically, but we’re definitely connected to it economically. The rising prices we’ll see in the grocery stores are just a reminder that we can’t be complacent.”

What can each of us do to slow the flow of the estimated 2,000 gallons of water the average American soaks up every day? Phadke recommends going online to calculate your personal “water footprint,” a deep dive that students in her Water and Power class take to learn why Americans consume nearly twice the global average of water. “What’s surprising for most people to learn is that water use hasn’t gone up per capita that much in the U.S. in recent years. In fact we use less water than we did in the 1970s because of efficiencies, but water consumption is often invisible or embodied in many of the things you wear and the things you eat that you might not be aware of,” she says. For instance, it takes a gallon of water to grow a single almond, 13 to produce a single gallon of gas, and more than 600 gallons to bring a hamburger to your plate.

“While we associate extravagant water use with swimming pools and verdant lawns, most of our water is used by the energy and agricultural sectors,” Phadke says. “Making some changes as a consumer, dietary changes in particular, can make a huge change in your water footprint. But it doesn’t mean that that water savings is going to be felt in your backyard.”

While water-rich regions like the Northeast and the Midwest are less likely to feel the pain of drought, Phadke says we should all pay close attention to the policy changes, ground water regulations, and new technologies likely to grow from California’s crisis. “Out of necessity, they’re being forced to innovate policies and technologies, and we’re all going to benefit from that.”

health care

Will we ever have national health care in the U.S.?

With the highest per capita health care spending in the world, and some of the worst outcomes, visiting political science instructor Michael Zis says it’s no surprise that a “strong majority of Americans believe our system of health care is broken and needs a major overhaul.” But don’t expect a universal system like Sweden’s or Great Britain’s will ever take the place of America’s complex patchwork of private insurers and government programs, says Zis, who explores the topic in a popular class called Politics and Policymaking: Government and Medicine.

“One of the major hurdles to a comprehensive program like that is that nearly two-thirds of Americans access health care through their employer,” Zis says, “an accident of history” created in the 1940s when a combination of wage freezes and tax incentives made health benefits an employee perk. While Medicare and other programs that provide coverage for elderly, disabled, and impoverished Americans have been popular with voters, “Culturally, Americans tend to distrust government and bureaucracies, so the idea of ‘centralized’ care still turns people off,” he says. “As a country, we’ve never really accepted the notion that health care is a right, in the way we have a bedrock belief in the value of public education. And the longer we didn’t have national health insurance, the more difficult it became to do something.”

While Congress continues to challenge “Obamacare,” polls show that most Americans would rather fix the program than repeal it. So while Sweden’s system may be out of reach, an affordable, free market system like Singapore’s, which spends just 3 percent of GDP on health care, compared to the 17 percent spent every year in the U.S., could be a better model for transparent pricing and good preventive care. “I’m not a complete pessimist,” Zis says. “I think it’s possible to look forward to a series of incremental fixes that may streamline a really complex system.”

Green bug

How can we hold down the cost of higher education?

“Costs tend to rise steadily in an industry where there’s not a lot of opportunity for what you might call ’productivity savings,’” says David Wheaton, vice president for administration and finance at Macalester. While other sectors can put technology to work to make more widgets with fewer resources, that model doesn’t translate as well to First-Year English. “The 12-student seminar you took at Macalester 30 years ago is still a 12-person seminar today, but the cost of the faculty, health care, and everything else has risen.”

Those rising costs are one reason why college tuition has outpaced inflation for decades, but Wheaton points out that that upward trending graph rarely reflects the bottom line costs for most families with college students. “Since the recession, we’re seeing families further up the income chain recognizing that applying for financial aid is something they can put in the mix to make college more affordable,” says Wheaton. Last year at Macalester, for instance, 70 percent of students received financial aid, with an average award of $40,694—a calculation that doesn’t always come through in the annual sticker shock headlines.

While so-called Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) “have not been the magic wand” for cutting costs that many in higher ed hoped they would be, Wheaton sees solutions coming from other directions. “Like most nonprofits, colleges have traditionally been good at adding new services, and not as good at sunsetting them, and that’s something that I think is starting to change,” he says. Students themselves are also exploring more cost-effective paths into higher ed, for instance, taking advantage of Minnesota’s Postsecondary Enrollment Option, which allows high school students to earn college credit, reducing the time it takes to earn a degree. “The pressure on families is real, but I’m hopeful because these institutions tend to be populated by smart people who have resources and the leadership to take this on.”

Africa feels hopeless. Where do we start?

After a year of catastrophic headlines about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and the al-Shabaab massacre of college students in Kenya, geography professor Bill Moseley admits, “Africa can sometimes look like a lost cause.”

But as the chair of Macalester’s geography department, and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, often tells his students, “News, by definition, is unusual events. There’s a lot of good happening in Africa, but you don’t always hear about it.’’

