A Tale of Two Cities

It’s wonderful to see so many of you here today and it’s wonderful to see so many of you here for reunion this year. We have 1300 people who are joining us over the next couple of days for reunion. Some of you have come from around the corner. Some of you have come as far away as Pakistan and Japan. Whether you came down the block or 20,000 miles we are equally happy to see you here for this celebration of our wonderful college.

If you were at last year’s breakfast and you have a good memory, you might recall that the title of my talk was “Great Expectations.” This year the title of my talk is “A Tale of Two Cities.” If you are literarily inclined, you might notice a pattern emerging. I thought that I might try each year to entitle my talk on the basis of a Dickens novel, but I think I might soon run into some trouble. Because among the remaining novels there tend to either be titles like Bleak House and Hard Times which are not especially inspiring or titles like Barnaby Rudge and Dombey and Son and I have no idea what the heck I would do with those. So whether I’ll continue this pattern, I’m not precisely sure.

The two cities that I want to talk about this morning are not, like Dickens talks about, Paris and London. And they are not even Minneapolis and St. Paul. The two cities I want to talk about, really, are two imaginary cities. Two different kinds of cities that we might want to create and form into the future. The image of the city on the hill is one that has a long history, particularly as a part of American culture. The image itself, as I’m sure many of you know, derives from the Sermon on the Mount. It was adapted by Puritan John Winthrop to describe the goal of forging in the United States of America a special community, a community that could be a model for the rest of the world. It has been an image that’s been picked up and adapted by many of our leaders and our philosophers and our thinkers for a long, long time. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to Ronald Reagan have used the image of the city on the hill in their inaugural addresses.

I want to talk not so much about the city on the hill as an example of the kind of country we want to create, but a city on the hill as an example of the kind of world we want to create. It seems to me that in the point of our development in our society, nationally and globally, where we have important choices to make about the kind of city, the kind of community, the kind of world that we want to be part of and we want to form and we want to live in. That those of us at Macalester who live here and work here, those of us who have gone to school here and help contribute to the future of this institution have to think seriously about the kind of future that we want, through this college, to help create. And so I ask you this morning to think about two different cities and to think about which one you believe Macalester should be a part of forging. Do we want to be part of creating a city where education becomes decreasingly available, where high quality education is available only to a small and privileged few, where we don’t provide a first-class education for our youngest children and a first-class education system all the way from pre-k through graduate school? Or do we want to be part of creating a city and creating a society where we educate as many of our children and as many of our students at as a high a level as we possibly can?

One of the things that we are passionately committed to at Macalester is providing a first-rate education to as diverse a population of talented students as we possibly can. It is part of the DNA of this institution. It’s been part of the lifeblood of Macalester since its formation and it remains a powerful part of Macalester today. Many of you as alumni have benefitted from that commitment and it’s important for you to know that the college remains deeply committed to it now and into the future. We are living through, as we all know, one of the most difficult economic periods in the history of our country and yet right now at Macalester we are providing financial aid to almost 70 percent of our student body. The average financial aid award at Macalester is over $34,000.  We have one of the most economically diverse student bodies of any first-rate liberal arts college in the country.

In fact, I’m not sure that there is another college in the country that has the mix of students that we have brought together on this extraordinary campus in St. Paul. We have students from 48 states, we have students from 94 different countries all gathered here together on these 53 acres. We have students who are first generation and we have students who are extremely affluent. We have students whose parents are highly educated and we have students whose parents never graduated from high school. Bringing all those perspectives, all those backgrounds, all those histories together in one place is a critical part of the education we provide and, I think, should be a model of what higher education in America should aspire to. So that’s the city that I want to be part of as president of Macalester of helping to create and that’s the city that I think all of you who, as citizens of Macalester, should want to be part of helping to create.

