The longer I stay at Macalester, the more I find myself drawn to what one might call the “big questions.” Of course I still pay attention to the budget, the creation of new programs, and the recruitment of students. But increasingly I spend time thinking about such things as the place of higher education in American society, the relations between actual knowledge and public policy, and—maybe most often—the reason why I have always felt Macalester to be powerfully important.

My thoughts on this last subject were crystallized recently by a pair of images, kindly sent to me by Ole Koppang ’05, a wonderful alumnus. Those images are reproduced below: the covers of the Summer 2016 issue of Macalester Today and the July 30, 2016, issue of The Economist, both of which arrived in Ole’s mailbox on the same day.

You will agree, I suspect, that both the likenesses and the differences between the two images are striking. With almost eerie similarity (we published first!), each image depicts a deep divide. The Economist, however, shows no crossing of that divide, and in fact includes both a wall and a sign reading “keep out.” Macalester Today shows a person pole-vaulting from one side of the chasm to the other. There are plenty of other differences between the magazine covers, but it is on this particular contrast—separation versus connection, walls versus bridges—that I want to focus.

For much of its history, the central work of what one might call the Macalester project has been to strengthen connections among human beings through education within a diverse and intellectually challenging environment. It has been about fostering a particular kind of world through preparing our students to be particular kinds of people. Here is President Charles Turck, writing in August 1945:

The vast scope of the world stage on which the present generation of students will live out their lives may suggest to some that personal qualities of character have become less significant. On the contrary, the individual is more important than ever. The more complex the social machine becomes, the more important it is that every individual have the moral and spiritual qualities to do his part. A world of peace means a world of peace-loving individuals.

One could expand at length upon that last sentence: a world of sound policy means a world of well-informed individuals; a world not driven by fear means a world of courageous individuals; a world in which all are treated fairly means a world of just individuals; a world of kindness and tolerance means a world of empathetic individuals.

This last point is particularly germane at Macalester. The motivation that led Turck to write about “the duties of world citizenship” in 1945 is identical to the one that led the Board of Trustees to approve in 1992 a mission statement that highlighted “internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.” It is the motivation that shapes Macalester today and will, I hope, shape it long into the future: the conviction that by creating a community that is diverse and honest, a curriculum that exposes students to all points of view, a set of programs that challenges students to step outside their customary sense of the world, Macalester will be doing its part to enable difference to be a source of strength and not destruction.

Can anyone doubt that this work is at least as important now as it was when Charles Turck proclaimed its centrality at Macalester more than 70 years ago? Our planet is more interconnected than he ever could have imagined. With these connections come opportunities and challenges, potential for growth and conflict, hopes and fears, all of which are driving the most consequential forces across the world today. None of us is immune from these forces, which are playing out both in distant places and in our own cities and towns.

There have been many times in recent months when I have felt angry and worried about the dark impulses—racism, xenophobia, hatred and fear in a myriad of forms— that appear to be at large in the world. But I am fortunate in being able to abide on this campus, watch our students, faculty, and staff carrying on the work of Macalester, and realize that we are, in our small but powerful way, an antidote to those dark impulses. Macalester is necessary. If it did not exist, we would have to create it. But it does exist, and those of us who are part of its community, on campus and around the world, should be pleased and proud that it does.

November 1 2016

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