One bright spot on the map that Moseley points his students toward is Botswana, a former British protectorate, “that may be the last country on the African continent that anyone thought would be successful,” he says. “But through grit, determination, and frugality, they mobilized their resources” to create one of the world’s longest-running economic booms, built in part on the “One Man, One Beast” capital campaign that helped build the country’s first national university. “There’s a wonderful story of how in the early independence years in Botswana, they asked every household in the country to contribute a cow, and they drove the herd down to South Africa, sold it at market, and it’s with that money that they built the initial University of Botswana. There are certainly stories of development failure to study, but I think it’s important for students to learn from the successes, too.”

Moseley believes Botswana’s generation-long march toward a middle-class economy can be especially instructive now that social entrepreneurship has become the trending solution to many of Africa’s problems. “Social entrepreneurship is very hot right now, but it tends to celebrate individuals who are creative thinkers, or technical fixes as a way of solving the problems of humanity,” Moseley says. “I think it’s important to be a bit more humble and realize that most forms of progress come about through collective action—many different people with good ideas, working together to bring about change.”

Is campaign finance reform possible? Is it necessary?

“The Supreme Court has consistently and specifically ruled that spending money on a campaign is a form of free speech, and I think they’re quite right on that account,” says Macalester political science
associate professor Adrienne Christiansen, director of the Jan Serie Center for Scholarship and Teaching. “But if you think about the electoral campaigns as a national conversation, then it’s also true that moneyed interests are shaping the conversation. The idea of campaign finance reform really ties us up in knots because it puts two strongly held principals against each other—free speech and fairness.”

After a $2.6 billion race to the White House in 2012—a record sure to be broken again in 2016—is it possible to rein in the outsize influence of corporate interests, PACs, and other big money contributors? “I’m not sure you can have meaningful campaign finance reform without changing the Bill of Rights,” Christiansen says, “but from my perspective, the fragmentation of the media market,” including the rise of social media, video campaigns on YouTube, Internet radio, and other new platforms means candidates may no longer need the millions (or billions) once needed to get their messages to the right constituents.

“It’s not the case that big money will win every time,” she says, noting that Mitt Romney’s war chest outspent Obama’s in 2012. “People of modest means can also pull together to fight fire with fire,” as Minnesotans against a proposed ban on same-sex marriage did in 2012, outspending the opposition by nearly two to one. “I never once dreamed that in my lifetime I’d see gay people be able to marry,” Christiansen says. “It proves that good ideas and concerted effort from people of good will, over time, can bring about positive political change—absolutely.”

How can we move closer to ending distrust and violence between law enforcement and Black men?

racial issues

Associate psychology professor Kendrick Brown has always relied on current headlines and news coverage to fuel discussions in his class Understanding and Confronting Racism, but recent stand-offs between police and protestors from Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Maryland, have brought a new focus to those conversations. “No one’s happy with this stuff going on but there is a sense that finally folks are starting to see how deep this is,” says Brown, who also serves as associate dean of the faculty. “People of color often look at these issues in terms of equity and how things should be, while many white Americans look at the same situation and talk about where we used to be. One group sees it as progress, and the other group groups sees it as not far enough, and that divide has definitely come through in discussions about Ferguson.”

One hypothesis students in Brown’s class study is “intergroup contact theory,” a strategy for reducing conflict and prejudice, “where one of the main premises is that it’s really difficult for people to communicate effectively if they don’t have equal status.” That’s why he sees some promise in policing efforts that are “building a sense of cooperation and interdependence with their constituents, so everybody feels like we’re in this together,” he says. “What it comes down to is people in the community need to feel that their humanity is being recognized, and that they’re not being seen as a stereotype. At the same time, folks looking at the police need to recognize that they’re human, too, and errors are going to happen.”

“You also need the endorsement of a mayor or a governor who actually oversees the police and interacts with constituents,” Brown says. “It’s not enough to just bring people together—you need folks in power saying this needs to happen.”

Glaciers

Scientists are watching glaciers very closely. Should the rest of us be doing the same?

“Definitely,” says Kelly MacGregor, associate professor and chair of the Macalester’s geology department. “Glaciers are a sort of canary in the coal mine and as they shrink it’s telling us something about the earth’s climate.”

“As water that was once held in storage in glaciers and continental ice enters the atmosphere, it becomes an important greenhouse gas. So the warmer it gets, the more water you have in the atmosphere, and the warmer it gets,” MacGregor explains. That cycle contributes to a sea level rise of about two to three millimeters every year—about 75 percent of it due to melting glaciers and ice sheets. “That may not sound like a lot, but in a decade, that’s two to three centimeters,” a rising tide
that could affect “a huge percentage of our population living close to the coastline.” As the world’s glaciers and ice sheets retreat, so, too, do the cooling effects provided by their reflective white surfaces. “That’s why there is, in the earth’s history, a series of large extinction events related to climate.”

So is there any good news about glaciers? “Yes, the reality is our planet has seen many glacial and interglacial cycles through millions and billions of years of earth history, and the planet does seem to have a way of tipping back when we reach extremes,” she says, noting that individuals can help out by “not driving as much, supporting companies that utilize renewable energy resources, writing letters to lawmakers about the importance of reducing CO2 levels, and buying locally. We sometimes underestimate the collective power of people in making those decisions.”

August 18 2015

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