Do we want to be part of creating a city where the quality of education slowly but steadily declines, or do we want to be part of creating a city where the quality of education becomes better and better and better? Has there ever been a society in the history of the world that has bettered itself by doing a worse job of educating its people? I don’t think so. All of the examples of societies that have proven themselves are ones in which education has become better and more widely available. One of the things that we are passionately committed to at Macalester is not just providing education to a diverse group of students but providing education at the highest possible quality. One of the great strengths of the American higher education system is the variety of access points. Unlike any other system in the world, people can enter the American higher education system in a whole variety of ways, from selective liberal arts colleges like Macalester, to land grant universities like the University of Minnesota, to community colleges, to state colleges to for-profit colleges, to technical colleges. And that’s a good thing. That diversity is the strength of our system. But there needs to be a place in that diversity of education for education at the highest quality. We’re a small college and we can’t educate everyone. But our calling, our mission at Macalester is to educate the brightest students at the highest level for positions of responsibility and leadership. And we are very, very good at doing that.

We constantly aspire to be better. It’s one of the things that I love about Macalester. It is an institution completely without complacency. So we always aspire to be better but it’s important from time to time, as we aspire to be better, to pause and recognize that in fact what we do is very, very good. You should know as alumni of this college that right now we have the highest retention rate in the history of the school. Last year 96 percent of our first-year students returned for their second year at Macalester. That’s extraordinary. There are only a handful of colleges and universities in the world that have retention numbers of that kind.

Right now, our students are graduating at about a 90 percent rate. By comparison the graduation rate at the University of Minnesota after 4 years is about 54 percent. So when people talk about the efficiency and the cost of higher education, those things are important and we need to do a better job but in any business, whether it’s education or manufacturing or sales you can’t just look at price when you look at value you also have to look at efficiency and effectiveness. One of the things we are committed to doing at Macalester is enrolling bright students, educating them and graduating them on time. The value of that to the students and to our society is very, very difficult to calculate.

Many of you associate your Macalester experience with extraordinary teachers, and I want to assure you that that commitment to extraordinary teachers remains at this institution. I am in awe of the quality of our faculty and I have to say particularly of our young faculty. In my 8 years at Macalester I believe we’ve hired between a third and 40 percent of our current faculty, which among other things makes me feel very, very old. But they are so good. They are so committed to our students that not only would you be proud of them, but faculty member like Mitau and Armajani and Dupre and Mary Gwen Owen would be very proud of them as well.

Our science faculty on a per capita basis received more grants from the National Science Foundation than the faculty at any other liberal arts college in the country. What those grants chiefly fund is collaborative research between students and faculty. So this remains an institution, even as its faculty become more and more productive as scientists, and as artists and as scholars, it remains an institution with a strong, passionate commitment among its faculty to teaching its students. And that’s one of the reasons why so many of them stay and it’s one of the reasons that so many of them graduate on time.

We also need to think about the kind of education that we want to provide our students. There is much discussion right now about the importance of providing an education that has an economic value, and without question, that is important. It would be irresponsible of us as an institution not to educate our students for careers, and we do a remarkably good job about that. Macalester students are by and large extraordinarily successful in the world. Right now, in about five years 75 percent of our graduates go on to pursue an advanced degree. Our hiring numbers for our recent graduates are far higher than the hiring numbers that are typical among college graduates across the country.

But we’re also committed at this institution to providing an education that goes beyond the barely economic. I think we’re committed to providing, first of all, a liberal arts education, which means an education that includes breadth, an education that teaches you not just the preparation for a particular career but teaches you certain skills that serve you well regardless of the career that you pursue and regardless of the life that you lead. So we want every one of our students to graduate knowing how to write, knowing how to speak and knowing how to think critically, knowing how to read a spreadsheet, knowing how to interpret a statistic. We want our students to have the basic intellectual and creative skills to succeed in whatever career they decide to pursue. Again and again, what employers tell us and what employers tell others is that those are the kinds of people that they want to employ.

The liberal arts education that we provide also in our view deeply enriches your lives in ways that can’t be measured economically. Think about your own lives. Think about the things that you were exposed to at Macalester by your faculty members and by your fellow students and think about all the ways that in which those experiences have shaped and deepened and enriched your lives in ways that cannot be quantified. That’s one of the great gifts; that’s one of the great strengths of a liberal arts education.

We try to provide an education at Macalester that is directly related to responsible national and global citizenship. It is one of the reasons why the American liberal arts college was founded in the first place. When Benjamin Franklin founded what went on to become the University of Pennsylvania, when Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia, they were not just thinking about job preparation. They were thinking about creating an educated citizenry so that we could have a successful democracy, and we still think about that at Macalester. We thought about that a century ago. We thought about that at the middle of the 20th century, I think preeminently during the presidency of Charles Turck. And we think about it now.

