This “Household Words” column appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

EDITOR’S NOTE: In her April 3 column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Katherine Kersten criticized student activists at Macalester and other colleges who are advocating a ban on Coca-Cola products because of Coke’s alleged labor practices in Colombia. The newspaper published the following response from President Rosenberg on April 5.

by Brian Rosenberg

College presidents are adept at what Muhammad Ali termed the “rope-a-dope” maneuver: Allow your opponent to batter you relentlessly and hope he wears himself out. While painful, this strategy is often more effective than responding to each of the jabs and uppercuts directed at us.

That said, I do feel the need to respond to Katherine Kersten’s April 3 column on the Coca-Cola ferment at Macalester. My aim is not to weigh in on the merits of Coke’s corporate practices or the proposed suspension of Coke sales on campus, but to offer a different perspective from Kersten’s on the nature of our students and the virtues of debate on a college campus.

Two points are worth emphasizing:

  • Perspectives on issues of this kind at Macalester are diverse and varied, and this is a good thing. In Kersten’s own column, a Macalester faculty member is quoted as opposing a ban on Coke. In the April 2 Star Tribune, a letter from a young alumnus also argues against such a ban. A civil and thoughtful exchange of views on complex issues is precisely what we want on college campuses because it is precisely the intellectual environment in which students learn best. That members of the Macalester community engage in spirited debate on such topics is a sign that we are doing our job.
  • Kersten suggests that “activist” students are chiefly interested in “striking self-righteous poses, parading in front of cameras and playing the rebel.” Now, I am about the last person who might be expected to champion student activists, given that–as the embodiment of “authority” at Macalester–I am often the target of their activism. But champion them I will. It is unfair to those students to characterize their activities as thoughtless or self-serving. They are indeed young, they are indeed passionate, and they may on occasion be wrong (unlike us older folks who are, of course, more or less always right). One thing they are not, however, is insincere.

I know many of the activist students at Macalester. When they’re not lobbying for particular causes they are participating in hurricane relief trips to the Gulf Coast, doing volunteer work with local community organizations, studying history, philosophy and political science, and otherwise taking seriously Macalester’s stated belief in the importance of service and in education as enhancing the public good. I’d rather have students who care about citizenship, even ones with whom I sometimes disagree, than students more indifferent or narrowly self-interested.

It is fair enough to contend that they are incompletely informed or even wrong, but not that they are motivated by anything other than a desire to serve the communities whose leaders they will, one day, become.