What responsible citizenry means has changed. We live in a different world than we lived in when Macalester was founded in 1874. We live in a more connected world. I think citizenship has more global implications now than it did when Jefferson and Franklin were thinking about it. But it seems to me still that one of the fundamental responsibilities of an institution of this kind is to educate students to be responsible to be connected to their communities and to be engaged citizens of a democracy. You cannot have a functioning democracy without an educated citizenry. I wanted to share some really powerful remarks that Darwyn Linder ’61 made yesterday when he spoke to his classmates as they were inducted as members of the Golden Scots. He reminded us that for public discourse to take place effectively, we need to be able to be rational, we need to be able to know, understand and rely on facts, and we need to be civil in our discourse. All of those are things that we try in inculcate in our students at Macalester. As Macalester alumni, you’ve carried those values, you’ve carried those lessons with you throughout your lives, and the value of that, not just to you, but to your communities, is incalculable.

I’m someone who does believe that you cannot separate education from the values that are communicated as you educate the students. This is not to say that we want every student from Macalester to emerge thinking, believing, valuing precisely the same things. But it does mean that we want every student from Macalester to graduate with some sense of social responsibility, whether it manifests itself in one’s relations with one’s family, or one’s local community or national community or global community. We are working very actively not just to talk about that but to create that in the academic programs at Macalester.

The curriculum at this college has changed in my eight years quite dramatically. There is a perception, an erroneous in my view, that colleges and universities don’t change.  In fact, they change a lot. The curriculum that exists right now is not precisely the same as the curriculum that existed when a single one of you was a student at Macalester. Some things go—when they do I hear about it. New things come in. But it’s important for you to have a sense for the sorts of programs that our students and faculty have been creating. Just in the last four or five years we have created new programs in Community and Global Health which has exploded in popularity. We have over 60 students already enrolled in that program. We have a new program in Human Rights and Humanitarianism, we have a new program in International Development, we have a new program in global citizenship, we have a rapidly expanding program in Environmental Studies.

All of these are areas that relate directly to challenges that our graduates will face when they leave Macalester. This is not a static curriculum. This is not a curriculum that looks precisely the same one year after the next year after the next year. And it is also not a curriculum that is replicated, as far as I know, at any other college in the country. There is no college that has the array of programs that are so directly focused on the challenges of our world as Macalester, and as alumni of this institution you should be very, very proud.

One of the things that we’re constantly trying to inculcate in our students is the recognition that an education of this kind is a great privilege and with that privilege comes a responsibility. I will go back to the inaugural address of John F. Kennedy: “Of those to whom much is given, much is expected.” That is the ethos of Macalester. We want every student to benefit individually from the education that we provide; we want every student to be economically successful, to live a rich and full life. We also want every student to work to make the lives of others less fortunate, better.

One of the great things about Macalester is that our graduates go into every line of work. I don’t want fewer Macalester graduates going into finance; I want more. I don’t want fewer Macalester graduates going into government service; I want more. Those are the kinds of people with the values that we help develop at Macalester that we want in positions of leadership. So I don’t think we should discourage any Macalester student from pursuing those paths, because they do carry with them the values that the college helps fulfill. Some of the people I admire most in the world are Macalester alumni who work in areas like business and finance and have carried themselves with extraordinary grace and extraordinary commitment to high standards in their personal and professional lives.

I want to conclude simply by saying that you should be very proud of this place. You should be very pleased as alumni that it is better everyday than it was the day before and it aspires to be better tomorrow than it is today.  We are deeply grateful for all that you have done to contribute to that improvement. No institution gets better simply through magic. Institutions get better because of the commitment of those who have preceded those of us who are here right now. It’s really because of all of you who have been part of Macalester, have helped Macalester, helped shape Macalester, that it is the institution that it is today and it is one that you should all be proud of. Thank you for being here for this reunion. Thank you for staying connected to this place. We need you, our students need you, our future students need you. Remember that “with great power comes great responsibility” (to quote Spiderman). With your gift of a Macalester education comes the responsibility, in whatever form you choose, to help and give back to others.